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White House reaches out to Venezuela, a longtime foe, amid Russia crisis

Venezuela has long been a bitter enemy of the United States. But amid the Ukraine crises and soaring gas prices, tensions may be relaxing.

The flame from an oil refining plant along the highway in Maturin, Venezuela. (Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images)

The Biden White House inched closer Monday to a modest rapprochement with oil-rich Venezuela, a bitter foe due to the oppressive policies of President Nicolás Maduro, as it urgently sought ways to stave off the economic, diplomatic and political impact of soaring gas prices that nudged over $4 a gallon.

The potential thaw arrives as the White House sent 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 who have been jailed in the country, including six oil executives from Citgo.

The “Citgo 6” were interviewed by the U.S. delegation, according to a person with direct knowledge of the case who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss closed negotiations. The visit was coordinated by the Maduro government, according to the person. A U.S. diplomat met with some of the prisoners in December.

Maduro confirmed details of the meeting late Monday night, speaking on Venezuela’s state-run television. He said he met the U.S. delegation for a two-hour meeting at the presidential palace in Caracas, joined by his wife, Cilia Flores, and Jorge Rodríguez, president of the National Assembly and one of the most powerful people in the Venezuelan government.

The meeting was “respectful” and “very diplomatic,” Maduro said, and the two countries “agreed to work on an agenda moving forward.” He said Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, once recovered, is prepared to ramp up production “for the stability of the world.”

“The flags of Venezuela and the United States were there and they looked nice, the two flags, united as they should be,” Maduro said. “I thought it was very important to discuss, face to face, issues of maximum interest to Venezuela and the world.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Monday declined to comment on whether the need to boost the oil supply would be worth reinstating a relationship largely severed after Maduro’s 2019 seizure of power.

“I think that’s leaping several stages ahead,” Psaki said. She insisted the talks about the prisoners, which also include two former Green Berets and a former Marine, were not intertwined with discussions about easing sanctions but on parallel tracks.

The potential for warming relations between the Biden administration and Maduro’s regime, which is being investigated by an international criminal court for crimes against humanity, illustrates how global relations and values are being scrambled during the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Biden faced some strong pushback from allies on Capitol Hill. Late Monday, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged the White House not to go forward with any kind of deal.

“Nicolás Maduro is a cancer to our 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 unify the entire world against a murderous tyrant in Moscow should not be undercut by propping up a dictator under investigation for crimes against humanity in Caracas.”

Russian invasion of Ukraine shakes global economic relations

The decision to extend even a very tepid hand to Venezuela comes with other political risk for President Biden and Democrats. Florida is home to more than 200,000 Venezuelans, including many who have recently fled the regime and resettled in Florida, a perennially important political state.

Biden’s critics pounced quickly. “I think it’s disgusting,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said in an interview. “He’s a dictator. He’s murdering his own citizens. He’s starving citizens. He’s stolen everything. He’s stolen democracy.”

Scott, who heads the Senate Republicans’ campaign operation, said Biden may lose credibility with voters who emigrated from places like Nicaragua and Cuba and can relate to the suffering that Venezuelans have gone through. “They’ve all lost their freedoms over this stuff,” Scott said.

It wasn’t just Republicans who threw shade on Biden’s move. Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), who was at one point vetted to be Biden’s vice president, also distanced herself from Biden’s move. “I am deeply skeptical of the new talks in Venezuela,” Demings said in a statement. “Maduro and his corrupt cronies must not personally profit from any deal.”

But as Biden works to isolate Russia — in large part by imposing sanctions that curtail its energy sales — his team is painfully aware of increasing gas prices at home and is searching the globe for other potential suppliers.

Regarding the Venezuela visit, “the purpose of the trip that was taken by administration officials was to discuss a range of issues, including certainly energy, energy security, but also to discuss the health and welfare of detained U.S. citizens,” Psaki said.

The trip has symbolic significance as well, since Venezuela is Russia’s most important ally in South America. Experts said Venezuela is not in a position to ramp up oil production quickly enough to have an immediate impact on gas prices.

“I think this is outreach of convenience, given sky-high pump prices,” said Scott Modell, a managing director at Rapidan Energy Group. “I don’t think it will do all that much even if it succeeds to affect gas prices in the near time.”

In November, the International Criminal Court announced it was opening a formal investigation into the alleged torture and extrajudicial killings of political opponents at the hands of Maduro’s security forces, acts that U.N. investigators have described as “crimes against humanity.” It is the first probe of its kind in Latin America.

In 2020, the top U.N. human rights body released a report documenting how Maduro and his inner circle gave orders and supplied resources for arbitrary detentions, torture, disappearances and extrajudicial killings. The United States has imposed sanctions against the Venezuelan government or Venezuelan individuals for more than 15 years, but significantly tightened them in early 2019, after accusing Maduro of winning the 2018 presidential elections through fraud.

The Trump administration sanctioned Venezuela’s state oil company, the central bank and key government officials, and the United States recognized Juan Guaidó, who was then the president of the country’s National Assembly, as its legitimate president.

Then in August 2019, the United States imposed a total economic embargo. It froze the property and interests of the Maduro government in the United States and prohibited Americans from engaging in transactions with the government.

The sanctions have had a crippling effect on Venezuela’s economy, blocking access to essential services like electricity, housing, water, gas, fuel, medicine and food, according to a 2021 report from a special rapporteur in the U.N. human rights office.

In February 2021, the special rapporteur urged the U.S. government, along with the United Kingdom and Portugal, to unfreeze assets of the Venezuela Central Bank to purchase medicine, vaccines, food, spare parts and other essential goods.

Biden has also had uneasy personal relations with Maduro. As vice president, he publicly accused Maduro of concocting “outlandish conspiracy theories.”

For his part, Maduro has railed against the United States, accusing Biden of trying to create an anti-Venezuelan coalition across South America, and frequently condemning the U.S. sanctions. In a speech before the U.N. General Assembly in 2021, Maduro called it “a ferocious attack against 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 finding more oil supply, it’s not clear that Venezuela has the ability to produce enough oil to bring down prices, even if the United States does relax sanctions.

Before the U.S. sanctions, Venezuela exported between 400,000 to 500,000 barrels of oil per day to the United States, Modell of Rapidan Energy Group said. In a best-case scenario, that could be ramped up to somewhere between 600,000 barrels to 1 million a day in about three months, he said.

“It’s a drop in the bucket of the world market,” said Francisco Monaldi, the director of the Latin America Energy Program at Rice University. “It’s unlikely to make a dent in the price of oil or avoid an increase at the pump for Americans.”

Still, there is reason to believe Venezuelan oil would easily plug into the current system. U.S. refineries in the Gulf Coast were designed to process the heavy oil that comes from Venezuela, Monaldi said.

Monaldi is a member of a “Venezuela working group” of the Atlantic Council, which has been discussing for months ways of exchanging Venezuelan oil for U.S. humanitarian aid. The talks had been moving at an excruciatingly slow pace, he said, given the United States’ insistence that Maduro would have to make major democratic concessions.

Suddenly, that has changed. “I know the world has changed in the last two weeks dramatically,” Monaldi said. “But it’s shocking to see that they seem to be going down there and offering him a carrot.”

As support grows in the United States for a ban on Russian oil, experts note that many purchasers have already stopped buying Russian oil since the invasion, given the uncertainty surrounding its supply. “We’re only getting a trickle at this point of Russian oil because we’re not buying it by choice,” said Paul Bledsoe, a strategic adviser to the Progressive Policy Institute who served as a climate official in the Clinton White House.

President Biden on March 8 banned imports of oil and natural gas from Russia to penalize them for invading Ukraine. (Video: The Washington Post)

Saudi Arabia has the greatest ability to quickly ramp up production, he said. “The Saudis are the classic swing capacity in the global system,” Bledsoe said. But “so far the Saudis have not increased production.”

The difficulty with Saudi Arabia is part of why Biden is turning to Venezuela, Bledsoe said.

But the quality of that country’s oil is not consistent, he said, and Venezuela faces electricity disruptions and problems with civil order. “It seems really tenuous to rely on the Venezuelans to increase oil production enough to really affect global prices in a meaningful way,” Bledsoe added. “So that leads us back to the traditional producers.”

Schmidt reported from Bogotá, Colombia. Herrero reported from Caracas, Venezuela. Tyler Pager and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.