CARACAS, VENEZUELA >> A senior U.S. diplomat met with Venezuela's socialist president Wednesday, apparently hoping to prevent a humanitarian disaster and ease a political crisis in this deeply polarized nation.
Although he is one of the world's most vociferous critics of the United States, President Nicolas Maduro was all smiles as he posed for photos at the presidential palace with Thomas Shannon, the U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs.
Maduro gave a less than conciliatory televised address in which he accused U.S. President Barack Obama of trying to interfere in Venezuela's internal affairs.
"I gave Shannon a message to take back to President Obama. We hope that Obama can rectify the posture he's taken during eight years of opposing Venezuela's revolution. Hopefully in these last seven months of his presidency, we can start down the path toward dialogue, with respect for a positive agenda between the two countries. I really hope we can," Maduro said.
Venezuela is beset by an economic slump that has led to food riots and aggravated political unrest, and U.S. officials have said they want to avoid bloodshed and a humanitarian crisis that might spill across the country's borders, undermining Obama's legacy in a region where he made history by reopening relations with Cuba.
The United States has criticized Maduro's government for jailing critics and blocking the opposition-controlled congress as part of attempts to squelch unrest caused by growing shortages of food and many other key goods as well as triple-digit inflation.
The U.S. also is backing a scheduled Thursday session of the Organization of American States where regional governments will debate a proposed diplomatic intervention aimed at easing tensions in Venezuela — a measure opposed by Maduro.
The opposition is pushing for a recall referendum this year to cut short Maduro's term and trigger new elections. They say the national electoral council and courts are stacked in the government's favor and are trying to delay or kill the recall move.
Obama's administration may be trying to take advantage of the post Cuba-normalization era in which Latin American leaders are more receptive to outreach from Washington. Shannon headed a similar mission last year, with little result. They two countries have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010.
Shannon commands more respect in Caracas than any other U.S. diplomat, , though that may not be saying much, said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.
"There is a chance that his conversations will yield some modest progress on democracy and human rights questions, but given the bitterness and rancor between the government and opposition, it is wise to keep expectations in check," Shifter said.
"The US is pursuing a two-track approach toward Venezuela, working through multilateral channels such as the OAS but also moving on its own and engaging bilaterally to help avert the most dire scenario," he added.
Members of the opposition also met with Shannon, but they rejected dialogue with Maduro's government, calling it a time-wasting farce.
Even as Shannon pushed for the release of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, considered by human rights groups South America's highest-profile political prisoner, Venezuelan prosecutors indicted two opposition activists on money laundering charges. The pair had been traveling to assist in the signature validation process for the recall petition.
One of them, Francisco Marquez, is a dual Venezuelan-U.S. citizen.
In a rare congressional hearing on Venezuela's crisis Wednesday, U.S. lawmakers condemned the arrest of Marquez and called on Maduro to release him and a dozen others widely considered political prisoners. At the hearing, officials defended the White House's decision to impose sanctions on top Venezuela officials last year, a move that Maduro made hay of for months.