FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido speaks during a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela December 5, 2020. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero/

WASHINGTON/CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido spoke with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday, the U.S. State Department said, the highest-level U.S. contact with Guaido since President Joe Biden took office on Jan. 20.

Washington and dozens of other countries recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful leader in January 2019 after Guaido, the leader of the opposition-held National Assembly, invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency, arguing President Nicolas Maduro’s 2018 re-election was fraudulent.

In his call with Guaido, Blinken “stressed the importance of a return to democracy in Venezuela through free and fair elections,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

Maduro, who has held onto power backed by the South American country’s military and allies including Russia, China and Cuba, argues Guaido is a U.S. puppet seeking to oust him in a coup.

Price said Guaido and Blinken discussed the “urgent humanitarian needs in Venezuela,” which is suffering a years-long economic crisis.

Blinken described U.S. efforts to work with the European Union, the Organization of American States and other groups “to increase multilateral pressure and press for a peaceful, democratic transition,” Price said.

Guaido told an Argentine television channel on Tuesday evening that he had spoken with Blinken and Canadian Foreign Minister Marc Garneau “as part of the agenda of international alliances to rescue democracy in Venezuela.”

A White House official told Reuters over the weekend that the Biden administration was in “no rush” to lift U.S. sanctions on Venezuela imposed by former President Donald Trump but would consider easing them if Maduro takes confidence-building steps showing he is ready to negotiate seriously with the opposition.

Reporting by Eric Beech in Washington and Brian Ellsworth and Mayela Armas in Caracas; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Luc Cohen; Editing by Christopher Cushing and Stephen Coates

Source: Reuters