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In An Attempt To Ease Sanctions, Venezuela's Maduro Reaches Out To U.S.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Look at numbers from the World Bank and Venezuela still ranks as an upper-middle-income country. It's a ranking seemingly built on Venezuela's past, when the country was a big oil producer with a big middle class, famous for eating lots of steak and having lots of plastic surgery. In recent years, much has changed amid social unrest and U.S. sanctions against a socialist government that's accused of overturning election results it did not like. Now the current ruler, Nicolas Maduro, hopes to ease those sanctions by making nice with his opposition and with the Biden administration. Here's reporter John Otis.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: In 2019, in response to Maduro's crackdown on democratic institutions, the U.S. sanctioned Venezuela's vital oil industry. Since then, oil production has plummeted, food shortages have gotten worse, and millions of Venezuelans are fleeing the country.

PHIL GUNSON: And of course, Maduro is very isolated internationally. It's hard for him to trade. He can't renegotiate the massive debt that Venezuela has. So he needs some relief.

OTIS: That's Phil Gunson of the International Crisis Group. He says that to convince the U.S. to ease up on sanctions, President Maduro is extending an olive branch. Last month, he allowed five American oil executives, who claim they were convicted on trumped-up corruption charges, to be transferred from a Caracas prison to house arrest. And earlier in April, he announced that the U.N. World Food Program would start providing meals to 1.5 million malnourished schoolchildren.

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PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: The move came as a surprise because Maduro has for years tried to control food distribution as a way to ensure loyalty to his government.

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MADURO: (Speaking Spanish).

(APPLAUSE)

OTIS: And at this ceremony in Caracas, two opposition leaders were sworn in to the government's five-member National Electoral Council. That's a big deal because the previous electoral council was stacked with Maduro loyalists. They oversaw fraudulent elections, allowing Maduro to tighten his grip on power - so says opposition activist Miriam Ramirez, who lobbied for the new council.

MIRIAM RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: She calls it an important step towards making elections at least a bit more free and fair. For years, Maduro had ignored calls for democratic reforms. That's why John Polga, a Venezuela expert at the U.S. Naval Academy, calls this a unique opportunity.

JOHN POLGA: The very idea that Maduro finally is willing to negotiate, even in this very small way, is important. As the proverb says, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. And without taking that step, it's very difficult to imagine anything changing.

OTIS: Others say nothing has changed. Indeed, this month, the Maduro government confiscated the building of El Nacional, one of Venezuela's few independent newspapers. The skeptics include Juan Guaido, the opposition leader considered by the U.S. and about 50 other countries as Venezuela's legitimate head of state.

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JUAN GUAIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Guaido says Maduro is currying favor through trivial measures that in no way threaten his rule.

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GUAIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In a recent video, he insisted that Maduro allow massive amounts of humanitarian aid into the country, guarantee free elections and liberate political prisoners. Only then, Guaido said, should Washington dial back on sanctions. Critics point out that sanctions have failed to bring about regime change, while making life more miserable for average Venezuelans. But in an interview with NPR, James Story, the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, said that, among other things, sanctions have denied Maduro funds he could have used to equip abusive police units that attack anti-government activists.

JAMES STORY: The sanctions have constrained his activities to act in a repressive way against his own people. It could have been much worse than it was.

OTIS: Story, who's based in Colombia because U.S. diplomats withdrew from Venezuela two years ago, isn't reading too much into Maduro's overtures.

STORY: Given the regime's track record, we're going to continue to press for the fundamental changes needed. That'll help us all reach our goal of a peaceful, stable, democratic Venezuela.

OTIS: In the meantime, he says, the Biden administration is in no hurry to lift sanctions.

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Bogota, Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.