“It was, perhaps, the most difficult time for the relationship between our two countries,” Ortega said. “But we managed to start a dialogue and a debate about common interests…we managed to do a lot of good things.”
Through those meetings, Venezuela offered subsidized heating oil to poor families in the northeastern United States, and the U.S. promoted what it hoped would become Venezuela’s answer to C-SPAN. But most of the activity took place behind the scenes, said Díaz-Blum.
Venezuelan members of the Boston Group, including Maduro, helped take some of the sharper edges off a media-muzzling law known as the Ley Resorte and worked to keep back-channel communications open.
“At its height, the Boston Group was the only entity in Venezuela where the opposition and the ruling party could reach agreements that involved national interests,” Díaz-Blum wrote.
The group fell apart in 2005, when the opposition handed over every seat in the National Assembly by boycotting the election. Since the Boston Group was designed to bring rival factions together, it was moot amid political homogeneity.
But many of the relationships survived. Even after Chávez ejected the U.S. ambassador in 2008, and then refused to accept his replacement, Larry Palmer, in 2010, El Comandante would meet with Delahunt.
The congressman, who left office in 2011, said those encounters went beyond diplomatic courtesy. He recalled that after one hours-long meeting with Maduro and Chávez, the three men agreed they would make an announcement about drug cooperation.
“Unfortunately, contemporaneously, the then Drug Czar John Walters was in Bogota describing Chávez as a drug trafficker, so that didn’t go forward,” he said. “But you have to build up a level of trust and confidence, and the only way you can do that is talk….like we did with the Grupo de Boston.”
Delahunt won’t give details about how he won Tracy’s release, but he admits that personal relationships were vital.
“Calixto García, it should be noted, played a significant role and opened up doors,” Delahunt said.
Chávez, despite his anti-American outbursts, was also an advocate for the Boston Group, according to a 2009 State Department cable published by WikiLeaks. Both Delahunt and Meeks attended Chávez’s funeral in March, and Meeks said it was almost a “mini reunion,” as the two men met with their former Boston Group colleagues, many of whom have risen to positions of power. Cilia Flores, the former attorney general and current first lady, was a member, so is the head of the Central Bank and the governor of Sucre.
Meeks and Delahunt said the time may be right to revive the group. Last week, Jacobson, from the U.S. State Department, called that idea of a re-launch “useful and interesting.”
But there are plenty of hurdles. Tensions between Venezuela’s ruling party and opposition are so high that they recently devolved into a chair-throwing brawl on the floor of the National Assembly. And the country is ramping up for municipal elections in December that will only deepen the divide. Those who propose talking to rivals are often accused of being apologists or weak, Díaz-Blum said.
“In Venezuela, things are getting really ugly,” he said. “But despite our differences, there are members of the Boston Group who trust each other, and trust is at the root of the problem.”
Miami Herald World Editor John Yearwood contributed to this report from Miami.