Ally of Venezuela’s Maduro hires DC lobbyist to build ties

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Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro gives his annual address to the nation before members of the Constituent Assembly on the grounds of the National Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Matias Delacroix)

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MIAMI (AP) — An ally of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has agreed to spend $12.5 million to hire a lawyer and Washington lobbyist to ease U.S. sanctions and help reset bilateral relations as the U.S.-backed campaign to oust the socialist leader stalls, according to new filings posted Monday .

The Maduro government’s top lawyer, Inspector General Reinaldo Muñoz, hired lobbyist Robert Stryk, whose business has suddenly boomed since President Donald Trump took office, as part of a larger contract he signed with Foley & Lardner, a law firm with offices in Washington.

Both the law firm and Stryk’s Sonoran Policy Group registered as agents of Muñoz in separate filings with the Justice Department that were published on the agency’s website.

Their work includes “developing a strategy to approach the U.S. Government in support of delisting the Foreign Principal or other parties subject to U.S. economic sanctions due to their connections to the Republic,” according to the filing by Foley, which in turn is paying $2 million to hire Stryk as a consultant.

The outreach comes as U.S. support for opposition leader Juan Guaidó, whom It recognizes as Venezuela’s rightful president, has come under fire.

A year into the U.S.-backed campaign to oust Maduro, the socialist leader has successfully beaten back a coup attempt, mass protests and punishing U.S. sanctions that have cut off his government’s access to western banks.

Emboldened by Guaidó’s difficulties, Maduro is looking to reassert himself in Washington. This month, he told the Washington Post that he wants to engage directly with the Trump administration to end a stalemate that has worsened living conditions in the OPEC nation of 30 million people.

Stryk, a winemaker and former Republican aide who unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Yountville, California, is one of the top lobbyists in Trump’s Washington.

A former unpaid Trump campaign adviser on the West Coast, he founded Sonoran Policy Group. The firm had no reported lobbying from 2013 to 2016 but has billed more than $10.5 million to foreign clients since the start of 2017.

Like Venezuela, many of the clients have bruised reputations in Washington or are under U.S. sanctions, such as the governments of Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior, which signed a a $5.4 million contract in May 2017.

He also represents the scandal-plagued Isabel dos Santos, Africa’s richest woman, who is fighting allegations that she accumulated vast wealth through state loans brokered by her father, Angola’s former president.

The U.S. was the first of nearly 60 nations to recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful leader after he used his position as the head of congress to proclaim himself interim president following Maduro’s widely rejected 2018 reelection.

The U.S. has long insisted that any negotiations with Maduro would be focused on the terms of his exit and last year rejected talks sponsored by Norway with the opposition as a waste of time that would only strengthen Maduro’s hand.

But this month Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seemed less hostile to the idea of talks, saying that a negotiated settlement was the best way forward.

Muñoz is one of only a handful of top Maduro aides who so far hasn’t been sanctioned by the Trump administration for human rights violations

Guaidó left Venezuela a little over a week ago for only the second time since being elected the head of congress to embark on a support-building tour of Europe and Canada. It started with a meeting with Pompeo in Bogota, the Colombian capital.

“If Trump does not meet with him in Washington, it will be a clear indication that the U.S. government has lost faith in the idea that maximum pressure will lead to a transition,” said David Smilde of the Washington Office on Latin America think tank. “Even if they do meet, it seems clear that the Trump administration is open to alternatives”

The contract with Foley, for a flat fee of $12.5 million, extends until May 10. Stryk’s share of the deal, as a consultant, is $2 million.

Foley said in its filing that it received slightly more than $3 million in initial payments on behalf of Muñoz from what appear to be two Hong Kong-registered companies.

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