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Venezuela Looms Large as Blinken Heads to Ecuador, Colombia

FILE - U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on The Biden Administration's Priorities for U.S. Foreign Policy in Washington, DC, March 10, 2021.

The United States called for political talks to resume between Venezuela's government and the country's opposition, saying the extradition of a close ally of President Nicolás Maduro to the U.S. is a matter separate from the negotiations.

Venezuela is said to be high on the agenda as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken heads to Ecuador and Colombia this week, his first visit to South America as the top U.S. diplomat.

Maduro's government announced last weekend it would halt the talks after Alex Saab, a Colombian businessman accused of money laundering on behalf of Venezuela's government, had been extradited to the United States from Cape Verde to face charges.

On Monday, a senior State Department official said the Maduro regime could demonstrate its seriousness about forging a better future for the Venezuelan people and alleviating the humanitarian crisis "by returning to the table" to continue talks with the Unitary Platform, an opposition political alliance.

"If (the) Maduro regime was serious about its stated concerns of the Venezuelan people, they would actually sit down with their fellow countrymen and work towards solutions. And if they make progress in that regard, the United States will welcome it," Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols said during a call briefing.

On Tuesday, Blinken will meet in Quito with Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso and Foreign Minister Mauricio Montalvo to continue discussions on democratic governance and issues such as counternarcotics and migration.

On Wednesday, Blinken will deliver a speech on the importance of democracy. The State Department said the top U.S. diplomat will showcase "how inclusive and responsive democratic institutions" can implement economic policies that emphasize "inclusive growth and environmental protection."

In Bogota, the top U.S. diplomat will meet with Colombian President Iván Duque and Vice President and Foreign Minister Marta Lucía Ramírez to advocate for "strong democratic governments" in the region. Later this week, Blinken will open the U.S.-Colombia High-Level Dialogue.

"The secretary's visit to both Colombia and Ecuador sends a clear signal that we support a vibrant and inclusive democracy that respects the rights of their citizens," Nichols told reporters during the telephone briefing.

Another focus of Blinken's trip to Ecuador and Colombia is tackling irregular migration as Colombia hosts nearly 2 million Venezuelan migrants. Ecuador also hosts a large number.

"That will certainly be something that we discussed in our bilateral conversations" with Ecuador and Colombia, Nichols said.

Saab's extradition to the U.S. is seen to further complicate relations between Washington and Caracas as Maduro's government fiercely rejected prosecution against Saab, claiming it was a concealed attempt by the U.S. to oust the regime in Venezuela.

"The criminal charges against Alex Saab long predate and have no relation to the political negotiations between the Unitary Platform and the Maduro regime. These operate on a second track," State Department spokesperson Ned Price said during a briefing on Monday.

"It is often difficult for undemocratic, autocratic, repressive governments to understand a simple and fundamental truth about how we operate in this country, and that is that our law enforcement is independent of politics, of policy," Price added.