August 13, 2015 / 8:09 PM / 2 years ago

U.S., Venezuela talks a 'work in progress,': Venezuela diplomat

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro gestures in front of a national flag during his visit to a corn plantation in the state of Cojedes, in this handout picture provided by Miraflores Palace on August 12, 2015.Miraflores Palace/Handout via Reuters

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Venezuela's top diplomat in Washington said that after five months of quiet diplomacy, relations between the two adversaries were still tentative, with no real rapprochement yet after a decade of hostility.

"It is a work in progress," said Maximilien Arvelaiz, Venezuela's charge d'affaires in Washington and the point person in the high-level contacts with State Department diplomats. "It's not like we now understand each other better."

Arvelaiz, speaking this week in his first interview since the talks began, added: "After so many years of mistrust we are learning to work together and it helps to talk about our differences on a bilateral level."

The effort by Latin America's most ardently anti-Washington government and major U.S. oil supplier comes as President Nicolas Maduro struggles with a decaying economy that has been left more isolated by close ally Cuba's warming U.S. ties.

Relations hit a low during the rule of Maduro's predecessor Hugo Chavez.

The sides have met several times since April and U.S. diplomats are expected to return to Caracas in the next few weeks to discuss next steps, Arvelaiz said.

Among the issues Venezuela wants to raise are the fall in global oil prices, U.S. sanctions against Caracas, and U.S. business investment, he said.

Venezuela depends on oil for around 96 percent of its hard currency revenue. The country suffers from shortages of goods including milk and medicines, rampant inflation and a recession.

Arvelaiz, a lawyer who studied in France and England, said his appointment in mid-2014 was aimed at trying to improve communications with Washington. Neither country has an ambassador in place, but he hoped that would change soon.

The dialogue began when Maduro met with U.S. President Barack Obama at a summit of the Americas in Panama in April, four months after Washington and Havana announced they were seeking to restore ties.

The sides have focused on issues of common interest, such as Colombia's peace process and elections in Haiti, as well as areas of disagreement, such as Venezuela's clamp-down on domestic political opposition.

"Of course we are going to have our differences," he said, adding the goal was to find a balance in the relationship. "As long as it isn't an interference" in Venezuela, he said.

He said U.S. concerns over the jailing of opposition leaders showed a "lack of information, a lack of knowledge about the reality in Venezuela."

Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by David Storey and David Gregorio

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