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NY Democrat’s ties to Maduro may help Biden unlock stalemate

MIAMI - It was the aftermath of a failed coup against Hugo Chávez and Rep. Gregory Meeks was lounging at the Kennedy compound on Cape Cod with a young lawmaker from Venezuela with a bushy moustache named Nicolás Maduro.

Photographs of the 2002 encounter show the men standing shoulder to shoulder, having bonded over their shared love of baseball and tales of their respective odds-defying upbringings — Maduro on the streets of Caracas, where leftist radicals like himself were gunned down, and Meeks in a public housing project in Harlem the son of a struggling boxer and teacher.

The exchange would be little more than an anecdote but for Maduro’s ascent to Venezuela’s presidency in 2013 and Meeks’ own improbable climb through the ruthless politics of Washington to become this month the first-ever Black chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Now, two decades on, the New York Democrat says he’s ready — if asked — to confront Maduro, who he remembers from that era as a good listener and committed to social justice.

To talk to Maduro or not: That’s the vexing question facing the incoming Biden administration as it re-evaluates a U.S. policy that has rallied exile hardliners in Miami but done little to cleave Maduro’s grip on power or ease the suffering of regular Venezuelans.

Aides to Biden say the president-elect has limited options for pressuring Maduro and there are no plans to lift crippling oil sanctions or an indictment against Maduro for drug trafficking.

But analysts expect Biden to dial down the almost-daily vitriol aimed at Maduro and threats of a “military option” that characterized Trump’s foreign policy, where Venezuela occupied a privileged space. Instead, he has vowed to emphasize a multilateral approach with the goal of holding free and fair elections as soon as possible.

Enter Meeks, who attended Chávez’s 2013 funeral on behalf of the Obama administration and whose long engagement with Latin America make him ideally positioned to open room for diplomacy. Even though he doesn’t speak Spanish, his reputation as a straight shooter has earned him respect across the region’s ideological divide.

Among those with whom he has struck an unlikely alliance is former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, a law-and-order conservative who worked to improve the lot of Afro-Colombians as part of free trade talks more than a decade ago that Meeks backed in defiance of his party. The relationship with Uribe —lionized by Venezuela’s opposition and demonized by Latin America’s left — may come in handy as he seeks to build momentum for politically fraught engagement with Maduro.

“Maduro doesn’t trust his own shadow. But he might trust Gregory Meeks,” said former Rep. Bill Delahunt, who travelled with Meeks to Chávez’s funeral and then twice more to Caracas in a previously unreported mission to improve bilateral relations. “If anyone can move things forward it’ll be Meeks. I have no doubt that he will be an invaluable asset to the Biden administration.”

Meeks said he i’s not holding himself out as a peacemaker. But he said he is willing to speak to Maduro’s government if allies in Latin America, the European Union and the Biden administration see value in such an approach.

He said his first trip as chairman since succeeding fellow New Yorker Eliot Engel will be to Haiti and Colombia, including a visit to the border with Venezuela where thousands of migrants cross every day looking for food and medical care.

“I want folks to know that Latin America won’t be an afterthought,” Meeks said.

More controversially, he’ is open to involving Maduro stalwarts Cuba and Russia in any negotiations that emerge -- assuming U.S. allies agree.

“That’s a possibility,” he said, adding that the Trump administration’s designation this week of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism will complicate any outreach. “That’s how you resolve an issue of significance. You get buy-in from a number of different people so that it gives the people of Venezuela confidence in the election process.”

A recent State Department cable defending the Trump administration’s hardline policy warns that Russia is working closely with Maduro’s military and finance officials to undermine hemispheric security. The cable, a copy of which was provided to AP by a congressional staffer on the condition of anonymity to share diplomatic communications, argues for more aggressive support for pro-democracy efforts inside Venezuela to complement U.S. sanctions.

“Russia has used its relationship with the regime to symbolically and very publicly defy the United States,” according to the Sept. 9 cable, which is labeled “sensitive but unclassified.” It was sent to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo by James Story, the ambassador at the helm of the Venezuela Affairs Unit in Colombia.

“If left to fester, Venezuela will prove itself to be a very worrisome burr in the side of American foreign policy in the region and prove to be very costly to U.S. national interests,” the cable concludes.
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