The potential thaw comes 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 detained in the country, including six oil managers from Citgo.
The Citgo 6 were interviewed by the US delegation, according to a person with direct knowledge of the case, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss closed negotiations. According to the person, the visit was coordinated by the Maduro government. A US diplomat met with some of the detainees in December.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Monday declined to comment on whether the need to boost oil supplies was worth restoring a relationship that was largely severed after Maduro’s 2019 rise to power.
“I think it’s a leap forward,” said Psaki. She insisted that talks about the prisoners, which also include two ex-Green Berets and a former Marine, were not intertwined with discussions about easing sanctions, but ran in parallel.
The decision to extend even a very tepid hand to Venezuela comes with political risk for President Biden and the Democrats. More than 200,000 Venezuelans live in Florida, including many who recently fled the regime and have settled in Florida, a historically important political state.
Biden’s critics quickly struck. “I think it’s gross,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said in an interview. “He’s a dictator. He murders his own citizens. He’s starving citizens. He stole everything. He stole democracy.”
Scott, who directs the Republican campaign operation in the Senate, said Biden could lose credibility with voters who have migrated from places like Nicaragua and Cuba and relate to the suffering Venezuelans have been going through. “They lost all their freedoms because of this stuff,” Scott said.
It wasn’t just Republicans who eclipsed Biden’s move. Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), who was once considered 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 benefit from any deal.”
But while Biden works to isolate Russia — in large part by imposing sanctions restricting its energy sales — his team is painfully aware of soaring domestic gas prices and is scouting other potential suppliers globally.
Regarding the visit to Venezuela, “the purpose of the trip, undertaken by administration officials, was to discuss a range of issues, including certainly energy, energy security, but also the health and welfare of detained US citizens,” said Psaki.
The trip also has symbolic significance, as Venezuela is Russia’s most important ally in South America. Experts say Venezuela is unable to ramp up oil production fast enough to have an immediate impact on gas prices.
“I think that’s an overstatement of convenience given the sky-high pump prices,” said Scott Modell, a managing director of Rapidan Energy Group. “I don’t think it will do much, even if it manages to influence gas prices anytime soon.”
In November, the International Criminal Court announced that it would open a formal investigation into alleged torture and extrajudicial killings of political opponents by Maduro’s security forces, acts UN investigators have described as “crimes against humanity”. It is the first such probe in Latin America.
In 2020, the UN’s top human rights body released a report documenting how Maduro and his inner circle issued orders and provided resources for arbitrary detention, torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. The United States has imposed sanctions on 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 election by fraud.
The Trump administration sanctioned Venezuela’s state oil company, central bank and key government officials, and the United States recognized Juan Guaidó, then 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 Maduro government’s property and interests in the United States and prohibited Americans from doing business with the government.
The sanctions have had a crippling effect on Venezuela’s economy, blocking access to essential services such as electricity, housing, water, gas, fuel, medicine and food, according to a 2021 report by a special rapporteur at the UN human rights office.
In February 2021, the Special Rapporteur called on the US government, along with the UK and Portugal, to release Venezuelan central bank assets to buy medicines, vaccines, food, spare parts and other essential items.
Biden also had awkward personal ties with Maduro. As vice president, he publicly accused Maduro of inventing “outlandish conspiracy theories.”
For his part, Maduro has lashed out at the United States, accusing Biden of trying to form an anti-Venezuelan coalition across South America and frequently condemning US sanctions. In a speech to the UN General Assembly in 2021, Maduro called it “a ferocious attack on the right to buy what our country needs and the right to sell what our country produces, especially the big oil and mining wealth”.
But if Biden’s main goal is to find more oil supplies, it’s not clear whether Venezuela will be able to produce enough oil to bring prices down even if the United States eases sanctions.
Before US sanctions, Venezuela exported between 400,000 and 500,000 barrels of oil per day to the United States, Rapidan Energy Group’s Modell said. In the best-case scenario, that could increase to 600,000 to 1 million barrels a day in about three months, he said.
“This is a drop in the bucket of global markets,” said Francisco Monaldi, director of the Latin American Energy Program at Rice University. “Oil prices are unlikely to take a dip or avoid a hike at the pump for Americans.”
Still, there is reason to believe that Venezuelan oil would easily fit into the current system. U.S. refineries on the Gulf Coast were being developed to process Venezuela-derived heavy oil, Monaldi said.
Monaldi is a member of an Atlantic Council “Venezuela Working Group” that has been discussing ways to trade Venezuelan oil for US humanitarian aid for months. Talks have progressed at an unbearably slow pace, he said, as the United States insisted Maduro must make major democratic concessions.
Suddenly that changed. “I know the world has changed dramatically in the last two weeks,” said Monaldi. “But it’s shocking to see that they seem to go over there and offer him a carrot.”
As support for a ban on Russian oil grows in the United States, experts are noting that many buyers have already stopped buying Russian oil since the invasion due to uncertain supplies. “We’re just getting a trickle of Russian oil right now because we don’t buy it voluntarily,” said Paul Bledsoe, a strategic adviser at the Progressive Policy Institute who served as climate commissioner at the Clinton White House.
Saudi Arabia has the greatest ability to ramp up production quickly, he said. “The Saudis are the classic swing capacity in the global system,” Bledsoe said. But “so far, the Saudis have not increased production.”
Difficulties with Saudi Arabia are one of the reasons Biden is turning to Venezuela, Bledsoe said.
But the quality of that country’s oil is not consistent, he said, and Venezuela faces power cuts and civil order problems. “Relying on Venezuelans to increase oil production enough to really affect global prices in any meaningful way seems really flimsy,” Bledsoe added. “So that takes us back to traditional growers.”
Schmidt reported from Bogotá, Colombia. Herrero reported from Caracas, Venezuela. Tyler Pager and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.