CARACAS, Venezuela — A close ally of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro said Friday he’s hopeful the Biden administration will roll back a “cruel” sanctions policy and instead give room for diplomacy that could lead to the reopening of the U.S. Embassy and the release of several jailed American citizens.
Jorge Rodríguez’s comments came in his first interview since taking the helm of Venezuela’s National Assembly over strong protests from the U.S., European Union and domestic opponents.
Rodriguez, extending an olive branch to the incoming U.S. president, said the ruling socialist party is eager for a new start after four years of endless attacks by the Trump administration that he believes not only exacerbated suffering among Venezuelans and failed to unseat Maduro but also punished U.S. investors who historically have been important in the OPEC nation.
“All points and all issues are on the table,” he said, including the future of six Venezuelan-American oil executives arrested on corruption charges and two former Green Berets caught in a failed attempt to overthrow Maduro.
It’s unclear if the Biden administration will accept the overture or continue with the hardline policy of regime change it inherits. A lot hinges on its treatment of Juan Guaidó, head of the outgoing congress, whom the Trump administration recognizes as Venezuela’s rightful leader.
Past attempts at government dialogue with the opposition have failed to end the country’s stalemate and Maduro has tightened his grip on power. In the meantime, there’s no end in sight to an economic crisis that has sent millions fleeing and those left behind lacking basic goods, including gasoline, in a country sitting atop the world’s largest oil reserves.
Rodriguez refused to endorse calls from his red-shirted supporters to jail Guaidó and instead said he’s willing to talk to the 37-year-old former head of the National Assembly.
“This new National Assembly is taking the broadest approach possible toward dialogue,” said Rodriguez from the neoclassical legislature in the heart of Caracas.
But he warned that talks would only succeed if Guaidó and his allies seek forgiveness for plotting to overthrow Maduro and for backing foreign government freezes on Venezuelan oil assets that he said have harmed regular Venezuelans amid a pandemic.
“If you resort to amnesia while launching a reconciliation process, you run the risk that these events did not happen,” said Rodriguez, a psychologist by training. “You run the risk of grave situations reoccurring.”
Rodríguez, 55, was among candidates loyal to Maduro who won more than 90% of the seats in a Dec. 6 election boycotted by Guaidó and the major opposition parties. The United States, the European Union and several Latin American neighbours rejected the election as a undemocratic after several parties were barred from running. Turnout was a paltry 31%, the lowest in years.
Nonetheless, Rodríguez rejected criticism that he was leading a rubber-stamp legislature — the final branch of Venezuela’s government that had been out of the ruling party’s grasp before the recent vote.
As National Assembly president, Rodriguez is second in the line of presidential succession, behind his younger sister, Vice-President Delcy Rodriguez. The two are among Maduro’s most stalwart civilian supporters, their leftist credentials burnished from an early age when their father, a Socialist League activist, died in 1976 in police custody after having been tortured.
In his first days on the job, Rodríguez approved a special commission to punish those responsible for what the government considers crimes against Venezuela, which critics say is a ruse to target opponents. He said they included efforts to block the Maduro government’s access to $2 billion gold held in a London bank and control of U.S.-based Citgo oil refineries, the nation’s largest foreign asset.
But he has also made an appeal for dialogue — a doubtful prospect given the failure of past attempts at negotiation, sponsored by Norway and the Vatican, which Rodríguez led on behalf of the Maduro government.
Rodríguez’s loyalty to the Bolivarian revolution has come at a cost. In 2018 he was sanctioned by the Trump administration as a key player in Maduro’s inner circle.
Rodríguez previously served as vice-president to the late President Hugo Chávez among a long list of job titles, including mayor of Caracas, head of the electoral council and minister of communications under Maduro.
As Maduro’s unofficial agitator in chief, with a gift for speaking admired by friends and foes alike, he’s often just off camera in the president’s frequent appearances on state TV. In his new job he’s expected to remain at the forefront of bitter relations with the United States as President-elect Joe Biden takes office and charts his own foreign policy.
Analysts say Biden has limited options to undo crippling oil sanctions imposed as part of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign. But the failure of the hardline policy to unseat the South American leader could leave space for diplomacy.
The U.S. and Venezuela broke ties in 2019 shortly after the White House recognized Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful president., arguing that Maduro’s recent reelection had been invalid. Both nations immediately withdrew their diplomats and the hillside U.S. Embassy in Caracas remains closed.
Rodríguez said he hopes to reach an understanding with the U.S., one that benefits not only Venezuelans but U.S. oil companies and American bondholders who’ve lost billions as a result of a freeze on any business dealings with the Maduro government.
“We want what Venezuela has historically always done with the United States: good business,” he said.
But reaching that goal requires buy-in from Biden.
In what may be a sign there’s no rush to change course, the president-elect has invited Guaidó’s envoy in Washington, Carlos Vecchio, to attend his inauguration, according to the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington. Biden’s transition team declined to comment.
“The entire world is waiting out the hours for when the new president assumes the office in the United States,” Rodríguez said. “We hope that includes abandoning what’s has been so harmful to the people of Venezuela and completely unproductive.”
Goodman reported from Miami.
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Scott Smith And Joshua Goodman, The Associated Press