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United States and Venezuela hold secret meeting in Qatar

The president of the Venezuelan Assembly, Jorge Rodriguez, and Juan Gonzalez, advisor to Biden, met three weeks ago in the Gulf nation, which is unexpectedly assuming a leading mediation role

Nicolas Maduro y su esposa Cilia Flores
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (R) and his wife Cilia Flores greet workers taking part in a demonstration to commemorate May Day (Labor Day) in Caracas, on May 1, 2023.Pedro Rances (Getty Images)
Juan Diego Quesada

The political and social situation in Venezuela remains at a standstill, but contacts continue to take place at the highest level to try to unblock the situation. Three weeks ago, the president of the Venezuelan National Assembly and Nicolás Maduro’s right-hand man, Jorge Rodríguez, met in Doha, the capital of Qatar, with Juan González, advisor to Joe Biden, according to official sources. The meeting took place without the presence of mediators or third parties.

Qatar has unexpectedly assumed a leading role in the mediation between the White House and the Venezuelan government. In addition to hosting this meeting, it has taken steps to intercede between the two countries, which have barely been in contact in recent months. Despite the urgency of organizing transparent elections in Venezuela in 2024, the distance between the two countries is absolute. The monarchy headed by the Al Thani family has filled the space left by Colombia, which has gone from being fully involved during the first months of Gustavo Petro’s government to putting the issue aside from its foreign policy priorities.

Rodríguez and González, advisor for the Western Hemisphere at the US National Security Council, met to establish a direct channel of communication, according to the same sources. In the meeting, they talked about the release of prisoners and the need to normalize political life in Venezuela, something that at present seems very distant. This type of meetings at the highest level are usual in processes as entrenched and complex as that of Venezuela and its relationship with the United States, but they are kept secret so that no one can interfere in the dialogue. Neither Rodriguez nor Gonzalez, consulted by this newspaper, wished to comment on the matter.

No date for elections

The stances of the two countries are very far apart. Maduro has still not set a date to hold the general elections in which, in theory, there should be an opposition candidate who could challenge him for the presidency. The resignation of the National Electoral Council (CNE) has made it even harder to hold the opposition primaries. In addition, Caracas demands the release of Alex Saab, the Colombian businessman allied with Maduro who is being tried in the United States for money laundering and corruption and who is considered a Venezuelan diplomat by the Venezuelan government. The White House has interpreted these gestures as a challenge and a clear sign that it is not giving in despite international pressure, which demands a democratization of the country.

Maduro’s argument for maintaining a firm position is that the US has not lifted the international sanctions against his government. He blames these punishments for the deep economic crisis the country has been experiencing for the past seven years. “If they want free elections, we want elections free of sanctions”, said the president in November. The statement leaves no room for interpretation. Caracas has also accused Biden of not releasing Venezuelan funds frozen abroad -between 3 and 5 billion dollars-, as agreed with the opposition at the dialogue table in Mexico at the end of last year. That money, managed by a UN trust fund, was supposed to be a lifeline for the serious Venezuelan crisis.

However, the US considers that Maduro, after showing willingness to negotiate, has suddenly become stubbornly immobile. Other countries share the same opinion. The French and Colombian Presidents, Emmanuel Macron and Gustavo Petro had asked him to set a date for the elections to bring positions closer, but he has not done so and it does not seem that he will do so in the short term. Washington granted a license to the oil company Chevron to operate in Venezuelan soil, which seemed to represent an outstretched hand. From that moment on, the most optimistic ones expected that concessions from one side and the other would follow, but the reality is that this has not been the case. No progress has been made in the last semester.

Maduro has no intention of ceding any ground or facilitating any path out of the standstill. In recent months, he has regained internal authority and diplomatic status. After years without leaving the country, he has shown himself in some international and regional summits. The economic situation has overcome the terrible period experienced two years ago thanks to oil revenues and a certain liberalization of the economy, although the growth is still within the reach of very few. As a result, the President has toughened his demands within the context of political negotiations with the opposition.

The outlook is not promising. Talks with the opposition in Mexico have been paralyzed since November and the Venezuelan government refuses to return to the table. Now, Maduro is demanding the full and not progressive lifting of sanctions, as had been agreed, to restart the dialogue. With this difficult to resolve rift, the two sides met in Qatar, a most unexpected location. The secret meeting, which has now come to light, is supposed to lay a bridge, albeit a minimal one, between two parties that do not trust each other at all. The results remain to be seen.

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