Talks between the U.S. and Venezuela aimed at improving strained relations began earlier this year after an overture from President Nicolas Maduro, a U.S. official said.
Maduro requested a direct channel of communication in March, according to the official, who asked not to be identified discussing the diplomatic communications. That was the same month he ordered the U.S. to cut staff at its embassy in Caracas amid claims that Washington was trying to undermine the country.
Relations between the countries have been tense since the late President Hugo Chavez, a socialist who regularly blamed the U.S. for plotting against his country, took office in 1999. Now, with inflation soaring, store shelves bare of many basic goods and the country’s currency tumbling ahead of legislative elections, antagonizing the U.S. and prompting more sanctions may no longer be a vote winner.
“Venezuela’s economy is in dire straights and, at the same time, politically he is clearly not as popular as he was before,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas. “Outreach to the United States could actually present him as more of a reasonable and pragmatic leader, which is what a number of Venezuelans may be looking for.”
The two countries remain linked through oil. Venezuela has been the fourth-biggest source of U.S. oil imports this year through April, according to the Energy Information Administration, while the U.S. is the biggest supplier of refined hydrocarbon products to Venezuela.
The South American country’s dependence on crude at a time of falling prices has undermined Maduro’s ability to fund social programs and maintain confidence in the currency. With the country’s bonds pricing in the possibility of default, foreign reserves have tumbled to a 12-year-low of about $16.2 billion, declining more than $1 billion in the past month alone.
Venezuela broke off relations with the U.S. in 2008 in a show of support for Bolivia, where a U.S. ambassador was accused of working with anti-government groups.
After prodding from Congress, the U.S. tightened travel restrictions this year on some Venezuelan officials and their families over alleged human rights abuses during protests last year. That may have influenced Maduro’s decision to seek talks, according to Carlos Romero, a professor of international relations at the Central University of Venezuela.
“What the Venezuelan government is trying to avoid is another round of sanctions that originate in Congress,” Romero said.
Officials from Venezuela and the U.S. held talks in Haiti in June in an effort to thaw icy relations. Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez confirmed the meeting with State Department Counselor Thomas Shannon on her Twitter account at the time, saying it was held “to work toward normalizing relations.” The State Department called those talks “positive and productive.”
Without measurable improvements in the economy, Venezuela’s opposition could gain control of Congress for the first time in 16 years in the Dec. 6 vote. Maduro has called that election a “date with history.”
“He has a deadline, which is December 6,” Farnsworth said. “Somehow he has to find a way to show people that he has the situation under control and things are going to improve.”