Decade-old defunct group may be the key to better US-Venezuela ties

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.

“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.