Senior US officials will travel to Venezuela on Saturday to meet with President Nicolás Maduro’s administration, according to people familiar with the matter, as the Biden administration ramps up its efforts to separate Russia from its remaining international allies amid an ever-growing deadlock over Ukraine.
The trip is Washington officials’ highest visit to Venezuela’s capital Caracas in years. The United States severed diplomatic ties with Maduro and closed its embassy in Caracas in 2019 after accusing the authoritarian leader of electoral fraud. The Trump administration then attempted to overthrow Maduro’s government by imposing sanctions on Venezuelan oil exports and the country’s senior officials, and by recognizing the opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, as Venezuela’s legitimate president.
Maduro responded to the sanctions by seeking economic and diplomatic help from Russia, as well as from Iran and China. According to US officials, Venezuelan officials and businessmen, Russian energy companies and banks have helped Venezuela continue to export oil, the country’s largest source of foreign currency, despite the sanctions.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted the United States to pay closer attention to President Vladimir V. Putin’s allies in Latin America, which Washington says could become security threats if the standoff with Russia deepens, according to current and former US officials discussed the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive policy issues.
As the Russian economy collapses, the US is seizing an opportunity to advance its agenda among Latin American autocracies that may come to view Mr Putin as an increasingly weak ally.
As the US and its allies began considering sanctions on Russian oil and gas exports this month to punish the country for the devastation in Ukraine, prominent voices linked to both major US political parties pointed to Venezuela as a possible replacement. .
Well-connected Republicans have been involved in talks about restarting the oil business, including Scott Taylor, a former Republican congressman from Virginia who is working with Robert Stryk, a Washington lobbyist who briefly registered to overthrow Mr. Maduro’s regime. Represent 2020 and connect with people around it.
Taylor said he spoke Friday evening with a Venezuelan businessman who indicated that Maduro’s team would like to rejoin the United States.
“We must seize this opportunity to achieve a diplomatic victory and a wedge between Russia and Venezuela,” he said in a statement.
Trish Regan, a former Fox Business host and conservative media personality, called for an alliance with Venezuela to push Russian oil from the US market.
“Venezuela has THE largest source of oil reserves to date, which are we giving to the Chinese and Russians?” she wrote on Twitter on Friday.
Shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Yuri Borisov, Russia’s deputy prime minister, traveled to Caracas to meet with Mr. Maduro’s officials. Maduro has spoken with Putin by phone at least twice in the past month, according to statements by both governments.
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It is unclear how long the US delegation, which includes senior State Department and White House officials, will remain in Caracas or who the group will meet with. Spokespersons for Maduro and the State Department and National Security Council in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.
Before the US imposed sanctions, Venezuela sent most of its oil to the US Gulf Coast, whose refineries were built specifically to process Venezuela’s heavy grades of crude oil.
If the United States curtails Russian oil imports, Venezuela could replace some of its lost supplies, said Francisco Monaldi, a Venezuelan energy expert at Rice University in Houston.
Mr Maduro seemed open to discussing oil deals with the United States.
“Here lies Venezuela’s oil, available to those who want to produce and buy it, be it an investor from Asia, Europe or the United States,” he said in a public speech on Thursday.
Maduro and other Russian allies in Latin America are beginning to distance themselves from the war in Ukraine. Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba abstained or did not vote on the two resolutions proposed this week at the United Nations to condemn Russian aggression, and the leaders of Venezuela and Cuba have called for a diplomatic solution to the crisis .
Sheyla Urdaneta contributed reporting from Maracaibo, Venezuela.