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US says Venezuela's Maduro still illegitimate after opposition 'government' disbanded

The United States said Tuesday it still did not consider Nicolas Maduro to be the legitimate president of Venezuela and would maintain sanctions after the fledgling opposition dissolved its "interim government."

President Joe Biden's administration said that Venezuelan government assets in the United States, notably of the state oil company, would remain legally under the authority of the opposition-led National Assembly, which was elected in 2015 but has been disempowered by Maduro's leftist government.

"Our approach to Nicolas Maduro is not changing. He is not the legitimate leader of Venezuela," State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.

"We continue to recognize what is the only remaining democratically elected institution in Venezuela today, and that's the 2015 National Assembly," Price said.

Price said that existing sanctions "remain in place" and that the United States was in touch with the National Assembly on whether a new individual, group or committee would oversee government assets.

The United States, under former president Donald Trump, set a goal of toppling Maduro in 2019 following elections widely seen as fraudulent and as an economic crisis wreaked havoc with shortages of basic necessities.

More than seven million Venezuelans have fled their country, most to neighboring countries but with a growing number making the dangerous trek to the United States.

Joined by most Western and Latin American nations at the time, the United States four years ago recognized the National Assembly's Juan Guaido as interim president.

The Trump administration put Guaido as a government in control of Citgo, the US refiner that is part of state-owned oil company PDVSA.

- Maduro 'totally ready' -

Maduro has remained in power with backing from some segments of the population as well as the military, Russia, China and Cuba. The National Assembly -- now largely a symbolic force in Caracas -- on Friday voted to dissolved Guaido's "interim government."

In an interview broadcast Sunday on state television, Maduro proposed top-level talks with the Biden administration.

"Venezuela is ready, totally ready, to take steps towards a process of normalization of diplomatic, consular and political relations with the current administration of the United States and with administrations to come," Maduro said.

Despite not recognizing his legitimacy, the Biden administration sent a delegation that met Maduro in March and in November it gave the green light for US oil giant Chevron to resume operations in Venezuela following a spike in crude prices due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The Chevron move came after the Maduro government and opposition reached an agreement in talks in Mexico to let the United Nations administer government funds for a variety of social spending in the country.

In Caracas, National Assembly member Tomas Guanipa, whose opposition party Primero Justicia pushed to end the interim government, told reporters that last week's decision was "an exercise in political realism."

"Whether Maduro is illegitimate is not up for discussion; what cannot exist is an alternative government that doesn't exercise its functions and that had been set up to achieve change quickly," said Guanipa, who served as the interim government's ambassador to Colombia.

Political support for Guaido had eroded further outside the United States, where fervent anti-communists of Cuban and Venezuelan descent are a potent political force, although generally tilting toward Trump's Republican Party.

The sharpest shift has been in Colombia, long a vociferous opponent of Maduro, where President Gustavo Petro has pursued reconciliation since he was elected last year as Colombia's first-ever leftist leader.

The European Union, while not dropping support for Guaido, since mid-2021 stopped referring to him as interim president after Maduro pushed aside the National Assembly.

A French foreign ministry spokeswoman, asked Tuesday about the end of the interim government, said France "supports the democratic forces of Venezuela who will organize themselves as they so wish."

jt-sct/md