POLITICS

John Kerry extends olive branch to Venezuela, assures U.S. working to find common ground

left: Secretary of State John Kerry; right: Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro

left: Secretary of State John Kerry; right: Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro  (Getty)

A year ago, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry could barely contain his frustration over Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s intransigence.

During a visit to Mexico, he expressed impatience over Maduro’s heavy-handed, brutal response to protesters who were demanding the release of political prisoners. Kerry threatened to impose sanctions.

On Monday, Kerry struck a kinder and gentler tone.

He acknowledged that relations between the two nations have been “severely strained in recent years,” and said the United States is serious about improving its ties with South America.

“The U.S. remains open to further addressing our differences in attempting to find areas of common ground,” Kerry said in a speech to the State Department.

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“I began my tenure as Secretary with a long conversation with the then-foreign minister of Venezuela in an effort to promote a more productive relationship, and the United States remains open to further addressing our differences and attempting to find areas of common ground,” Kerry said.

“I am confident that the Administration’s commitment to a new kind of relationship with Latin America will contribute significantly to our common agenda for the hemisphere," Kerry said, "which includes the strengthening of democracy and the respect for human rights. Already, we are seeing the benefits of our partnership on these issues.”

The comments come just more than a week after Kerry and President Obama traveled to Panama to discuss regional cooperation with Latin American leaders at the annual Summit of the Americas.

The highlight of the summit was the restored diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States. Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro had their first face-to-face bilateral meeting there. Days later, Obama announced that he had decided, following Kerry’s recommendation, to take Cuba off the State Department’s list of states that sponsor terrorism.

The Obama administration last month froze the U.S. assets and revoked visas for seven Venezuelan senior officials accused of human rights violations related to protests last year against Maduro's socialist government. The unrest is blamed for more than 40 deaths and triggered a crackdown on criticism that led to the jailing of several opposition leaders, including February's surprise arrest of Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma.

At the summit, Maduro protested the recently imposed U.S. sanctions against Venezuela, which has the region’s highest inflation and weakest performing economy. The once robust economy now is characterized by shortages of such things as toilet paper and basic food staples.

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