MIAMI (AP) – This was following a failed coup against Hugo Chávez and Representative Gregory Meeks was lounging in Kennedy’s compound on Cape Cod with a young Venezuelan lawmaker with a bushy mustache by the name of Nicolás Maduro.
Photographs from the 2002 meet show the men standing side by side, having bonded by their shared love of baseball and defying accounts of their respective upbringings – Maduro on the streets of Caracas, where leftist radicals like him were shot, and Meeks in a social housing project in Harlem, the son of a struggling boxer and teacher.
The exchange would be little more than an anecdote were it not for Maduro’s rise to the presidency of Venezuela in 2013 and Meeks’ own unlikely rise through the ruthless politics of Washington to become this month’s very first black president of Venezuela. the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Now, two decades later, the New York Democrat says he’s ready – if asked – to take on Maduro, whom he remembers from that time as a good listener and committed to social justice.
“There will be no softball or memory of the good old days,” Meeks said in an interview with The Associated Press this week. “We would have real discussions about what happened and what needs to happen to undo some of the authoritarian things that have happened since he became president.
To speak to Maduro or not: This is the thorny question facing the new Biden administration as it reassesses a US policy that has rallied extremists in exile in Miami but has done little to cleave it. hold of Maduro on power or alleviate the suffering of ordinary Venezuelans.
According to Biden, the president-elect has limited options to put pressure on Maduro and there are no plans to lift crippling oil sanctions or an indictment against Maduro for drug trafficking.
But analysts expect Biden to reduce the near-daily vitriol aimed at Maduro and threats of a “military option” that characterized Trump’s foreign policy, where Venezuela occupied privileged space. Instead, he pledged to emphasize a multilateral approach with the aim of holding free and fair elections as soon as possible.
Enter Meeks, who attended Chávez’s funeral in 2013 on behalf of the Obama administration and whose long engagement with Latin America places him ideally to pave the way for diplomacy. Even though he doesn’t speak Spanish, his reputation as a simple shooter has earned him respect across the region’s ideological divide.
Among those with whom he has forged an unlikely alliance is former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, a law and order conservator who has worked to improve the plight of Afro-Colombians through free trade negotiations ago more than ten years that Meeks has sustained in contempt. of his party. The relationship with Uribe – ionized by the Venezuelan opposition and demonized by the Latin American left – may be useful as he seeks to build momentum for politically strained engagement with Maduro.
“Maduro doesn’t trust his own shadow. But he could trust Gregory Meeks, ”said former Rep. Bill Delahunt, who traveled with Meeks to Chávez’s funeral and then twice more to Caracas as part of an unreported mission to improve conditions. bilateral relations. “If anyone can get this done, it will be Meeks. I have no doubt that he will be an invaluable asset to the Biden administration.
Meeks said he was not presenting himself as a peacemaker. But he said he was ready to speak to Maduro’s government if allies in Latin America, the European Union and the Biden administration see the value of such an approach.
He said his first trip as president since taking over from 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. in search of food and medical care.
“I want people to know that Latin America won’t be an afterthought,” Meeks said.
More controversially, he “is ready to involve Cuba and Russia, the pillars of Maduro, in any negotiations that emerge – provided the American allies agree.
“It is a possibility,” he said, adding that the Trump administration’s designation this week of Cuba as the sponsoring state of terrorism will complicate any outreach. “This is how you solve a big problem. You get buy-in from a number of different people to give the Venezuelan people confidence in the electoral process.
A recent State Department cable defending the Trump administration’s intransigent policies warns that Russia is working closely with military and financial officials in Maduro to undermine hemispheric security. The cable, a copy of which was provided to the PA by a congressman on condition of anonymity to share diplomatic communications, calls for more aggressive support for pro-democracy efforts in Venezuela to complement US sanctions.
“Russia has used its relationship with the regime to symbolically and very publicly challenge the United States“, according to the September 9 cable, described as “sensitive but not classified”. It was sent to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo by James Story, the ambassador at the head of Venezuela’s business unit in Colombia.
“If left to rot, Venezuela will prove to be a very disturbing blunder on the side of US foreign policy in the region and prove to be very costly for US national interests,” the cable concludes.
A spokesperson for Biden’s transition team declined to comment.
The nearly 20-year relationship between Meeks and Maduro began when the two founded what was called the Boston Group. The informal network of US and Venezuelan lawmakers from all walks of life – Democrats, Republicans, Socialists and Capitalists – met in Washington and Cape Cod to mend bilateral relations after the brief coup against Chávez that the States- United quickly recognized.
The group largely disbanded, with Meeks being the only US member still in Congress. But the relationships established two decades ago have proven to be resilient. For example, a Republican staff member who participated in the same four-day Cape Code legislative exchange with Meeks and Maduro led a comeback effort that in 2018 resulted in the release of Joshua Holt, a Utah man detained for two years in Caracas prison on what were widely regarded as fictitious weapons charges.
More recently, former lawmaker Pedro Díaz-Blum, coordinator of the Boston group in Venezuela, brought together dozens of pro-Maduro and opposition economists to prepare a joint study on how to reactivate the devastated oil industry from the country. They also discussed ways to deliver humanitarian aid to the country through multilateral agencies.
After the US presidential election, Díaz-Blum traveled to Washington and saw Meeks. Before the trip, which he said he organized on his own, he also met Maduro, who reiterated his willingness to engage in dialogue with the United States.
“I was a member of the Boston group as a lawmaker and have been to the United States several times,” Maduro said Tuesday in an address to Congress of Venezuela, which is controlled by the ruling Socialist Party after boycotted elections by the opposition as unjust. “I respect and admire the United States, its people and its culture very much.”
After several failed attempts at negotiation brokered by the Vatican and Norway, dialogue has become a buzzword for weakness and appeasement among many members of the opposition. Not for nothing, the Trump administration has said that the only thing to negotiate with Maduro is the terms of his exit.
Meeks has said he rejects this logic. Recently even a close ally of Trump, Richard Grenell, the former acting US director of national intelligence, met in Mexico City with Jorge Rodríguez, a senior Maduro aide who is now president of the pro-government national assembly, which the United States United do not recognize. .
“Trump’s policy was based on the Florida policy – don’t do something,” Meeks said.
Still, he says, there is no illusion about Maduro. After Chávez’s funeral, Meeks said he quietly returned to Caracas twice in a previously unreported effort to pave the way for an exchange of ambassadors, which has not taken place since 2010. In on one of those trips he urged Maduro to release opposition activist Leopoldo Lopez and then to jail for leading anti-government protests.
The reconciliation effort failed and Meeks said he walked away from the experience frustrated. Any future opening would require pre-established conditions, he said.
“You can’t take his word for it,” Meeks said of Maduro. “He proved to me that he was unwilling to follow through or that something in their policy prevented him from doing so.
Joshua Goodman sur Twitter: @APJoshGoodman