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U.S. hopes for diplomatic breakthrough with Venezuela, though critics call effort a 'joke'

CARACAS, VENEZUELA - MARCH 08: A woman holds a Venezuelan flag as people watch a live broadcast of the funeral for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez outside the Military Academy on March 8, 2013 in Caracas, Venezuela. Countless Venezuelans have paid their last respects to Chavez and more than 30 heads of state were expected to attend the funeral today.  (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

CARACAS, VENEZUELA - MARCH 08: A woman holds a Venezuelan flag as people watch a live broadcast of the funeral for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez outside the Military Academy on March 8, 2013 in Caracas, Venezuela. Countless Venezuelans have paid their last respects to Chavez and more than 30 heads of state were expected to attend the funeral today. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)  (2013 Getty Images)

The administration's push to improve relations with unfriendly nations during the last year-and-a-half of Barack Obama's presidency appears to be headed south.

After renewing relations with longtime Cold War foe Cuba and striking a historic deal limiting Iran's nuclear program, the U.S. is now focusing on improving relations with the South American nation of Venezuela.

Like administration efforts to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba, however, it is a move that has drawn criticism from many concerned about repression and human rights.

The move comes only months after the administration called the socialist nation a threat to U.S. national security. An executive order by President Barack Obama imposed sanctions on a number of high-ranking Venezuelan officials in response to Venezuela imposing a visa requirement for U.S. tourists and ordered the U.S. to slash its embassy staff in Caracas.

But the U.S. seems to have made an about-face on Venezuela relations. Since April, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other high ranking State Department officials have been meeting regularly with Venezuelan counterparts in an effort to create, in the words of Kerry, "a normal relationship." This is a marked change from sanctions and previous efforts to try to bring about a change in the country's leadership.

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Otto Reich, a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, told FNL that he believes the change in approach toward the South American nation "is only the latest example in a long line of foreign policy reversals by the Obama administration that run counter to American interests."

The sanctions the president imposed earlier this year on members of the Venezuelan government accused of human rights violations were, Reich said, "were only imposed because they were mandated by Congress. [The administration] pretended to be tough by imposing sanctions on 7 individuals out of the entire government. It's a joke."

But some feel that the change in relations would be a positive step for the U.S.

"The change [began] after 2014, when the American strategy was to support opposition leaders and the street protests in an effort to hasten a regime change in Venezuela," Eric Hershberg, the director of the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University, told Fox News Latino. "Today it appears a more sensible assessment has prevailed."

Venezuela is one of the largest exporters of oil to the U.S., but since President Nicolás Maduro took power following the death of late leader Hugo Chávez in 2013, the country's economy has been in a tailspin caused by a drop in global oil prices, falling foreign reserves and an official inflation rate of 68 percent. Venezuela's woes have been exacerbated by widespread violent crime, mounting political tensions and shortages of everything from flour to toilet paper.

"I don't think I've been to a place that has more potential but is totally blowing it," Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, according to Bloomberg. "It's just sad."

Venezuela and its state oil company, PDVSA, have about $5 billion in bond payments due in the last three months of this year and about $10 billion due in 2016 – making a default sometime next year a very real possibility, according to Ricardo Hausmann, Director of Center for International Development at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Should that happen, Hausmann told Bloomberg ,"the spillover won't just affect folks inside Venezuela, it also has the potential to affect countries all over the region."

A view Hershberg believes is shared in other parts of Latin America.

"Neighboring countries in Latin America prefer to see greater stability in Venezuela," Hershberg told FNL. "Americans now understand that it is everyone's interest to promote the creation of security throughout the region."

There is also worry that the Maduro regime, an ally of Cuba ever since Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999, could disrupt the newly restored diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana.

Kerry said earlier this summer that he and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla discussed U.S.-Venezuelan relations and "our hopes that we can find a better way forward because all of the region will benefit."

Back in June, Maduro said the meetings between Venezuelan and U.S. officials had opened an important channel that could lead toward restoration of full diplomatic relations. The State Department also called the bilateral talks positive and productive.

"There has already been a marked improvement in relations between the two counties that is witnessed in the reduced levels of rhetoric on both sides," Hershberg said.

Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.

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