Three years later, the authoritarian Maduro remains in power. And on Tuesday, Duque’s successor went to Caracas to meet him for lunch.
Colombian President Gustavo Petro and Maduro discussed commercial relations, their shared border and Petro’s suggestion that Venezuela return to the Inter-American Human Rights System, they told reporters at the Miraflores presidential palace after the meeting, under a framed painting of Simón Bolivar, South America’s revered liberator.
The trip was Petro’s most significant step yet toward fulfilling a campaign promise of mending ties between the neighbors, after reopening the border and sending an ambassador to Caracas. Now his visit cements a new era in regional diplomacy toward Venezuela.
It comes just two days after Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won Brazil’s presidential election, bringing the left back to power in all of the major countries in Latin America, including several that had been key Maduro foes. Maduro celebrated Lula’s win over right-wing incumbent Jair Bolsonaro on Twitter and said he spoke with him over the phone about their plans to resume a “binational cooperation agenda.”
It also comes as the Biden administration has shown a willingness to deal directly with Maduro, and as the U.S.-backed interim government in Venezuela, led by opposition leader Juan Guaidó, appears to be nearing its end.
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“Even before this, the era of pressuring Maduro to democratize has been sort of waning,” said David Smilde, a senior fellow specializing in Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America. Seeing that the strategy has failed to oust Maduro — and looking to disrupt his relations with Moscow, and perhaps reopen another source of oil — leaders now are choosing to engage with him.
Maduro said Tuesday he was “very receptive” to pursuing “reconciliation” with the Inter-American Human Rights system, a monitor for the Organization of American States. Petro said their shared border is controlled by “mafia” groups, and he pledged to rebuild relations with Venezuela to jointly tackle the heads of drug-trafficking organizations.
“One of our agreements is to help each other — hopefully Brazil joins — in a fight that has to be humanity’s,” Petro added, “which is the defense, revitalization and recovery of the Amazon rainforest.”
The question, analysts said, is whether the warming relationship will be a means for Petro to guide Maduro toward democracy, or simply confer prestige on a dictator under indictment in the United States on charges of narcoterrorism and accused by an international court of crimes against humanity.
“The problem is if we’re only going to see a photograph that will provide legitimacy to Maduro without putting his victims first,” said Tamara Taraciuk Broner, the Human Rights Watch deputy director for the Americas. “Is Petro going to use this as an opportunity to take advantage of the leverage he has to get concrete concessions? Or is this a pat on a back for a dictator who has no interest in going anywhere?”
In response to Petro’s trip, a State Department spokesperson said in a statement that the United States urges Colombia “to hold accountable governments that have discarded democratic norms, such as Maduro’s authoritarian regime in Venezuela. Venezuelans deserve the same opportunity to democratically elect their leaders as Colombians and other peoples across the region do.”
Petro’s government drew criticism in August, when the new Colombian ambassador to Venezuela, Armando Benedetti, appeared cozy next to Maduro in photographs during their first meeting in Caracas. Petro has been accused of declining to forcefully call out human rights abuses by Maduro.
Taraciuk was concerned that Colombia was notably absent from the group of countries in the region leading the charge for renewal of the United Nations Fact-finding Mission on Venezuela, an investigative body that has published reports critical of the Maduro government. But she and others were pleased to see Petro calling publicly for Venezuela to rejoin the Inter-American Human Rights system.
Human Rights Watch last week urged Petro to prioritize “concrete human rights commitments from Venezuelan authorities” and address violence, abuse and human trafficking.
The meeting is part of Petro’s effort to boost the regional economy, advance Latin American interests and protect the Amazon. Maduro has agreed to Petro’s request that his government act as a “guarantor” in peace talks between Colombia’s government and the National Liberation Army, the largest remaining rebel group in Colombia.
The U.S. relationship with Venezuela is also changing. The Trump administration declined to recognize Maduro after he claimed reelection in a 2018 vote widely seen as fraudulent; the countries severed diplomatic ties the following year.
Now Biden administration officials have discussed lifting some oil sanctions on Venezuela after a rare trip to Maduro’s presidential palace in March to discuss energy sanctions and secure the release of two detained Americans.
In September, as Venezuelan migration to the United States soared, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced nearly $376 million in new humanitarian assistance “to respond to the needs of vulnerable Venezuelans” in Venezuela and other countries abroad.
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Opposition leaders in Venezuela, meanwhile, are discussing moving away from Guaidó, the head of the country’s last democratically elected National Assembly, who has been recognized by Washington as the country’s rightful leader.
While the Guaidó-led interim government maintains control over some Venezuelan assets held overseas, it is increasingly irrelevant at home and supported by a dwindling number of countries abroad. Venezuela’s main opposition parties have decided against participating in the renewal of Guaidó’s parliamentary mandate when it expires in January, according to two people with direct knowledge of the decisions.
“President Petro decides to visit the dictator Maduro today and call him ‘President,’ an action that could dangerously normalize human rights violations,” he tweeted.
El Presidente Petro decide visitar hoy al dictador Maduro y llamarlo “Presidente”, acción que peligrosamente pudiera normalizar violaciones de DD.HH que señalan a Maduro como responsable de la cadena de mando y la peor crisis migratoria en el mundo. https://t.co/rWlpu8LgfY
— Juan Guaidó (@jguaido) November 1, 2022
A person close to the interim government told The Washington Post that the plan is for the National Assembly to maintain its status as a democratically elected institution while the future of the interim government is unknown. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.
Opposition leaders hope to unify behind a single candidate, chosen through a primary, to compete in presidential elections in Venezuela in 2024. Maduro has hinted that he might be willing to hold the elections as early as 2023.
The question of Guaidó’s future, the source said, is to be resolved by the end of this year.