Venezuela US

FILE - In this Jan. 22, 2021 file photo, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a ceremony marking the start of the judicial year at the Supreme Court, in Caracas, Venezuela. Recent actions by Maduro are creating a “window of opportunity” for the U.S. government to engage with a South American leadership that the Trump administration had been trying to isolate, the head of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee said Tuesday, May 4, 2021.

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela’s National Assembly named two opposition members, including a formerly jailed activist, as election officials Tuesday, another step in what appears to be an effort by President Nicolás Maduro's government to improve relations with the United States.

It is the first time since 2005 that the Venezuelan opposition will have two seats on the five-person National Electoral Council, which oversees elections. Critics have said the body was stacked with government allies who functioned as a tool of the socialist administration.

The appointment came after several weeks of negotiations between representatives of the Maduro government and moderate adversaries, some of them aligned with former opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles.

One of the new council members is former lawmaker Enrique Marquez, who was vice president of the National Assembly when it was controlled by the opposition in 2016-2020. The other is longtime strategist Roberto Picon, who was jailed for six months in 2017 for organizing a symbolic, parallel vote when the opposition boycotted Maduro’s referendum to name a rubber-stamp constitutional assembly used to bypass the National Assembly.

Maduro’s allies overwhelmingly regained control of the National Assembly in elections last year that were boycotted by the opposition, which considered the vote unfair. The electoral process also was called fraudulent by the United States, the European Union and other countries in the region.

Among the three representatives linked to the government is Tania D’Amelio, who was sanctioned in 2017 by the U.S. Treasury Department. In February, the EU included her among 19 officials sanctioned for their relationship with the Maduro government and accused her of “contributing to undermine the rule of law in Venezuela in her duties by participating in the execution of the 2018 presidential elections and in the change to the electoral norms for the legislative elections of December.”

The naming of a new board was being closely watched as a sign of Maduro’s willingness to re-engage with his opponents — a required first step for U.S. President Joe Biden to consider easing crippling oil sanctions imposed by the Trump administration.

Hours before the appointments were announced, the head of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee said recent actions by Maduro were creating a “window of opportunity” for engagement with the U.S. government. Rep. Gregory Meeks, a Democrat from New York, said decisions like opening Venezuela to food assistance and Friday’s release of six jailed American oil executives to home detention signal that Maduro “may be interested and willing to open negotiation” with the Biden administration.

Speaking at the annual Washington Conference on the Americas, Meeks said that some U.S. sanctions should be rolled back, saying they have made it difficult for Venezuela to develop, sell or transport its oil — key to its economy.

But in prerecorded remarks to the same group, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken took a tougher line, vowing to keep working with allies to exert pressure on Venezuela’s government so that “the country can peacefully return to democracy.”

Blinken said U.S. efforts are also meant to “alleviate the suffering of the Venezuelan people.”

“In Venezuela, the brutal Maduro regime has systematically repressed the rights of its citizens,” he said. “Its abuse corruption and mismanagement have stoked a humanitarian crisis, leaving millions without enough to eat or access to lifesaving medical care, displacing millions more.”

On the campaign trail, Biden called President Donald Trump’s policy of pushing for regime change in Venezuela an “abject failure” that served only to strengthen Maduro.

Senior officials at several federal agencies have been weighing U.S. options, including whether to ease the oil sanctions and whether to support an attempt at dialogue between Maduro and his opponents, according to two people familiar with the plans. The people insisted on anonymity to discuss classified diplomatic matters.

The U.S. and about 60 other countries have recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president, arguing that Maduro’s re-election in 2018 was fraudulent. As acting president of the previous National Assembly, Guaidó declared himself interim president in 2019.

“Only an agreement, with due international support, in favor of getting out of this tragedy and having free and fair elections to address the humanitarian emergency and have justice, is a real solution and they will be accompanied by Parliament or the democratic alternative,” Guaidó tweeted following the appointments.

Among the opposition’s demands for it to participate in mayoral and gubernatorial elections that the government wants to hold later this year are updating Venezuela’s voter registry, reversing a ban on some of the opposition’s best-known candidates and restoring control of three major parties to their original founders.

The Organization of American States criticized the appointments, saying that the “illegitimacy of origin” of the current National Assembly “renders its actions and decisions null and void.” The regional group also criticized the Maduro government for taking actions “contrary to the democratic rule of law and the independence of the political powers of the state.”


Associated Press writer Regina Garcia Cano reported this story from Mexico City, AP writer Jorge Rueda reported in Caracas and AP writer Joshua Goodman reported from Miami.

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