By Lara Jakes and Anatoly Kurmanaev
The Biden administration said Tuesday it would slightly loosen the crippling economic sanctions against Venezuela’s government to help restart stagnant talks between President Nicolás Maduro and opposition leaders aimed at easing the country’s political and humanitarian crisis.
Senior U.S. officials said resumption of the negotiations were expected to be announced by Venezuelan officials later earlier this week.
To entice Maduro back to the negotiating table, the Biden administration said it would permit discussions between his government and Chevron, the last major American oil company with significant operations in Venezuela. Under current sanctions, Chevron is prohibited from doing business with the Venezuelan government and is only allowed to carry out essential maintenance work in the country.
The U.S. Treasury will also remove sanctions on Carlos Eric Malpica, a former Venezuelan state oil official and nephew of the first lady, Cilia Flores, according to a Venezuelan opposition official familiar with the talks, who discussed the policy change on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
Briefing reporters in Washington, a senior Biden administration official downplayed the benefits that Maduro could derive from the relaxation of sanctions. The official discussed the policy change Tuesday on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized by the White House to speak on the record. The official said Chevron would be granted a license that would only allow the company to discuss future activities with Venezuelan officials and that such activities would not generate any revenue for Maduro’s government.
The official also warned that even that tiny concession would be yanked back should Maduro’s government renege on good-faith efforts to negotiate with political opponents led by the former National Assembly leader, Juan Guaidó, whom the United States considers Venezuela’s legitimate interim president.
The opposition’s main demand is a free and fair presidential election, which is scheduled to take place in 2024.
The Biden administration agreed to the sanctions relief at the specific request of the Venezuelan opposition, according to the senior official. The opposition said the request came directly from Maduro, according to the Venezuelan opposition official.
The Venezuelan information ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Maduro has steadily consolidated power in Venezuela after winning reelection in 2018 in a vote considered fraudulent by the United States. As his power grew, his incentive to negotiate a political deal with the weakened opposition waned.
The authoritarian president scrapped the last round of talks in October, after the United States took into custody a Venezuela-based businessman who helped the government bypass sanctions.
The small sanctions concessions follow a rare trip by senior Biden administration officials to Caracas in March, which led to the release of two American prisoners held by Maduro’s government. Eight more U.S. citizens remain imprisoned in Venezuela.
It remains unclear whether the administration’s limited allowances will be enough to entice Maduro to offer meaningful political concessions to the opposition. Chevron and other oil companies in Venezuela remain banned from selling oil to the U.S.; dozens of other senior Venezuelan officials, including Maduro, remain under sanctions.
Delcy Rodríguez, a top senior official and ally of Maduro, in a Twitter post Tuesday implied that the sanction deal was broader than what was announced by the White House, and would allow foreign oil companies to restart operations in Venezuela.
The senior Biden administration official urged Venezuelan negotiators to create conditions for free and fair national elections as quickly as possible. Time is running out for the Biden administration, which is facing midterm elections in the United States in November that could put Republicans in control of Congress — potentially blocking the White House’s policy priorities, including in Venezuela.
The White House’s outreach to Maduro in March was criticized by both prominent Republicans and Democrats in Congress, who argued that the move gave legitimacy to one of the most authoritarian governments in the Western Hemisphere.
On Tuesday, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, attacked the latest concessions and said the Biden administration had “decided to capitulate” to Maduro’s corrupt and repressive government.
The loosening of sanctions on Venezuela follows the Biden administration’s announcement this week that it was easing some restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba, another authoritarian state.
With the world’s largest proven oil reserves, Venezuela had long been a power in international oil markets. But in recent years, its oil production crashed under the weight of debts, corruption, mismanagement and finally U.S. sanctions in 2019.
The country’s oil fields and refineries are in disrepair and could badly use technical support from western companies like Chevron.
Once closely tied to U.S. energy companies, Venezuela now relies on financial and other support from Russia, China and Iran.