The reopening of diplomatic talks with Venezuela won’t clash with the Obama administration’s support of a recall referendum that could end President Nicolás Maduro’s term, a top U.S. diplomat says.
Thomas Shannon, the U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, described Wednesday’s talks with Maduro as a first step toward finding common ground with the Venezuelan government. But the former ambassador to Brazil emphasized that the administration would not back off its pledge to back an Organization of American States review into the erosion of democratic institutions in Venezuela.
“The dialog does not replace other political channels of activity,” Shannon told reporters Friday. “It doesn’t replace the recall referendum. It didn’t replace [OAS’s] Secretary-General [Luis] Almagro’s invocation of Article 20. These are separate tracks that run along separate lines that are not mutually exclusive.”
Maduro offered no concessions, such as toning down his rhetoric against the United States. But Shannon said it was significant to see the United States and Venezuelan flags flown together outside the Miraflores presidential palace, where Shannon and Maduro were meeting.
“I think that was a clear indication that they recognized there was importance in showing the visit was taking place as a formal diplomatic engagement,” Shannon said.
After the two-hour meeting, Maduro addressed cheering supporters outside the palace. Maduro said the two sides agreed to put together an “agenda of respect.”
“Its not easy because of the difference that we have long had,” Maduro said.
Shannon also met and offered support to former Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who along with the Dominican President Leonel Fernández, and the former Panamanian President Martín Torrijos, are mediating talks between the government and the opposition.
Triggered by the plummeting price of oil, turmoil in Venezuela has only increased with rising violence and shortage of food and medicine. This month, riots broke out across the country as desperate Venezuelans ransacked grocery stores in search of food.
Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have signed a petition calling for a referendum that could end Maduro’s term.
On Thursday, Almagro pressed the 34 members of the OAS to consider taking action against Venezuela for failing to adhere to the organization’s requirements for a democratic government. He called for the country to release political prisoners, address alarming violence rates and agree to the recall referendum before the end of the year.
Venezuela lobbied to block the OAS debate, but it continued after 20 nations voted Thursday to hear Almagro’s recap of a 132-page report on the crisis.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez called the effort a coup d’etat, and both she and Maduro raised concerns that the United States openly supported the process.
The two sides have not scheduled their next meeting. Shannon said the meeting will likely depend on how the OAS proceeds with its investigation.
“They’re uncomfortable with the whole process,” Shannon said. “They don’t like being called out, quite frankly.”