News outlets reported that in light of criticism from hardline sympathizers of the Venezuelan opposition, the Biden administration had suspended its direct talks with the Venezuelan government but that a deal to lift some US sanctions in exchange for restarting oil sales to the US was still on the table.
Washington recently ordered the suspension of Russian oil imports, leaving the US desperate to find other sources of crude as rising energy prices threaten to create a domestic crisis for the Democrats ahead of midterm elections in November.
Despite the lack of diplomatic relations stemming from the US’ refusal to recognize the results of the 2018 presidential election, Caracas and Washington have maintained back-channel communications. These talks led to the first direct exchange between the US and Venezuelan governments in years, which came at Washington’s request.
News of the encounter was met with a vehement condemnation from both Republican politicians such as Senator Marco Rubio and fellow Democrats such as Florida’s Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a longtime supporter of the Venezuelan opposition.
Rubio, one the most vocal champions of Venezuela’s self-declared “interim president’ Juan Guaidó, has gone on the offensive to try to preemptively stop any deal and introduced legislation to ban the import of oil from Venezuela and Iran.
Various politicians from Florida sent a letter to Biden criticizing the administration’s decision to hold direct talks with Maduro. Florida’s large Cuban and Venezuelan population and status as a “swing state” in US elections has led to politicians to cater their foreign policy toward Latin America in the interest of pleasing this comparatively small constituency.
However, skyrocketing energy costs inside the US as a result of global geopolitical situation in light of the Russian military operation in Ukraine and the subsequent ban of Russian oil imports have put the Maduro government in Venezuela, which counts on the world’s largest oil reserves, in a more favorable bargaining position.
Until recent developments, the Biden White House had largely maintained its predecessor’s “maximum pressure” policy aimed at ousting Maduro, though the Financial Times reported that the administration had already been considering a change in strategy.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki tried to downplay the March 5 meeting that counted on the presence of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and Vice President Delcy Rodríguez as well as Biden Latin America adviser Juan González.
The direct talks led to the release of US citizens Gustavo Cardenas and Jorge Fernández on Tuesday, however US State Department spokesman Ned Price denied their release was tied to a deal regarding Venezuelan oil.
For his part, Maduro called the engagement “respectful, cordial and very diplomatic” and said that the US had committed to a follow-up meeting.
The direct talks with the Venezuelan leader have undermined the US’ strategy in Venezuela and its support for Juan Guaidó, who the Biden administration insists they still recognize as “interim president.”
With Guaidó’s position under increased scrutiny, the opposition has come to rely on the US almost exclusively for its legitimacy. Senator Rubio recently admitted that a deal would mean the opposition would be “finished”.
Guaidó was not part of the talks and reportedly only learned of the high-level meeting between the US and Venezuelan governments the day of the meeting.
Sources in Venezuela’s opposition told the Miami Herald that the potential deal would involve granting a special license to Chevron to ramp up activities in Venezuela. Chevron has previously lobbied the US State Department for a rollback of sanctions against Venezuela.
Caracas demands recognition, sanctions relief
Venezuelan officials have likewise commented on the possibility of restarting the oil trade with the US, with Foreign Minister Félix Plasencia stating that any deal to supply oil would be contingent on Washington and Brussels recognizing Nicolás Maduro as president.
“We have a 100-year oil business relationship with the United States. We have not taken them out of the business, they left in order to impose coercive measures. Now they want to return. Fine, if they accept that the only and legitimate government of Venezuela is the one led by President Nicolás Maduro, then US and European oil companies would be welcome,” said Plasencia at the Antalya Diplomacy Forum held this past weekend in Turkey.
Plasencia added that a “respectful relationship” would also require the lifting of coercive measures that deepened the country’s economic crisis.
EU High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell held a bilateral meeting with Plasencia on the margins of the forum that both described as “good,” with Borrell’s team indicating a willingness on the part of the European bloc to normalize relations and lift sanctions.
Venezuela, home to the world’s largest oil reserves, had a steady crude production of around 1.9 million barrels per day (bpd) and exported approximately 500,000 bpd to US markets until sanctions targeted the sector and crippled production.
The Venezuelan oil industry has lately shown signs of improvement with Plasencia stating that the country could produce up to 2 million barrels per day by the end of the year thanks to the assistance of “reliable partners, such as Russia, China and Iran.”
The recent diplomatic summit also saw Plasencia and Vice President Delcy Rodríguez both meet with a Russian delegation led by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
“We held a meeting with our good friend Sergei Lavrov. We reviewed our bilateral strategic relations and the complex international scenario,” Rodriguez said via Twitter.
The March 5 high-level meeting between the US and Venezuela was likewise driven by Washington’s efforts to isolate Russian President Vladimir Putin from his allies in Latin America. US officials were reportedly seeking a public condemnation of Russia’s incursion into Ukraine by Maduro. Caracas has called for a “peaceful resolution” to the ongoing crisis but has stopped short of criticizing the Russian military operation.
The Venezuelan leader spoke directly by phone with Putin, with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs reporting that the Venezuelan president expressed his “firm support” for Russia and condemned destabilization efforts by the US and NATO.
Edited by Ricardo Vaz in Caracas.