Secretary of State Kerry reaches out to Venezuela after elections


Extending an apparent olive branch to Venezuela, Secretary of State John Kerry suggested Monday that Sunday’s much-awaited local elections there failed to rattle the country’s populist authoritarian government, and said the United States is “ready and willing” to improve bilateral ties.

In a rare interview on Latin American affairs with the Miami Herald and “Oppenheimer Presenta” on CNN en Espanol, Kerry also criticized Brazil’s efforts to set up its own Internet system in response to the National Security Agency’s reported spying on the Brazilian president and other world leaders. He said the system would endanger the free flow of information on the Internet.

Kerry also addressed Cuba’s jailing of U.S. contractor Alan Gross, saying that the U.S. government hopes to use “private’’ diplomatic channels to secure his release.

Asked about Venezuela’s local elections, where President Nicolas Maduro managed to win most municipalities – except in the country’s biggest cities – thanks to its near total control of the media and last-minute mandatory price cuts for most household goods, Kerry said that “there are some questions of irregularities,” but added that “fundamentally, they (the elections) met the standards.”

“They didn’t produce the kind of change that I think a number of people thought they might,” Kerry said, referring to the fact that the opposition failed to win a landslide victory across the country.

Kerry said that the U.S. is concerned about Maduro’s recently acquired powers to rule by decree, which he said could lead to “potential’ abuses, but he indicated that he is ready to resume the bilateral talks he held in June with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua.

The Kerry-Jaua talks, in which both sides pledged to work toward improving bilateral ties, where interrupted in October when Maduro ordered the expulsion of the top U.S. diplomat in Venezuela and two other U.S. diplomats, accusing them of conspiring with the opposition against the government. The U.S. responded by expelling top Venezuelan diplomats from the country.

“We are ready and willing, and we are open to improving that relationship,” Kerry said.

“Our hope is that the government will stop using our relationship as an excuse for not doing other things internally, and really opening up more to the people,” he said. “We’ve been disappointed that the Maduro government has not been as ready to move with us and to engage, and that it seems to take more pleasure in perpetuating the sort of differences that we don’t think really exist.”

He said the U.S. has chosen a different tact in its dealings with Venezuela.

“The United States has not been involved in one (single) effort to deal negatively with the Maduro government,” Kerry said.

Asked about Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s plan to set up the Internet system and call for a global regulation of the web to prevent new cases such as the recent NSA surveillance scandal, Kerry said such moves pose “very real risks” to the integrity of the Internet system.

It could lead to “censorship, lack of access, lack of breath of availability of sites, of flow of information, to all kinds of problems,” Kerry said. “The world needs to look very carefully and cautiously at what they have today, and what has been protected by our approach, versus what they might have if this were to be disaggregated and broken down into local control.”

But Kerry acknowledged that “the NSA problems are real,” adding that “neither the (U.S) president nor I believe that some of this gathering of information that has taken place” against foreign leaders “is appropriate.” President Barack Obama will announce shortly the results of an inquiry into the NSA activities, “which I think will be very constructive,” he said.

On the U.S. effort to get the Cuban regime to release Gross, a U.S. contractor who was trying to deliver Internet equipment to Cuba’s Jewish community, Kerry said that “if and when we are able to advance it, it will be through personal and private diplomacy. Nobody’s going to bludgeon this into what we need, so we need to continue to stay focused.”

Gross has been detained in Cuba since Dec. 3, 2009. Judy Gross took part in a demonstration outside the White House last week calling for the Obama administration to do more to seek her husband’s release. In response to the protest, Kerry told reporters that he has been engaged in behind-the-scenes talks to win’s Gross’s freedom.

In the broad-ranging interview at the State Department, Kerry also discussed the former South African President Nelson Mandela’s legacy. He said Latin America could learn a lot from the freedom fighter and statesman, who died Thursday at the age of 95. Obama will join leaders from more than 90 nations in a tribute to Mandela at a massive memorial service Tuesday in Soweto.

“This is a man who could come out of prison after 27years and hug his jailer, and become very close to him as a friend. I think this is a lesson,” Kerry said.

“If you look at a place like Colombia, where President (Juan Manuel) Santos is trying so hard to negotiate with the FARC (guerrillas) both -- I mean everybody -- should look beyond this struggle that has been going on for so long and find the common future. That would have been Nelson Mandela’s message to them…the lesson is: focus on the future.”

Kerry said he doubts that Mandela’s close ties to Cuban dictator Fidel Castro will tarnish the South African leader’s memory.

“No, not in the least. This was a man who was global. He had a universal aspect to him,” Kerry said, adding that Mandela would have the same message for Colombia’s fighters as for Castro.

“He (Mandela) would say, Let your people be free. Let your people do what they did in South Africa, where we defined a nation and gave everybody the opportunity to have a part of that future.”

Andres Oppenheimer’s full interview with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will air Sunday at 7 p.m. on CNN Latino, and at 9 p.m. on CNN en Espanol.

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