Venezuela failing to meet some key commitments despite election announcement, US says

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan opposition leader Maria Corina Machado attends an interview with Reuters, in Caracas

By Matt Spetalnick and Daphne Psaledakis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Thursday accused the Venezuelan government of failing to deliver on some of its key commitments that resulted in U.S. sanctions relief last year, despite this week’s announcement of a July 28 date for a presidential election.

Speaking to a think tank in Washington, Brian Nichols, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, said Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro had taken a number of steps in the “wrong direction.” These measures, he said, include maintaining an election ban on Maria Corina Machado, the leading opposition candidate, and arresting dozens of opposition activists.

Washington has vowed to reimpose sanctions on the OPEC member-state’s vital energy sector by mid-April unless Machado is allowed to run and Maduro follows through on other promises made in a deal with the opposition in Barbados in October.

“The timelines are tight and we don't want to pre-judge how things will turn out, but the direction of travel (by Maduro’s government) is deeply worrisome,” Nichols said.

“We look to working with democratic actors in Venezuela and our partners around the region to determine how do we respond," he added.

Machado, a 56-year-old industrial engineer who overwhelmingly won an October opposition primary, has rejected the possibility of a substitute candidate, saying her ban is contrived by Maduro's government to protect him from a viable challenger. The ban has been upheld at a time when Maduro has faced declining support among his socialist party's traditional base.

Tuesday’s announcement of an election date marked partial fulfillment of Maduro’s pledge to hold elections in the second half of 2024, but he also promised the ballot would be competitive and internationally monitored and that political prisoners would be released.

“It’s very clear that the Maduro side is failing to deliver on the commitments that it made in the Barbados agreement,” Nichols told the conference sponsored by the Americas Society/Council of the Americas.

“We have to be very clear that the incentives that we and I think others in the international community have put on the table to move toward a competitive election in Venezuela have not been sufficient to motivate reforms and openness that the Maduro side believes would put their government or their governance, their administration, at risk.”

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Daphne Psaledakis in Washington; Editing by Matthew Lewis)