The recent trip to Caracas, Venezuela, by two senior US foreign policy officials is a sign of how much the geopolitical balance could shift in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
National Security Council senior director Juan Gonzalez and head of the Venezuelan affairs department James Story met embattled Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro and his wife on Saturday — for the first time since diplomatic ties between the two countries broke in the year 2019
Coverage of the meeting so far has focused on the possibility that the White House could lift some of the sanctions it has imposed on the Venezuelan oil industry in recent years to replace imports from Russia that US President Joe Biden earlier today had forbidden.
Context: Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world – and in the past much of its crude oil was exported to US refiners.
Venezuelan Oil: Maduro on Monday confirmed Venezuela’s intention to increase its crude oil production, a move that comes as Russia’s oil exports collapse amid sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine.
“We are ready to resume production. One, two or three million barrels, anything! All in the name of peace!” he said.
The American deal is perhaps easier said than done: Oil production in the country is at near historic lows after years of mismanagement and lack of maintenance of oil facilities.
It would take years and billions of dollars in investment to get Venezuela’s oil exports back to where they were, an expert suggests Francisco Monaldi, Director of the Latin American Energy Program at the Baker Institute in Houston. So if the White House needs a short-term solution to lower the price of gas, it can’t come from Venezuela.
Released US Citizens: However, the Venezuelan effort by US officials yielded some immediate results. Venezuela released at least two US citizens late Tuesday, with speculation that it was done as a “show of goodwill” from Maduro (and as part of a possible easing of sanctions) that has yet to happen.
This undated file photo, posted to Twitter by Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza on June 18, 2020, shows CITGO oil executives, left to right, Jose Angel Pereira, Gustavo Cardenas, Jorge Toledo, Jose Luis Zambrano, Tomeu Vadell and Alirio Jose Zambrano . stood in front of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service in Caracas, Venezuela.
Gustavo Cárdenas is a US citizen jailed in Caracas since 2017 and one of six jailed oil executives at US refiner CITGO. Later, Jorge Alberto Fernandez, a Cuban-American dual citizen who had been imprisoned in Venezuela since February 2021, was released from prison. It does not belong to the so-called “CITGO 6”.
The Caracas trip signals intentions that the White House may be ready to change its relationship with Venezuela in the long term. That’s because Caracas has grown much closer to Moscow under Maduro’s rule.
But it’s a high-stakes bet: Maduro has pulled out of negotiations before – and if it doesn’t work out, Biden will likely pay a political price.