BOGOTA -- Hours after releasing a California filmmaker who had been detained for more than a month on espionage charges, Venezuelan officials said they were hoping to improve their tattered relationship with the United States and perhaps even open the door to ambassadors.
Foreign Minister Elias Jaua and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met for the first time Wednesday during the summit of the Organization of American States in Antigua, Guatemala.
As he emerged from the closed-door meeting, Jaua called the encounter “cordial and frank” and said both sides want a relationship based on non-interference in domestic affairs and mutual respect.
“We have talked about the possibility of…establishing diplomatic representation at the highest levels in both of our countries,” he told Telesur television. The U.S. and Venezuela have not had ambassadors since 2010.
The comments came just hours after U.S. filmmaker Timothy Tracy was escorted onto an American Airlines flight bound for Miami. Tracy had been detained April 24 and accused of being a spy and helping generate violence in the wake of the contested presidential election.
Kerry thanked Jaua for Tracy’s release, calling it a “very positive development,” according to the Associated Press.
Tracy’s family and friends had said the 35-year-old was working on a documentary about the contested April 14 presidential election when he was detained. Brian O’Connell, the director of “Angry White Man,” a comedy that Tracy helped produced in 2010, described his friend as gregarious, boisterous and naturally curious. He also said Tracy speaks “atrocious” Spanish and the idea that he might be a spy was “ludicrous.”
“Tim Tracy is just a big dumb kid who loves to have fun and go on adventures,” he said. “Anyone who thinks that guy’s in the CIA is laughable.”
On Wednesday, Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez reiterated claims that Tracy had been using journalism as a cover to gather intelligence and work as a “broker” between opposition youth groups.
“Let’s not pretend…that someone who is coming here to do intelligence work will have a badge or a credential hanging on their neck,” Rodriguez told local TV. “Obviously they use a cover and one of the most common covers is a movie camera, a film camera — as a journalist or a documentary maker.”
“Let this be a lesson that people understand,” he said, “here in Venezuela, we will not allow this type of activity.”
Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz said the case was not being dismissed, but “shelved,” and that it could be dusted off in the future if new evidence is presented.
State-run television showed a bearded Tracy — wearing a black jacket, beige pants and carrying a brown shopping bag – being escorted down a hallway.
Tracy’s family told The Associated Press that former U.S. Rep. William Delahunt had lobbied for his release. Delahunt has long been an advocate for better U.S.-Venezuela ties and attended the funeral of President Hugo Chávez in March.
The United States and Venezuela have been at odds for more than a decade, and relations seemed to be getting worse under President Nicolás Maduro.
Shortly before announcing Chávez’s death three months ago, Maduro ordered the expulsion of two embassy officials he said were trying to conspire with the armed forces. On the campaign trail, he often accused “The Empire” of trying to sway the election for his rival Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles and destroy Chávez’s socialist legacy. He has also accused former U.S. diplomats Roger Noriega and Otto Reich of conspiring with “mercenaries” to have him killed.
The United States has backed Capriles’ demands for a recount. Capriles — who lost the vote by 1.5 percentage points — has been barnstorming Venezuela and the region as he continues to press his claim that the election was stolen.
The National Electoral Council is auditing the vote, but Capriles says the recount doesn’t go deep enough. He’s also filed a lawsuit with the Supreme Court but the body has yet to respond.
On Wednesday, Jaua said he gave Kerry a report documenting the “anti-democratic” actions of Capriles and the opposition. And he said the two nations have to work together even as Venezuela pursues its “Bolivarian Socialism.”
“We have faith and confidence that this meeting marks the beginning of a relationship of respect and good relations,” Jaua said. “That’s what’s best for our countries.”