An ally of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has hired a Washington lobbyist whose business has boomed under the Trump administration as part of a $12.5 million effort to ease sanctions and reset bilateral relations as the U.S.-backed campaign to oust the socialist leader stalls.
The Maduro government's top lawyer, Inspector General Reinaldo Muñoz, hired lobbyist Robert Stryk's Sonoran Policy Group 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 Monday 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 a nd repair his tarnished image in Washington, where he has been roundly rejected as a dictator.
This month, he told The Washington Post 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. He also invited the United Nations and European Union to send observers for legislative elections slated to take place later this year.
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, his firm, Sonoran Policy Group, 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 she accumulated vast wealth through state loans brokered by her father, Angola's former president.
Muñoz's 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 it received slightly more than $3 million in initial payments on behalf of Muñoz from what appear to be two Hong Kong-registered companies. Its work will also include discussions with officials at the U.S. Treasury Department and other U.S. agencies regarding sanctions against the Maduro government.
In December, Stryk's firm also filed paperwork with Congress saying it represents Greylock Capital Management, a Wall Street hedge fund, to assist it with the collection of millions in unpaid debt owed to American bondholders by Venezuela.
This month, Stryk's name showed up in handwritten notes released by the House Intelligence Committee as part of the impeachment inquiry into Trump.
Lev Parnas, a former associate of Rudolph Giuliani in Ukraine who has now turned against Trump's personal attorney, scribbled a note to himself on stationery from the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Vienna saying "hire Robert Stryk lobbiest" (sic), the documents show.
It is unclear why Parnas scribbled Stryk's name. But one of Guiliani's clients, Venezuelan businessman Alejandro Betancourt, hosted Trump's personal attorney and Parnas at his castle outside Madrid last summer, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the meeting.
Stryk did not immediately return a phone call requesting comment.
Foley and Venezuelan Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez both declined to comment.
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 has not been sanctioned by the Trump administration for human rights abuses and corruption.
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. He missed Trump by a day at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, fueling speculation the U.S. president was not interested in a meeting with the 36-year-old lawmaker.
"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."
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