The Obama administration is defending a decision to hold a high-level dialogue with Venezuela at a time when the South American country’s government is accused of committing widespread human rights abuses and undermining democracy.
Thomas Shannon, U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, met with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Wednesday, a week after Secretary of State John Kerry and his Venezuelan counterpart announced plans to relaunch talks in a bid to reduce tensions between the two countries.
The talks in Caracas came a day before Organization of American States representatives will discuss a proposal that could lead to Venezuela’s suspension from the 35-member regional bloc.
Venezuela has been grappling with an economic crisis that has resulted in high inflation and unemployment, food shortages and a decline in oil production.
At the same time, Maduro’s government is accused of imprisoning thousands of political dissidents and stifling the rule of law as well as freedom of the press. Maduro’s opponents are seeking a recall referendum this year.
“The situation in Venezuela today is truly heartbreaking,” said U.S. Representative Jeff Duncan, a South Carolina Republican who is chairman of a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee.
In a Wednesday hearing, Duncan questioned why the U.S. was pursuing high-level engagement with the Maduro administration when it had a “blatant record of controlling all facets of the government.”
U.S. engagement should not be viewed as a “reward,” said Annie Pforzheimer, the acting deputy assistant secretary for the Western Hemisphere bureau.
Pforzheimer told the House panel that Shannon would raise the United States' “strong concerns” about the Venezuelan government during his visit, which also included meetings with the country’s opposition and civil society.
“The purpose of the trip is to help foster constructive dialogue that hopefully will lead to solutions to challenges facing Venezuela,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday.
Although the U.S. and Venezuela have agreed to high-level dialogue, Kerry raised concerns about Venezuela’s human rights record during last week’s OAS meeting in the Dominican Republic.
During that session, he urged the government to release political prisoners, respect freedom of expression, alleviate food shortages and honor constitutional provisions.