CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – Last year saw a rapid deterioration of relations between their countries, but on New Year's Day, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro shook hands and expressed their desire for restored ties.
The brief, impromptu meeting in Brazil came two weeks after President Barack Obama signed legislation to impose sanctions on Venezuelan officials accused of violating human rights. Days before the sanctions were approved, Maduro had called on all Venezuelans to burn their U.S. visas in protest of "imperialist Yankee" policies.
A photograph of Biden and Maduro smiling warmly at each other at the swearing in of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff became a meme Friday, with Venezuelans inventing their own thought bubbles.
According to a U.S. administration official traveling with the vice president, Maduro told Biden he wants to improve U.S.-Venezuela ties, but is concerned about the sanctions. The official insisted on not being quoted by name in discussing what was a private diplomatic conversation.
Biden said that one step Venezuela could take toward improving relations would be to release political prisoners, but Maduro responded that the opposition was destabilizing the country and sanctions would do the same, the official said.
Speaking to reporters afterward, Maduro described the meeting with Biden as "cordial."
"What do we ask of the United States? I told Vice President Biden, and have said it 1,000 times in public and in private, we want respectful relations, nothing more," Maduro said.
The two countries have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010, and public encounters between high-level leaders are rare. Four years ago, the late President Hugo Chávez spoke with then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Brazil.
Venezuela is suffering as the price of oil plummets. The country derives 95 percent of its export earnings from oil. Earlier this week, Maduro accused the U.S of waging an "oil war" to destroy the South American country's socialist revolution.
On Friday, the director of the Venezuelan polling firm Datanalisis told local TV station Globovision that Maduro's approval ratings had fallen to a new low of 22 percent.