US senator on visit to Venezuela amid diplomatic detente

AP News
Posted: Jun 30, 2015 5:51 PM

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The Republican chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee is making a surprise visit to Venezuela amid a U.S. effort to reduce tensions with the South American nation.

Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee was meeting Tuesday with members of Venezuela's opposition, said Maria Corina Machado, an opposition leader. She added on Twitter that she expected to meet with Corker in the coming hours.

It was not immediately known if Corker would also talk with President Nicolas Maduro or members of his government. But the visit follows several high level meetings between Maduro and U.S. State Department envoys since the socialist leader met briefly with President Barack Obama in April on the sidelines of a regional summit.

Corker's office and the U.S. Embassy in Caracas didn't respond to requests for comment.

Patricia Gutierrez, the mayor of San Cristobal and wife of Daniel Ceballos, a prominent jailed opposition politician, told The Associated Press that Corker's visit and one last week by a delegation of Brazilian lawmakers underscored the growing international concern about instability in Venezuela.

Widespread shortages and triple-digit inflation are eroding support for the 16-year-old socialist government begun by the late President Hugo Chavez. Analysts say that is giving the opposition a strong chance to carry legislative elections in December, which could set the stage for a referendum to cut short Maduro's presidency before his term ends in 2019.

Gutierrez said she was unable to meet with Corker in Caracas because of flooding in her city, which is on Venezuela's western border with Colombia. But she said the senator planned to meet with family members of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez and former Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, who is under house arrest on charges of participating in a plot to oust Maduro.

Venezuela and the U.S. haven't exchanged ambassadors since 2010, but representatives of both sides have met recently seeking ways to improve relations.

Tensions hit a low earlier this year when Maduro put a visa requirement on American tourists and ordered the U.S. Embassy in Caracas to slash its staff in retaliation for what he said was U.S. support for a coup. The State Department dismissed the accusations as baseless and an attempt by Maduro to distract attention from the country's deteriorating economic situation.