Dem lawmaker seeks to mend fences with post-Chavez Venezuela

The only U.S. lawmaker to attend Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's funeral says his successor's election next month represents a golden opportunity for Congress to re-engage with South America's largest oil power.

The State Department chose Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) to represent the United States because of his long-lasting relationship with Chavez, whom he first met as part of a bipartisan delegation in 2000. Since his return, the No. 2 Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Western Hemisphere panel has been courting his colleagues on both sides of the aisle to restart informal meetings between U.S. lawmakers and members of the Venezuelan government and opposition.

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“There's some of us who have the ability to do that and to see whether it works or not,” Meeks told The Hill in an exclusive interview in his office last week. “There's no guarantees in foreign affairs that anything's going to work. But I know one thing: If you don't try, then you have certainty – certainty that we're going to have a bad relationship and we can [still] call each other names back and forth.”

Meeks said he's waiting to see if the April 14 election is free and fair. If that's the case, he hopes to revive a bipartisan legislative exchange group that was disbanded after the Venezuelan opposition boycotted the 2005 elections, losing their seats.

The now-defunct Boston Group brought together a handful of U.S. lawmakers – including Meeks and former Reps. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) and Cass Ballenger (R-N.C.) – alongside Chavistas and opposition members. The meetings paved the way for deals through which the Venezuelan oil company provided cheap heating oil to low-income people in the northeastern United States.

The group once met for a week in former Sen. Ted Kennedy's (D-Mass.) compound in Hyannis Port, Mass. as well as at Ballenger's home, Meeks said. It included Nicolás Maduro, the acting president who's largely expected to win next month.

Meeks faces an uphill battle.

Last week, Maduro's government broke off talks with U.S. diplomats to renew full diplomatic relations, which have been suspended since 2010, accusing the Obama administration of meddling in next month's election.

“This line of communication is now suspended, postponed until the United States gives a clear message about what kind of relationship they want,” Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elías Jaua said.

And several Republicans openly welcomed Chavez's death. The former chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), for her part called Obama's decision to send a delegation “weak and irresponsible.”

Meeks countered that it was a perfect opportunity to meet with top government officials – including Maduro – as well as members of the opposition. He said almost every leader from the Americas and the Caribbean paid their respects, and several urged him to press for better relations between the United States and Venezuela.

“We had a good opportunity while we were there to talk to other Latin American leaders, who are our allies – I had a conversation with Colombian President [Juan Manuel] Santos – all of whom are hoping that they can be helpful and we can have a window of opportunity where we can improve the relationship between Venezuela and the United States going forward,” Meeks said. “Whoever it is, our allies are hopeful we'll have a better relationship, because it's good for them. And I'm hopeful that we can have a better relationship, because it's good for our hemisphere.”

Chavez allies and the opposition also urged a restart to the Boston Group in meetings with Meeks and Delahunt, who was also part of the delegation. Meeks said he had a particularly good exchange with Maduro, who thanked Obama for sending them despite accusing the United States of poisoning Chavez and expelling two U.S. diplomats just days before.

“I think that was a signal to Venezuela that, look we want a better relationship, we're not cutting you off,” Meeks said. “And I think his comments of thanks were a signal back that we maybe can have a better relationship.

“My feeling is that it has something to do with campaigning and trying to get ready to run for another election. And it's my hope – and it's the message that I left and Delahunt left – that we don't have that kind of rhetoric going on because it can only poison the water and doesn't help. And vice-versa on our side, I hope that we tone down some of the rhetoric, allow the Venezuelan people to elect, in a democratic manner, their next president.”

Meeks said the United States wasn't blameless, from the Bush administration's premature recognition of coup leaders who briefly overthrew Chavez in 2002 to the constant criticism aimed at Chavez. Instead of helping, Meeks said, breaking off ties has empowered U.S. foes such as Iran, which has grown closer to Venezuela in recent years.

“I think that we could have done some things that may have prevented those relationships from happening,” he said. “And I think it's important for us to focus on Latin America for that precise reason: As we don't talk and we're not working with folks there, that leaves the windows and doors open for other individuals to come into that region.”

He said the two countries could start with small steps, such as renewing cooperation on drug enforcement or reaching an airport screening agreement, as a way to improve relations and pave the way for an exchange of ambassadors.

“Will I go back and engage again once the elections are over and the people of Venezuela have determined who their leader is? Absolutely,” he said. “I would hope to go back and talk to whoever the new president is.”