CARACAS, Venezuela — The powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee met with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Friday two days after the embattled socialist leader kicked out the top U.S. diplomat in the country.
Sen. Bob Corker was seen live on state TV being greeted by Maduro and First Lady Cilia Flores as he entered the presidential palace. He left an hour later with neither him nor the president making any statements.
Maduro was easily re-elected Sunday to a second term in a vote condemned by the U.S. as a "sham" after several of his key rivals were barred from running. In the wake of his victory he threw out American charge d'affaires Todd Robinson and his deputy for allegedly conspiring to sabotage the vote by pressuring opposition parties to boycott the race, a move that led to the lowest voter turnout in decades.
Accompanying Corker was his aide Caleb McCarry, who was behind backchannel talks earlier this year with people close to Maduro aimed at securing the release of imprisoned American Joshua Holt. The 26-year-old Utah man has been held for two years without a trial on what he considers trumped-up weapons charges.
In a previous visit to Caracas in 2015, the Tennessee Republican was shunned by Maduro after having been promised a meeting with the socialist leader. Upon his return to Washington he blasted the government's "flawed economic policies and political system" for putting Venezuela on a "destructive path."
There was no immediate comment from Corker's office about the nature of the latest visit. Last month, Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 ranking Democrat, also met with Maduro to press for Holt's release.
The Maduro government has been seeking contacts in the U.S. to stave off the threat of crippling oil sanctions that could further collapse an economy already suffering from hyperinflation and widespread shortages.
Senator Marco Rubio, an outspoken critic of Maduro who has President Donald Trump's ear on Venezuela, downplayed the importance of Corker's visit.
"Any U.S. Senator can meet with whoever they want," Rubio tweeted. "But no matter how many senators dictator @NicolasMaduro gets to meet with him, U.S. sanctions will go away when Maduro leaves & democracy returns."
A senior Venezuelan official said Friday's meeting was part of an ongoing dialogue that began a few months ago with Corker's office aimed at improving relations between the two countries. The official requested anonymity because he isn't authorized to discuss the private talks.