CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuela’s National Assembly named two opposition stalwarts, including a formerly jailed activist, as election officials Tuesday, the latest move by President Nicolás Maduro to seek improved relations with the Biden administration.
It is the first time since 2005 that the Venezuelan opposition will have two seats on the five-person National Electoral Council, which oversees elections in the South American country. Critics have said the body was stacked with government allies who functioned as a tool of Maduro's socialist administration.
The breakthrough agreement was hatched during weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations between representatives of the Maduro government and moderate opponents, some of them aligned with former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles.
One of the new council members is former lawmaker Enrique Marquez, who was briefly vice president of the National Assembly when it was controlled by the opposition in 2016-2020. The other is longtime strategist Roberto Picón, who was jailed for six months in 2017 for organizing a symbolic, parallel vote when the opposition boycotted Maduro’s referendum to name a rubber-stamp constitutional assembly to bypass the National Assembly.
Maduro’s allies overwhelmingly regained control of the National Assembly in elections last year that were boycotted by the opposition, which the U.S., European Union and other countries in the region considered fraudulent.
Among the three representatives linked to the government who were chosen Tuesday is Tania D’Amelio, who was sanctioned in 2017 by the U.S. Treasury Department and accused of helping to “undermine democratic processes or institutions in Venezuela.”
The naming of a new board was being closely watched as a sign of Maduro’s willingness to re-engage with his opponents — a required first step for U.S. President Joe Biden to consider easing crippling oil sanctions imposed by the Trump administration.
Hours before the appointments were announced, the head of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee said recent actions by Maduro were creating a “window of opportunity” for engagement with the U.S. government. Rep. Gregory Meeks, a Democrat from New York, said decisions like opening Venezuela to food assistance and Friday’s release of six jailed American oil executives to home detention signal that Maduro “may be interested and willing to open negotiation” with the Biden administration.
Speaking at an event of business leaders organized by the Council of the Americas, Meeks urged for some U.S. sanctions to be rolled back, saying they have hurt regular Venezuelans.
But in prerecorded remarks to the same group, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken took a tougher line, vowing to keep working with allies to exert pressure on the “brutal Maduro regime” as it has "systematically repressed" the rights of its citizens.
To be sure, a number of hurdles remain before Venezuela is back on a democratic path and the opposition’s demands are met for it to participate in mayoral and gubernatorial elections that the government wants to hold later this year. They include updating Venezuela’s voter registry, reversing a ban on some of the opposition’s best-known candidates and restoring control of three major parties to their original founders.
Picón said that the electoral body cannot by itself create conditions so elections are free and fair and that negotiations in other areas will be key.
But he said he is hopeful that a pluralistic electoral board, if allowed to work independently, will help defuse the hostility of the past few years and serve as an example to political parties, civil society and state institutions.
“We need all the country aligned to recover the value of the vote as an instrument for change,” he told The Associated Press. “I am prepared to work with people from any political background who are interested in re-institutionalizing the country, starting with the electoral council.”
Some observers said the deal could further divide the opposition and weaken its best-known activist, Juan Guaidó, who the U.S. and dozens of allies recognize as Venezuela’s rightful leader.
Guaidó is among hardliners dominant in the opposition coalition who have rejected any coexistence with Maduro. On Monday, more than a dozen anti-Maduro parties condemned the “unilateral designation” of the elections board by the National Assembly, which it considers illegitimate.
“Only an agreement, with due international support, in favor of getting out of this tragedy and having free and fair elections to address the humanitarian emergency and have justice, is a real solution and they will be accompanied by Parliament or the democratic alternative,” Guaidó tweeted following the appointments.
Luis Almagro, head of the Organization of American States, also criticized the appointments and those behind the political dealmaking as “collaborationists” whose actions would only serve to benefit the Maduro “dictatorship” and deepen the nation's crisis.
Associated Press writer Regina Garcia Cano reported this story from Mexico City, AP writer Jorge Rueda reported in Caracas and AP writer Joshua Goodman reported from Miami.