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As Venezuela continues on a downward political and financial spiral, the Obama administration is turning to the Vatican and other former heads of state from the Spanish-speaking world to help smooth things over.
According to the Los Angeles Times, U.S. officials are being careful to stay behind the scenes in order to avoid criticism from Venezuelan leaders that they are interfering in the country’s affairs.
It’s a particularly delicate time in the South American nation, where President Nicolás Maduro is facing growing calls from opponents who want to recall him and demonstrators attempting to storm the presidential palace while chanting, "No more talk. We want food."
“It is a very fine line that the U.S. government has to walk,” Risa Grais-Targow of the Eurasia Group, a risk assessment company, told the Times. “It has to remain behind the scenes … Maduro will always use the United States as a scapegoat and blame it for his country’s problems.”
Some U.S. officials believe Venezuela may be on the verge of collapse, while others say that, while it is facing a crisis, it is nowhere near doomsday.
The oil-rich country, which once had one of the region’s most stable economies and democracies, now is overwhelmed by shortages of food and medicine, high inflation, international debt and soaring crime rates.
The Vatican’s foreign minister, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, was supposed to visit Venezuela in late May, but the plans were changed a few days before the trip as tensions worsened between the country's government and the political opposition.
The Vatican Embassy in Caracas said the cancellation was not decided by the Holy See, suggesting that Venezuela asked him not to come.
Before the change, the papal spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, stressed that the purpose of the trip was to participate in the consecration of a Venezuelan bishop recently named the Vatican's ambassador to the Congo.
But the visit took on greater diplomatic weight with speculation that Gallagher could play a role in defusing the political turbulence.
Another source of hope for Vatican involvement is that Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who is the Secretary of State at the Holy See – making him second-in-command at the Vatican after Pope Francis himself – used to be the papal nuncio, or ambassador, in Venezuela, the Times noted.
Former Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, as well as former presidents Leonel Fernández of the Dominican Republic and Martín Torrijos of Panama have offered to help facilitate talks between Maduro and the opposition. Maduro, however, has not shown that he's especially receptive to the assistance of foreigners.
The secretary general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, fired off a letter to Maduro a couple of weeks ago chastising him for behaving like “a petty dictator.”
Maduro was not about to let the OAS official have the last word, however, and responded to Almagro that he could take his complaints and “shove them where they fit best.”
Maduro recently declared that the OAS is a threat to Venezuela’s sovereignty.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry called Rodríguez Zapatero to tell him that the United States supports his efforts to mediate the dispute between Maduro and those who want him ousted.
Kerry also issued a public statement that said, "The secretary reiterated that the United States supports political dialogue and peaceful, democratic solutions and reaffirmed that any U.S. involvement would only be in support of an agreed-upon Venezuelan solution consistent with constitutional principles.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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