Top US diplomat to visit an increasingly isolated Venezuela

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Nicolas Maduro says a top U.S. State Department official will soon visit Venezuela in a bid to ease tensions between the two nations.

Maduro’s announcement Tuesday night came a day after he met with Secretary of State John Kerry on the sidelines of a peace ceremony in Colombia.

It would be the second visit this year by Thomas Shannon, undersecretary of state for political affairs. A trip in June on a similar mission that has yet to produce any apparent breakthrough.

Maduro said he also invited Kerry and that the U.S. official said he would come if the effort at dialogue advances. The State Department declined to comment Wednesday morning.

Earlier, the State Department said Kerry in his meeting with Maduro expressed concern for growing economic and political tensions in Venezuela. The U.S. has been especially outspoken about concerns that Venezuelan officials are quashing a campaign to hold a constitutionally permitted recall vote against Maduro.

Venezuela finds itself in an increasingly uncomfortable position in the region, on the outs with the regional blocs it once touted as a counterweight to U.S. power, and under pressure to give more space to domestic opposition groups.

The South American oil country was to assume the rotating presidency of the regional trade bloc Mercosur this summer, but that handoff was put on hold by heads of state who said they were concerned about Venezuela’s disregard for democracy at home.

Earlier this month, Venezuela hosted a summit of the 120-nation Non-Aligned Movement, but only about a dozen heads of state chose to attend the meeting, far short of the expectations Maduro had set.

Last week, Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski called for sending humanitarian aid to Venezuela as the country grapples with severe food and medical shortages. Venezuela immediately rejected that as an unwelcome call for foreign intervention.

Maduro said Tuesday that Shannon’s visit could usher in a new era of Venezuela-U.S. relations.

“Can we understand each other? Yes. Can we set a positive agenda? Yes. And that’s what we’re going to do,” he said.

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