U.S., Venezuela hold rare diplomatic meeting

CARACAS (Reuters) - Senior officials from antagonists Venezuela and the United States held a rare meeting on Monday and laid the groundwork for a possible visit by Washington’s top diplomat for Latin America, Venezuela said.

Venezuelan Minister for Foreign Affairs Nicolas Maduro Moros addresses the 62nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, October 2, 2007. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

The OPEC nation is a major oil exporter to the United States but the two trading partners typically have little diplomatic contact and there had been no such high-level meetings for years.

Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro had “very cordial,” hour-long talks with Thomas Shannon, the U.S. diplomat in charge of relations with Latin America, at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, the foreign ministry said late on Monday.

It was the first time the two men had met and Shannon expressed interest in visiting Venezuela, the ministry said.

President Hugo Chavez, who labels his U.S. counterpart George W. Bush the devil, bases much of his foreign policy on combating what he sees as U.S. imperialism. The countries bicker over everything from drug trafficking to arms deals to democracy.

Last year, diplomats from both countries tried to organize a trip by Shannon but Chavez vetoed the tentative plan, according to officials from both sides.

But last month, the president, who calls Cuban leader Fidel Castro his mentor, publicly urged Bush to help him as he seeks to mediate the release of hostages, including three Americans, held by rebels in Colombia.

That mediation was a main topic of discussion, Venezuela said.

Political analysts and diplomats say there is potential for a thaw in the strained relations when Bush leaves office in 2009, especially if a Democrat wins the presidency.

The countries often say they are willing to cooperate on areas of mutual interest but they also acknowledge they have deep ideological differences.

Despite the meeting, Maduro delivered a speech at the General Assembly on Tuesday that was sharply critical of the Bush administration, especially over Iraq, where he said its policy had been “filled with hate and evil”.

The United States had spent $610 billion making war in Iraq that could have been better used to build millions of homes, hospitals and schools in poor countries, Maduro said.

He also lambasted Washington’s failure to extradite Cuban exile and former CIA operative Luis Posada Carriles, accused in Cuba and Venezuela of masterminding the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people.

Additional reporting by Patrick Worsnip at the United Nations