POLITICS

Venezuela's Maduro backtracks on Obama threat, holds 'sincere' meeting with U.S. president

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro points towards the press corps as he leaves, after taking part in the official group photo of leaders attending the VII Summit of the Americas in Panama City, Panama, Saturday, April 11, 2015. Maduro said while speaking the opening plenary session, that he's been waiting for more than a year for the Obama administration to respond to his invitation to exchange ambassadors for the first time since 2010.  (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro points towards the press corps as he leaves, after taking part in the official group photo of leaders attending the VII Summit of the Americas in Panama City, Panama, Saturday, April 11, 2015. Maduro said while speaking the opening plenary session, that he's been waiting for more than a year for the Obama administration to respond to his invitation to exchange ambassadors for the first time since 2010. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro had pledged to raise havoc at the Summit of the Americas after the U.S. handed out a series of sanctions against his country.

He spent weeks before the Panama meeting collecting 10 million signatures in an effort to try and force President Barack Obama to repeal sanctions levied against high-level government officials for human rights violations.

Instead, a more conciliatory Maduro showed up at the summit. And while he launched into a tirade during his summit speech, telling Obama – who was not even in the room at the time – “I respect you, but I don't trust you, President Obama,” he later met with the U.S. president in a private gathering and called the encounter “serious and sincere.”

“We told the truth and I would say it was cordial,” Maduro said.

The White House said Obama reiterated his concern about the state of democracy in deeply divided Venezuela, but in his public speech Obama refrained from language declaring the situation in Venezuela a national security threat — the justification to freeze the assets of seven officials accused of human rights abuses tied to last year's anti-government protests.

Richard Feinberg, a former White House official who helped organize the first Summit of Americas in Miami in 1994, said the prospect of a U.S.-Cuba detente has taken much of the wind out of the sails of the region's harshest critics of the U.S.

"Three out of the last four summits were antagonistic, ALBA-driven," Feinberg said in an interview, referring to the Venezuelan-led bloc of leftist governments. "You'll notice though, whereas ALBA was able to get a lot of support from let's say the middle countries before, they didn't this time."

Mexico's Enrique Pena Nieto made no mention of the Venezuela sanctions in his remarks to the summit Saturday. Brazil's Dilma Rousseff did, but briefly and apparently for the consumption of her leftist base at home, Feinberg noted.

Even Castro, long Venezuela's staunchest ally, only dedicated as much time to the sanctions in his speech as he did to other timeworn grievances such as Ecuador's legal battle with foreign oil corporations and Argentina's historic claim over the British-administered Falkland Islands.

The enthusiasm for the rapprochement with Cuba was great and Obama called for a "new chapter of engagement" in U.S.-Latin American relations, but even he acknowledged that change would come gradually.

Many Latin Americans who came of age during the Cold War, when U.S. support for the region's military dictatorships was strong, remain deeply skeptical of Washington. To many, the unilateral action on Venezuela is a throwback to the sort of strong-arm tactics Obama has vowed to end.

Regional leaders are watching for follow-through on Obama's promise to consider removing Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terrorism and dismantling of the trade embargo, two key obstacles on the path to normalization with Cuba and better ties to the region.

The U.S. and Latin American leaders avoided a final joint declaration. But the mood was considerably warmer than at the last summit in Colombia in 2012, which ended with many leaders saying they would never hold another with the U.S. unless Cuba was included.

Based on reporting by The Associated Press.

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