Kerry and Maduro to hold rare meeting; hopes for ‘constructive’ talks

United States Secretary of State John Kerry
United States Secretary of State John Kerry AP

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro were expected to meet each other Monday on the sidelines of Colombia’s historic peace deal — a rare act of diplomacy for the longtime rivals.

In remarks to the traveling press corps, Kerry said he’s been trying to speak to Maduro “for some period of time” amid that country’s deep economic, social and political crisis.

“We’re deeply concerned about events in Venezuela,” Kerry said, according to a transcript provided by the U.S. Department of State. “We’re very, very concerned for the people of Venezuela, for the level of conflict, starvation, lack of medicine. The humanitarian situation is of enormous concern.”

Despite sharing deep economic ties, Caracas and Washington haven’t exchanged ambassadors since 2010, and Caracas frequently accuses the United States of meddling and being behind alleged plans to topple the socialist administration.

Tensions resurfaced last week when the State Department said it was “troubled” that Maduro seemed to be trying to stop a presidential recall in Venezuela.

On Monday, Venezuela’s coalition of opposition parties known as the MUD said they would force the administration to hold the recall this year when it would trigger new elections. The next phase of the process will require organizers to gather almost 4 million signatures during three days starting Oct. 26.

Kerry reiterated that the United States supports the recall. But he also said he hoped Monday’s meeting would remain cordial.

“We want to be constructive ... we’re not looking for conflict. We’re looking for a solution here that works for the people of Venezuela writ broadly,” he said. “And I welcome the opportunity to have a meeting with President Maduro, and — but I can’t offer you any sort of potential outcomes until I have that meeting. I mean, there’s no way to know what’s possible.”

Both men were in Cartagena for Colombia’s historic signing of a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas.

Anticipating critics who might see the meeting as a concession to Maduro, Kerry said there was no harm in talking.

“You don’t have to say ‘yes,’ particularly to something stupid or unacceptable. Nobody requires you to do that in a conversation,” he said. “But if you don’t listen and you don’t have the conversation in the first place, a lot of people may die or things may get worse.”