ANTIGUA, Guatemala — The United States and Venezuela have agreed to begin a high-level dialogue with the aim of restoring ambassador-level relations and ending more than a decade of steadily deteriorating ties, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday.
On his first trip to Latin America since taking office and after meeting Venezuela's foreign minister in the first cabinet-level discussion between the two nations in at least several years, Kerry said he was hopeful that a rapprochement could be achieved. The meeting, which came at Venezuela's request, took place just hours after Venezuela released from prison an American filmmaker who had been jailed on espionage charges, removing an immediate irritant in the relationship.
Kerry thanked Foreign Minister Elias Jose Jaua for the release of Timothy Tracy, calling it a "very positive development" and said he and his counterpart had spent about 40 minutes going over in detail areas in which the two countries could cooperate.
"We agreed today — both of us, Venezuela and the United States — that we would like to see our countries find a new way forward, establish a more constructive and positive relationship and find the ways to do that," he told reporters after the meeting. It took place in Guatemala on the sidelines of the annual Organization of American States general assembly.
"We agreed today there would an ongoing, continuing dialogue at a high-level between the State Department and the foreign ministry and we will try to set out an agenda on which we agree on things we can work on together," Kerry said.
He said the two countries aim to "begin to change the dialogue between our countries and hopefully quickly move to the appointment of ambassadors between our nations." That process, he said, could lead "ultimately to a series of steps that will indicate to the people of both countries as well as to the region that we're finding a way forward to a more constructive and understandable relationship."
The two countries haven't had ambassadors posted in each other's capitals since 2010 near the height of the estrangement between the U.S. and late populist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who died in March.
The Obama administration has been eager to mend ties with Venezuela since the death of Chavez, who delighted in tweaking the United States and pursued policies that U.S. officials regarded as hostile. However, until Wednesday there had been little to show for the outreach.
In fact, U.S.-Venezuelan relations had been especially tense in recent months. Nicolas Maduro, a Chavez protege who claimed victory in the presidential election, expelled two U.S. military attaches in March the same day Chavez died, accusing them of trying to foment instability, and Tracy's arrest came amid domestic political turmoil over the election to replace Chavez.
In addition to being the first ministerial level meeting between the two nations since 2009, Wednesday's talks were the first significant contact between the two since the disputed April 14 election to replace Chavez. The opposition is still contesting the results.
Washington is willing to work with Maduro's new government but has said opposition questions about the electoral process must be addressed. The Obama administration has backed opposition candidate Henrique Capriles' call for a full recount.
But Kerry offered his thanks to Maduro, referring to him as president, after his meeting with the foreign minister.
"I want to thank the foreign minister, I want to thank President Maduro for taking the step to meet here on the sidelines of this conference," Kerry said. "I think it was a very important step."
U.S. officials have said despite the desire to move forward with a new chapter in ties with Venezuela, Washington would not stop expressing concerns about democracy and human rights in the country, particularly after the election.
Shortly before the two men were to meet, Venezuela released Tracy who had been jailed for what authorities said were attempts to destabilize the country.
President Barack Obama called that allegation "ridiculous." Family and friends say the 35-year-old Hollywood producer and actor had been making a documentary about Venezuelan politics when he was arrested on April 24 at the Caracas airport as he tried to leave the country to attend his father's 80th birthday in suburban Detroit.
Meanwhile, in a speech to the 35-member OAS annual general assembly, Kerry did not mention the developments with Venezuela, but reiterated U.S. concerns that some countries in the hemisphere are backsliding on their commitments to democracy and seeking to weaken OAS institutions that monitor and report on human rights.
"We must keep this organization's focus on its core objectives," Kerry said, calling for the OAS to redouble its efforts on protecting basic freedoms, improving rule of law and fighting corruption. "The Americas present a vivid example to the world that diversity is a strength, that inclusion works, that justice can overcome impunity, and that the rights of individuals must be protected against government overreach and abuse."
Kerry is pushing the candidacy of the US nominee for the Inter American Commission on Human Rights, James Cavallaro, a Stanford University law professor who is one of six people in the running for three spots on the panel that will be chosen later this week. Some OAS members are opposed to the U.S. having a presence on the commission because it is not also a member of the organization's human rights court.
"None of our countries is perfect, and we continue to draw strength from scrutiny and the opportunity to review our human rights practices," he said. "We are all diminished when we fail to defend the very institutions we created to safeguard the noble ideals (of) peace, democracy, development, liberty, and social justice based on respect for the essential rights of women and men."