© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido speaks during a press conference in Caracas
WASHINGTON / CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido spoke Tuesday with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the US State Department, the highest US contact with Guaido since President Joe Biden took office on Jan. 20.
Washington and dozens of other countries recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful leader in January 2019 after Guaido, the leader of the opposition-held National Assembly, called on the constitution to assume an interim presidency, arguing that the 2018 re-election of President Nicolas Maduro was fraudulent .
In his call to Guaido, Blinken stressed “the importance of a return to democracy in Venezuela through free and fair elections,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
Maduro, who has held onto the power of the South American military and its allies, including Russia, China and Cuba, argues that Guaido is a US puppet trying to oust him through a coup.
Price said Guaido and Blinken were discussing “urgent humanitarian needs in Venezuela,” suffering from a year-long economic crisis.
Blinken described US efforts to work with the European Union, the Organization of American States, and other groups “to increase multilateral pressure and press for a peaceful, democratic transition,” Price said.
They also discussed the delivery of coronavirus vaccines in Venezuela, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Canada’s Foreign Minister Marc Garneau said on Twitter that he also spoke to Guaido on Tuesday to express Canada’s “solidarity with the people of Venezuela in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and to reaffirm our support for a peaceful return to democracy in Venezuela” .
A White House official told Reuters over the weekend that the Biden administration was “in no rush” to lift US sanctions imposed on Venezuela by former President Donald Trump, but would consider easing it if Maduro takes confidence-building steps, to show that he is ready to negotiate seriously with the opposition.
Signaling that the new US president is unlikely to loosen the screws on Venezuela anytime soon, the official said the existing sanctions had enough special provisions to allow humanitarian aid deliveries to help Venezuelans cope with economic difficulties and COVID -19 pandemic to help.
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