Kerry meets with Venezuelan President Maduro amid tension over vote

CARTAGENA, Colombia (Reuters) – US Secretary of State John Kerry met with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro yesterday, the first formal meeting between the two since Kerry became the top US diplomat.

The two men sat down together after a ceremony in Cartagena to mark the signing of a peace agreement to end Colombia’s civil war. Several journalists were allowed into the meeting as it began, but neither Kerry nor Maduro gave an indication of what they would discuss. Maduro said the peace agreement signed in Cartagena was “like a dream.”

“My hope is we could have a serious conversation,” Kerry told reporters in Cartagena a few hours before the meeting, although he declined to provide specifics about what he thought might come out of the conversation with a leader who has been a persistent critic of US policy.

“We’re not looking for conflict. We’re looking for a solution here that works for the people of Venezuela, writ broadly. I welcome the opportunity to have a meeting with President Maduro,” Kerry said.

Venezuela and the United States have been at loggerheads since the government of late President Hugo Chavez, with Washington and Caracas exchanging frequent barbs and expelling each other’s diplomats. They currently do not have ambassadors in place following expulsions several years back.

Maduro’s government is facing a dire economic and political crisis.

Venezuela’s opposition called yesterday for a nationwide rally on October 12 to push for a referendum to recall Maduro this year as they seek to oust his Socialist Party in an early presidential election.

The campaign for a recall referendum has run into opposition from the country’s election board, which is imposing restrictions and argues it will take until 2017 to put the proper conditions in place.

“Everybody knows we’re working toward this recall. It’s been delayed. That is problematic,” Kerry said. “And we need to find a way forward that can provide a consensus that provides relief to a nation under siege.”

Kerry said the United States was “deeply concerned” about the situation in Venezuela.

“We have been working to have a dialogue with the Maduro government for some period of time,” Kerry said. Thomas Shannon, under secretary of state for political affairs, has travelled to Caracas for talks in the past.

“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,” Kerry said.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Londono, better known as Timochenko, signed the peace accord yesterday at a ceremony attended by international leaders and thousands of Colombians.

Santos’ predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, frequently accused the government of neighbouring Venezuela of harboring and supporting the FARC.

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