U.S. has first ambassador in decade to Venezuela amid tensions

The U.S. and Venezuela haven’t exchanged ambassadors since 2010.

Washington has its first ambassador for Venezuela in a decade despite the U.S. having no diplomats at its Caracas embassy amid a breakdown in relations.

James Story’s nomination as ambassador was confirmed on Wednesday by a U.S. Senate voice vote. The South Carolina native takes the job that he will carry out from the capital of neighbouring Colombia as Venezuela endures a historic economic and political crisis.

Mr. Story, 50, will likely play a key role helping guide U.S. policy on Venezuela during the transition of President-elect Joe Biden. Relations have had a long, rocky past that include President Donald Trump’s administration winning an indictment against Venezuelan Nicolas Maduro as an alleged narco-terrorist.

Mr. Biden’s win has sparked debate among those who back Mr. Trump’s hard-line approach of isolating Mr. Maduro and others who say it is time for a new course. The critics say heavy sanctions have failed to remove Mr. Maduro from power, opening Venezuela to U.S. competitors like China, Russia and Iran, while making life harder on millions of residents of the South American nation.

The U.S. and Venezuela haven’t exchanged ambassadors since 2010, when relations first started to fray under the late President Hugo Chŕvez. The two nations totally broke diplomatic ties last year, each withdrawing its diplomats shortly after Washington backed Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidū as the country’s legitimate leader.

The U.S. leads a coalition of dozens of nations that rejected Mr. Maduro following his election in 2018 to a second term in a vote widely considered fraudulent because the most popular opposition leaders were banned from running.

The U.S. has since heavily sanctioned Mr. Maduro, his inner circle and the state-run oil firm, attempting to isolate them. The Mr. Trump administration offered a $15 million bounty for Mr. Maduro’s arrest after a U.S. court indicted him on drug charges.

Mr. Story, a career diplomat nominated by Mr. Trump in May, has been serving as the embassy’s charge d’affairs, the diplomat who heads a mission in the absence of an ambassador. His foreign service career has taken him to Mexico, Brazil, Mozambique and Afghanistan. Today, he leads a skeleton crew of diplomats in a “virtual” embassy in Bogota.

Despite the challenge of working from outside Venezuela, Mr. Story holds a weekly 30-minute Facebook Live chat attempting to maintain ties with millions of Venezuelans at home or those who have fled the crisis-riddled nation. In a free-wheeling approach, he answers questions in fluent Spanish from Venezuelans and the few U.S. citizens still in the country, addressing the latest intrigue and turmoil bubbling in Venezuela and the U.S. He occasionally breaks into English with a South Carolina accent.

“Look, this is not a true democracy,” Mr. Story said in an online chat earlier this year, later railing against high-ranking Venezuelan officials whose families live lavishly in Spain and Panama while most Venezuelans are in poverty. “Yes, they’re cheating all of you.”

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