BOGOTA -- The 2002 snapshot shows Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro standing on a New England tarmac with his arms draped around U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-NY. At the time they were all lawmakers. Everyone’s smiling.
Despite deep economic ties, the United States and Venezuela have been at odds for years. Maduro — like his late boss Hugo Chávez — has accused the Imperio of trying to kill him and destroy his socialist reforms. The U.S. has yet to explicitly recognize that Maduro won April’s contested election and it blasts his administration on its human rights and drug record.
But behind the scenes, relationships built a decade ago during legislative exchanges, which became known as the Boston Group, seem to be bearing fruit. And that’s sparking talk of reviving the group, which has been defunct for seven years.
On June 5, Venezuela released filmmaker Tim Tracy, who had been detained for more than a month on espionage charges. The man credited with springing him is former U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., one of the founders of the Boston Group. A few hours later that same day, Kerry and Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elías Jaua announced they would begin talks to exchange ambassadors for the first time since 2010. The man charged with leading those talks? Calixto García, the country’s top diplomat to the United States, and also a Boston Group alumnus. García and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson held their first meeting Tuesday, but officials did not provide details.
“It shows that relationships built and conversations that took place 10 or 15 years earlier can make a difference down the road,” said Meeks, who founded the group with Delahunt and former Rep. Cass Ballinger, R-NC. “No one ever knows who will become secretary of state or president of a country.”
The Boston Group brought together Democrats, Republicans, communists, socialists and capitalists and forced them to find common ground, said Pedro Díaz-Blum, a former Venezuelan lawmaker and the group’s coordinator. A conflict resolution expert was brought in to bring civility to the sometimes heated encounters.
“A lot of people from both sides of the political spectrum thought that trying to engage in dialogue was naïve,” said Díaz-Blum, who has been trying to revive the group. “But today, I think our work was justified.”
The idea of closer Venezuela-U.S. ties is anathema to some. Factions within Venezuela’s opposition have been lobbying the region not to recognize Maduro’s presidency. When Kerry and Jaua met this month — on the sidelines of an Organization of American States meeting in Guatemala — some saw it as betrayal.
And the rhetoric has been particularly divisive. Maduro has accused former U.S. diplomats of plotting to assassinate him and has suggested that the CIA “inoculated” Chávez with the cancer that killed him in March.
But the Boston Group was born amid just such tensions, said Saúl Ortega, a ruling-party deputy and a former member of the group. The initiative came together in the wake of a 2002 coup that briefly ousted Chávez, and which the socialist firebrand blamed on the opposition and the United States.