By MATTHEW LEEAssociated Press
ANTIGUA, Guatemala (AP) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, on his first trip to Latin America since taking office, gauged prospects Wednesday for improving badly strained ties between the United States and Venezuela that have steadily deteriorated over the past decade.
Kerry was to meet Venezuela's foreign minister on the sidelines of an Organization of American States meeting in Guatemala to explore ways to repair relations. The encounter comes at Venezuela's request and is to occur just hours after Venezuela released from prison an American filmmaker who had been jailed on espionage charges, removing at least one irritant in the relationship.
U.S. officials with Kerry said the secretary was hopeful, but not certain, that Timothy Tracy's release could be a sign that the Venezuelans are interested in a rapprochement. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
The discussion between Kerry and Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jose Jaua will be the first at cabinet level between the two countries in at least several years and the first substantial contact since Venezuela's disputed April 14 election to replace the late populist president Hugo Chavez. Chavez protege Nicolas Maduro claimed victory at the polls, but 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 been eager to mend ties with Venezuela after Chavez's death in March. Chavez delighted in tweaking the United States and pursued policies that U.S. officials regarded as hostile. However, until Wednesday there has been little to show for its outreach.
U.S.-Venezuelan relations have been especially tense in recent months. Maduro 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.
The Obama administration has backed opposition candidate Henrique Capriles' call for a full recount.
U.S. officials with Kerry said he wanted to look at areas like counternarcotics and counterterrorism where cooperation could be improved with Venezuela. But they stressed that the U.S. was not going to stop expressing concerns about democracy and human rights in the country, particularly after the election.
The two countries haven't had ambassadors posted in each other's capitals since 2010 but U.S. officials said they were not sure if this subject would be raised in the meeting between Kerry and Jaua.
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.
U.S. 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.
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."
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