US officials visit Venezuela for talks with the Russia-allied Maduro government

The visit is the highest US visit to the socialist country in years and comes as the United States seeks to isolate Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. Venezuela, the Kremlin’s most important ally in South America, used to be a major supplier of crude to the United States before domestic mismanagement and Washington’s sanctions on exports hampered exports.

In recent weeks, former US lawmakers have urged the United States to ban Russian oil and gas exports while lifting restrictions on Venezuela, home to the world’s largest oil reserves.

The US delegation included Roger Carstens, the presidential special envoy for hostage affairs. Juan Gonzalez, Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council; Jimmy Storey, the US ambassador to Venezuela, said one of the people familiar with the visit.

The trip comes just days after Maduro and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone about strengthening the partnership between their two countries.

The State Department and the White House declined to comment.

During the trip, US officials are also trying to secure the release of six former executives of Houston-based Citgo Petroleum Corp., an oil refiner formerly controlled by the Maduro government, according to a person familiar with the visit who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic meetings. Citgo 6 was arrested during a business trip to Caracas in November 2017 and charged with money laundering, embezzlement, extortion and participation in organized crime. They denied these allegations.

US officials are also seeking to negotiate the release of two former Green Berets accused in a plot to remove Maduro, as well as a former Marine who was arrested while traveling along the Caribbean coast of Venezuela.

The United States and Venezuela cut diplomatic ties in 2019 after the US government recognized Juan Guaido as the country’s legitimate president, and accused Maduro of fraudulently winning re-election. In an effort to force Maduro to step down from power, the Trump administration has blocked all US revenue for the Venezuelan National Oil Corporation.

Biden administration officials were considering how to respond to punishing Russia for its invasion of Ukraine without increasing the cost of oil and gasoline at the pump.

In recent weeks, some US investors have called on the administration to lift sanctions against Venezuela so it can send more crude oil to the market, The Wall Street Journal mentioned. Chevron also lobbied the administration to amend its license to accept and trade oil in Venezuela.

But some Republicans, such as Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla), have been highly critical of US officials’ decision to travel to Venezuela, the trip that I first reported on. The New York Times. The decision to re-engage with Venezuela could come at a political cost to the Biden administration and Democrats, particularly in Florida.

Joe Biden using #Russia As an excuse to do the deal they always wanted to make anyway with #Maduro_systemRubio tweeted on Sunday. “Instead of producing more American oil, he wants to replace the oil we buy from one murderous dictator with oil from another murderous dictator.”

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Jeff Ramsey, Venezuela director in the Washington Office for Latin America, said the US trip to Caracas comes as Venezuelan opposition negotiators have been pushing the Biden administration for a “carrot” that could bring Maduro back to talks in Mexico City, which were suspended in October.

“There seems to be potential for things to change, I think the question is what will the United States get in return,” Ramsay said. “It is unlikely that senior Biden officials would go to Caracas and meet with Maduro and be able to sell a major policy shift like this if they were to go home empty-handed.”

US officials have indicated that the Biden administration will continue to recognize Guaido as the legitimate leader of Venezuela. But in an interview with America Quarterly This week, Gonzalez said the administration is focusing on negotiations, rather than bringing down Maduro.

“While the previous administration’s theory of change was based on the collapse of the regime, our theory is … that only negotiations will lead to concrete and sustainable change in Venezuela towards a democratic system,” he said.

Opposition leaders contacted by the Washington Post said they were not aware of the US delegation’s visit, although some had held talks to ease sanctions.

It is unclear whether Saturday’s talks with Maduro officials will lead to any change in policy. Francisco Monaldi, director of Rice University’s Latin American Energy Program, said that even if the United States eased sanctions on oil, Venezuela’s production would do little to fill the gap left by Russian oil in the global market.

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While Venezuela recently increased its oil production slightly, it produces only about 10 percent of what Russia used to export, according to Monaldi. “In the short term, Venezuela is not relevant,” he said.

But he said that if the United States stops importing oil from Russia, Venezuelan crude may help fill the gap. When Venezuelan oil was subjected to a US embargo, Russian exports seized most of Venezuela’s US markets.

“If Venezuelan oil comes back to service that market, it will be really beneficial for refineries and it may ease their problems,” Monaldi said. “Having said that, is that going to significantly reduce what Americans are pushing at the pump? I doubt it.”

Schmidt reports from Bogota, Colombia. Ana Vanessa Herrero in Caracas, Venezuela, and Anthony Viola in Miami contributed to this report.

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