Possible thaw reaches the White House Send a delegation to Venezuela Over the weekend to discuss energy sanctions imposed by the United States several years ago and to address the fate of American citizens imprisoned in the country.And the Including six oil managers from Citgo.
The US delegation gave an interview to Citgo6, according to a person familiar with the case who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss closed-door negotiations. According to the source, the visit was coordinated by the Maduro government. A US diplomat met some of the prisoners in December.
Maduro confirmed details of the meeting late Monday night, speaking on Venezuelan state television. He said he met the US delegation in a two-hour meeting at the presidential palace in Caracas, joined by his wife, Celia Flores, and Jorge Rodriguez, president of the National Assembly and one of the most powerful people in the Venezuelan government.
Maduro said the meeting was “respectful” and “very diplomatic”, and “the two countries agreed to work on an agenda moving forward.” He said the state-owned PDVSA, once it recovered, was ready to increase production “for the sake of stabilizing the world.”
“The flags of Venezuela and the United States were there and they looked beautiful, the two flags united as they should,” Maduro said. “I thought it very important to discuss issues of paramount importance to Venezuela and the world face to face.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined to comment on whether the need to increase oil supplies was worth restoring a relationship that was largely severed after Maduro seized power in 2019.
“I think this leaps several stages forward,” Psaki said. She insisted that the talks about the prisoners, which also include two former Green Berets and one former Marine, did not mesh with discussions about sanctions relief but on parallel tracks.
Biden faced some strong opposition from allies on Capitol Hill. Late Monday, Senator Robert Menendez (DNJ), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged the White House not to go ahead with any kind of deal.
“Nicolas Maduro is a cancer of the hemisphere and we should not breathe new life into his reign of torture and murder,” Menendez said in a statement. “The Biden administration’s efforts to unite the entire world against a murderous tyrant in Moscow should not be undermined by supporting a dictator under investigation for crimes against humanity in Caracas.”
The decision to extend a very lukewarm hand to Venezuela comes with other political risks for President Biden and the Democrats. Florida is home to more than 200,000 Venezuelans, including many who have recently fled the regime and settled in Florida, an ever-important political state.
Biden’s critics quickly lashed out. “I think it’s disgusting,” Senator Rick Scott (R-Fla) said in an interview. He is a dictator. He is killing his own citizens. He is a hungry citizen. I have stolen everything. It’s a stolen democracy.”
Scott, who heads the Senate Republican campaign, said Biden could lose credibility with voters who have emigrated from places like Nicaragua and Cuba and could deal with the suffering Venezuelans have been through. “They all lost their freedoms about these things,” Scott said.
Republicans were not the only ones who cast a shadow over Biden’s move. Representative Val Demings (D-FL), who was at one point vetted as Biden’s vice president, also distanced herself from Biden’s move. “I am deeply skeptical about the new talks in Venezuela,” Demings said in a statement. “Maduro and his corrupt cronies should not personally benefit from any deal.”
But as Biden works to isolate Russia — largely through sanctions that limit its energy sales — his team is painfully aware of rising gas prices at home and is searching the world for other potential suppliers.
Regarding the Venezuela visit, Psaki said, “The purpose of the trip by administration officials was to discuss a range of issues, certainly including energy and energy security, but also to discuss the health and well-being of detained American citizens.”
The trip has symbolic significance as well, because Venezuela is Russia’s most important ally in South America. Experts said Venezuela is not in a position to increase oil production fast enough to have an immediate impact on gas prices.
“I think that’s the appropriate reach, given the pump prices are so sky high,” said Scott Model, managing director at Rapidan Energy Group. “I don’t think it will do that much even if it succeeds in influencing gas prices anytime soon.”
In November, the International Criminal Court announced that it would open a formal investigation into allegations of torture and extrajudicial killings of political opponents by Maduro’s security forces, actions that UN investigators have described as “crimes against humanity”. It is the first probe of its kind in Latin America.
In 2020, the United Nations’ highest human rights body released a report documenting how Maduro and his inner circle gave orders and provided resources to arbitrary arrests, torture, disappearances, and extrajudicial killings. The United States imposed sanctions on the Venezuelan government or Venezuelans more than 15 years ago, but significantly tightened the sanctions in early 2019, after Maduro was accused of winning the 2018 presidential election by fraud.
The Trump administration has sanctioned Venezuela’s state oil company, the central bank, and top government officials, and the United States has recognized Juan Guaido, then the president of the country’s National Assembly, as its legitimate president.
Then in August 2019, the United States imposed a blanket economic embargo. It froze the property and interests of the Maduro government in the United States and prohibited Americans from engaging in dealings with the government.
The sanctions have had a crippling effect on Venezuela’s economy, blocking access to basic services such as electricity, housing, water, gas, fuel, medicine and food, according to a 2021 report from a special rapporteur at the UN Human Rights Office.
In February 2021, the Special Rapporteur urged the United States government, along with the United Kingdom and Portugal, to unfreeze the assets of the Central Bank of Venezuela to purchase medicines, vaccines, food, spare parts and other essential goods.
Biden also had uneasy personal relations with Maduro. As vice president, Maduro has been publicly accused of fabricating “strange conspiracy theories”.
For his part, Maduro has criticized the United States, accusing Biden of trying to form an anti-Venezuelan coalition across South America, and has often condemned US sanctions. In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in 2021, Maduro called it “a fierce attack on the right to buy what our country needs and against the right to sell what our country produces, especially the great oil and mining wealth.”
But if Biden’s main goal is to find more oil supplies, it is not clear whether Venezuela has the ability to produce enough oil to bring prices down, even if the United States eases sanctions.
Model of Rapidan Energy Group said that before the US sanctions, Venezuela was exporting 400,000 to 500,000 barrels of oil per day to the United States. In a best-case scenario, he said, that could be increased to between 600,000 bpd to 1 million bpd in about three months.
“It’s a drop in the bucket for the global market,” said Francisco Monaldi, director of the Latin American Energy Program at Rice University. “It is unlikely that a drop in oil prices or an increase in the pump will be avoided for Americans.”
However, there is still reason to believe that Venezuelan oil can easily enter the current system. Monaldi said US Gulf Coast refineries are designed to process heavy oil from Venezuela.
Monaldi is a member of the Atlantic Council’s “Venezuelan Working Group”, which for months has been discussing ways to exchange Venezuelan oil for US humanitarian aid. He said the talks were proceeding at a very slow pace, given the United States’ insistence that Maduro would have to make major democratic concessions.
Suddenly, that changed. “I know the world has changed dramatically in the past two weeks,” Monaldi said. “But it’s amazing to see that they go over there and offer him a carrot.”
With support growing in the United States for a Russian oil embargo, experts note that many buyers have already stopped buying Russian oil since the invasion, given the uncertainty surrounding its supply. “We’re only getting a little bit of Russian oil at this point because we don’t buy it voluntarily,” said Paul Bledsoe, a strategic advisor to the Institute for Progressive Policy who served as the Clinton White House climate official.
He said that Saudi Arabia has the greatest ability to increase production quickly. “The Saudis are the classic swing arm of the global system,” Bledsoe said. But “so far the Saudis have not increased production.”
Bledsoe said the difficulty with Saudi Arabia is part of the reason Biden turned to Venezuela.
But he said the quality of that country’s oil is not stable, and Venezuela faces electricity disruptions and civil order problems. “It seems really difficult to count on the Venezuelans to increase oil production enough to really affect global prices in a meaningful way,” Bledsoe added. “And that brings us back to traditional producers.”
Schmidt reports from Bogota, Colombia. Herero reported from Caracas, Venezuela. Tyler Biger and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.
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