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UPDATE 2-Venezuela's Guaido spoke with U.S. Secretary of State Blinken -sources

·2 min read

(Adds Canadian foreign minister, background)

CARACAS, March 2 (Reuters) - Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido spoke with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday, four people familiar with the matter said, the highest-level U.S. contact with Guaido since President Joe Biden took office on Jan. 20.

The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Washington and dozens of other countries recognized Guaido as Venezuela's rightful leader in January 2019 after Guaido, the leader of the opposition-held National Assembly, invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency, arguing President Nicolas Maduro's 2018 re-election was fraudulent.

Maduro, who has held onto power backed by the South American country's military and allies including Russia, China and Cuba, argues Guaido is a U.S. puppet seeking to oust him in a coup.

Guaido and Blinken discussed the provision of humanitarian aid to Venezuela, which is suffering a years-long economic crisis, as well as the country's supply of coronavirus vaccines, according to one of the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Canada's foreign minister, Marc Garneau, said on Twitter that he also spoke with Guaido on Tuesday, to express Canada's "solidarity with the people of Venezuela as they battle the COVID19 pandemic & reiterate our support for a peaceful return to democracy in Venezuela."

A White House official told Reuters over the weekend that the Biden administration was in "no rush" to lift U.S. sanctions on Venezuela imposed by former President Donald Trump but would consider easing them if Maduro takes confidence-building steps showing he is ready to negotiate seriously with the opposition.

Signaling that the new U.S. president may be unlikely to loosen the screws on Venezuela anytime soon, the official said existing sanctions had enough special provisions to allow for humanitarian aid shipments to help Venezuelans cope with economic hardships and the COVID-19 pandemic. (Reporting by Brian Ellsworth and Mayela Armas in Caracas; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Luc Cohen; Editing by Leslie Adler and Peter Cooney)