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Top US diplomat finds virtual path into Venezuela amid rift

FILE - In this Jan. 24, 2019 file photo, the U.S flag flies outside the U.S. embassy in Caracas, Venezuela. U.S. charge d'affairs for Venezuela James Story and his team of fellow diplomats lowered the flag at the U.S. Embassy in March 2019, just a couple months after President Donald Trump recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela's legitimate leader. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano, File)
FILE - In this Jan. 24, 2019 file photo, the U.S flag flies outside the U.S. embassy in Caracas, Venezuela. U.S. charge d'affairs for Venezuela James Story and his team of fellow diplomats lowered the flag at the U.S. Embassy in March 2019, just a couple months after President Donald Trump recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela's legitimate leader. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano, File) (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

CARACAS – A year after shutting down the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, Washington’s top diplomat in Venezuela has found a way to slip back inside the South American nation — at least virtually.

Each Thursday afternoon, James Story hits the “Go Live” button on Facebook from his office in the U.S. Embassy in Bogota or his home in the Colombian capital hundreds of miles from Caracas. In a freewheeling 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 over in Venezuela and the United States. He occasionally breaks into English with a South Carolina accent.

For 30 minutes, Story talks about everything from Venezuela's purchases of gasoline from Iran, despite its vast oil reserves, to recent unrest in the U.S. over George Floyd’s death in police custody to accusations that President Nicolás Maduro is undermining Venezuela’s constitution.

“Look, this is not a true democracy,” Story said in a recent session, 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.”

Story’s low-budget, weekly question-and-answer session on the popular social media platform is an unusual approach to outreach for explaining U.S. policy on Venezuela, which has so far failed to oust Maduro.

The cyber-diplomacy is a way for Story to get his message out since he's deprived of traditional tools such as visiting hospitals and schools, talking to local reporters and hosting cocktail parties for power brokers.

Story’s live chat sessions are part of duties that include leading a team of diplomats for the highly unusual “ virtual embassy ” working out of the mission in neighboring Colombia.

William Brownfield, who waged his own battles as a U.S. ambassador against the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, said using the video chat to bridge the divide between Venezuela and Colombia is an “exceptionally clever” solution.

“If there’s one thing the regime of Nicolás Maduro has been trying to do, it’s cut off any direct communication with his base by the U.S. government, or anybody who doesn’t agree with him,” Brownfield said in an interview from Washington.

Brownfield, who is now retired, served as ambassador to Venezuela for three years starting in 2004. His signature approach to diplomacy — admitting he had the advantage of working inside its borders — was handing out baseball bats and gloves to youth teams in Caracas’ poorest neighborhood.

Brownfield said it helped put a human face on U.S. officials. “It was fun to push back on the Chavista message that we were nothing but evil,” Brownfield said.

While Story’s tactic lacks the same direct human touch, Brownfield said it has the advantage of being online, offering access to 5 million people who make up Venezuela’s diaspora. Story can also communicate his message to other foreign diplomats, many cautious about what they can say while still inside Venezuela, he said.

“He’s saying things out loud that they cannot say,” Brownfield said.

Story and his team of fellow diplomats lowered the flag at the U.S. Embassy in March 2019, just a couple months after President Donald Trump recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader. The U.S. is among more than 50 nations that accuse Maduro of clinging to power following an undemocratic election in 2018 that banned the most popular opposition politicians.

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

Story, whose career has taken him to Mexico, Brazil, Mozambique and Afghanistan, serves as the embassy’s charge d’affairs, a diplomat who heads a mission in the absence of the ambassador. The U.S. and Venezuela haven’t exchanged ambassadors in a decade.

Trump nominated Story in May to serve as the ambassador to Venezuela, days after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told his staff to start planning to reopen the embassy in Caracas as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign anticipating what they hope will be Maduro’s imminent departure.

Story, who declined to comment for this article, launched the Facebook Live chat in April, later adding a sign-language interpreter. Each week it draws a few hundred live viewers, while the archived videos continue to attract clicks, one garnering 315,000 views.

The majority of Story’s viewers post questions that scroll up the page as he talks. Some plead for help to obtain asylum or visas so they can reunite with relatives in the U.S. Others invite the U.S. to invade and put an end to Maduro’s rule. Few are critical of the U.S. role, despite Story often urging tough questions from those who disagree with him.

At least one of Story’s Facebook Live comments appears to have reached Maduro’s ears.

Following a failed attack in early May that landed two ex-U.S. special forces soldiers in a Venezuelan prison, Story said that the U.S. government had no role, rather backing a peaceful solution through dialogue. He noted that U.S. forces had tracked down al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and if Washington wanted Maduro taken out by force, he would no longer be in power.

Maduro fired back an hour later in an interview aired on state TV, citing Story’s “dispatches” from Bogota. He said the U.S. diplomat’s role sending the “mercenaries” was undeniable.

“James Story is responsible for this failed armed raid,” Maduro said. “James Story has his feet, his hands and his whole body in this armed raid.”

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Follow Scott Smith on Twitter: @ScottSmithAP

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Associated Press writer Jorge Rueda contributed to this report.