Caracas: The US negotiator for normal diplomatic ties with Cuba was due to return to Havana on Sunday -- just as thousands rally to support close ally Venezuela in a mounting row with Washington.
Roberta Jacobson, the top US diplomat for Latin America, is following up on the historic breakthrough announced in December that Cold War foes the United States and Cuba will seek to normalize relations after five decades of bad blood.
Cuba, the Americas` only one-party communist-run state, is socialist Venezuela`s closest regional partner. Venezuelan aid props up the centrally planned Cuban economy.
But Venezuela`s economy is also in trouble and despite sitting atop the world`s largest oil reserves, the country has slipped into economic crisis, with record high inflation and shortages of even the most basic needs, such as milk, toilet paper or diapers.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro blames the United States and has accused Washington of supporting a coup to oust him.
Even as it draws closer to the United States, authorities in the Cuban capital Havana organized a concert on the steps of the University of Havana later Sunday "to support the Bolivarian (Venezuelan) people and government... for peace, justice and Latin American unity."
Artists will show support for the Venezuelan people "suffering under the recent aggressive (US) escalation," one of the organizers told the Juventud Rebelde newspaper.
It was not immediately clear how the noisy show of Venezuelan support would impact talks Monday between Jacobson and Cuban counterpart Josefina Vidal. US-Venezuelan relations hit a new low last week when US President Barack Obama slapped new sanctions on Maduro`s government, calling Venezuela "an extraordinary threat to the national security" of the United States.
Caracas responded by angrily recalling its envoy to Washington and ramping up its military preparedness.
Obama is believed to want to head to the Summit of the Americas in Panama on April 10-11 with diplomatic ties with Cuba restored and their respective embassies reopened.
But with its sanctions of Venezuela, "the United States has done serious damage to the atmosphere regionally just ahead of the Summit of the Americas," Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said in Caracas on Saturday.
"I hope the US government understands that it cannot wave a carrot at Cuba and a stick at Venezuela. The era of the carrot and the stick is over.
"The era of treating Latin America and the Caribbean like they were the United States` back yard is over."
"I am sure Latin America and the Caribbean will react forcefully and firmly against the threats Venezuela has received," the top Cuban diplomat stressed.
Earlier Sunday, Venezuelan lawmakers voted to give Maduro special powers to go it alone in defense and public safety affairs.
The decree powers were approved by a show of hands in the National Assembly -- which is packed with Maduro allies -- after two hours of debate. They will be in effect until the end of the year.