Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro (C) greets supporters as he arrives to a rally at Miraflores Palace, next to his wife and deputy of Venezuela's United Socialist Party (PSUV) Cilia Flores in Caracas, Venezuela June 14, 2016. REUTERS/Marco Bello
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro greets supporters at a rally on Tuesday © Reuters

The US is sending one of its most senior diplomats to Venezuela for talks aimed at easing tensions in the South American country amid a deepening humanitarian crisis.

With the international community concerned about the risk of a broader societal breakdown in Venezuela, US secretary of state John Kerry said the talks with Washington’s ideological foe would begin “as soon as possible” in Caracas and that the US was looking at ways to provide assistance. Venezuela’s embattled president Nicolás Maduro also welcomed the new discussions.

The talks come as Venezuela sinks deeper into one of the worst crises of its 200-year history, with an economy collapsing and political deadlock creating the risk of violence.

Mr Maduro has also seen international support weaken, with the new governments in Brazil and Argentina adopting a much more critical tone and the head of the Organisation of American States invoking the organisation’s democratic charter to review the country’s political situation.

“The Venezuelan regime really has its back to the wall. It is trying to hang on to what legitimacy it still has,” said Jason Marczak at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “But by reopening relations with the US, it takes away the main argument of the government for the shortages and the other economic ills, which it has always blamed on Washington.”

Mr Kerry said the talks would be led on the US side by Thomas Shannon, one of the state department’s leading officials and a veteran diplomat in Latin America.

“Let’s see if we can improve the relationship,” Mr Kerry told reporters at a meeting of the OAS in the Dominican Republic. A similar effort last year to reopen dialogue with Venezuela’s socialist government was called off.

Relations between the countries have been strained since the times of the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez and former US President George W Bush. The Venezuelan government, led by Mr Maduro, usually points out that Mr Chávez was briefly ousted in a 2002 coup that had tacit support from the US. The US ambassador to Venezuela was expelled in 2008, prompting Washington to take similar action.

Mr Maduro, who has often adopted his predecessor’s rhetoric about the malign influence of the US, was full of praise for the new talks. “I very much like President Obama. He is a nice person. Why can’t I say that,” he said on Tuesday evening. He also proposed that the US and Venezuela reinstate ambassadors in each other’s countries.

The announcement came after Mr Kerry met his Venezuelan counterpart Delcy Rodríguez on the margins of a sometimes tense OAS meeting.

In a speech to the OAS on Tuesday, Mr Kerry also backed a recall referendum that could end Mr Maduro’s rule and called on the government to release political prisoners.

After Ms Rodríguez complained that Venezuela was a victim of “international bullying from the right”, Mr Kerry insisted the US was “not taking sides, we are just supporting the constitutional process”.

Mr Kerry is also backing dialogue — facilitated by former Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, former Dominican president Leonel Fernández and former Panamanian president Martín Torrijos — between Venezuela’s government and the opposition, which is pushing for the recall vote to remove Mr Maduro this year.

Mr Fernández is also believed to be part of an initiative, coming under the umbrella of the Union of South American Nations, that is proposing economic reforms to help the ailing Venezuelan economy, which is forecast by the IMF to shrink 8 per cent in 2016. A key proposal involves unifying Venezuela’s myriad foreign exchange rates, which is likely to meet opposition from some radical presidential advisers.

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