Days after a secret weekend visit to Caracas by top Biden administration officials, two Americans long detained there were released — a surprising development with a country whose leader, Nicolas Maduro, is not even currently recognized as its president by the United States.
While not many details are known about the talks, the White House has said that energy security was also part of conversations.
It’s a sign of a potential thaw in tensions with Venezuela — which happens to be Russia’s top ally in Latin America. And it comes as the White House, which banned imports of Russian oil, looks for ways to take the edge off record gasoline prices.
While it’s too early to say what this will mean for future relations, it’s a significant step as the White House looks for more ways to isolate Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
For Russia, “to see one of its more closer and more trusted partners in South America having direct discussions with the U.S. government can only be a matter of concern,” Kevin Whitaker, a former U.S. ambassador to Colombia who also served as a diplomat in Venezuela, told reporters on a briefing call.
The talks led to the release of two Americans from prison
There are a number of Americans currently held in Venezuela. Late Tuesday, the White House announced that it had secured the release of two of them:
- Gustavo Cárdenas, one of six executives of gas company Citgo arrested during a 2017 work trip and later charged with corruption
- Jorge Alberto Fernández, a Cuban American man arrested on separate charges last year
“These men are fathers who lost precious time with their children and everyone they love, and their families have suffered every day of their absence,” President Biden said in a statement. “And even as we celebrate the return of Cardenas and Fernandez, we also remember the names and the stories of every American who is being unjustly held against their will—in Venezuela, in Russia, in Afghanistan, Syria, China, Iran, and elsewhere around the world.”
Jae C. Hong/AP
The U.S. cut diplomatic ties with Caracas years ago
Venezuela has some of the largest oil reserves in the world and used to export a significant portion to the United States.
But that stopped with sanctions aimed at punishing Maduro for human rights abuses and undermining democracy. Caracas has since become closely tied to Moscow, particularly when it comes to selling its oil.
Restarting trade would be complicated, given that the United States does not recognize Maduro as the Venezuelan president. He’s also been indicted in the United States on drug trafficking charges.
There are also politics involved. In some of South Florida’s Latin American communities, what the Biden administration is doing is seen as hypocritical.
The democratic aspirations of the Venezuelan people, like the resolve & courage of the people of Ukraine, are worth much more than a few barrels of oil. My statement on the Admin’s reported talks with VZ breathing new life into Maduro’s reign of torture: https://t.co/3U4x6nGsLP
— Senate Foreign Relations Committee (@SFRCdems) March 8, 2022
Eddy Acevedo, who served as the national security adviser for the U.S. Agency for International Development during the Trump administration, says negotiating with Maduro is wrong.
“It does undermine President Biden’s notion here about being strong against dictators,” said Acevedo, who is now at the Wilson Center. “You cannot be inconsistent on that and try to punish Putin and reward Maduro at the same time.”
Acevedo said that even if the White House wanted Venezuela wanted to fill the void left by Russia, it would not be able to. Despite sitting on large oil reserves, production has dropped tremendously during Maduro’s tenure and is a fraction of what is produced by Russia.
Russia has worked to expand its influence in Latin America
The United States is also concerned about Russia’s expanding influence in Latin America. Putin already has close relations with Cuba and Nicaragua – though both countries declined to vote against a United Nations resolution condemning Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. (Venezuela, which has fallen behind on its UN dues, did n0t have a vote.)
Just weeks before invading Ukraine, Putin hosted the presidents of Argentina and Brazil in Moscow.
Eric Farnsworth, a former State Department official now at the Council of Americas, says Russia’s focus is less about the region and more about causing problems for the United States.
“At the end of the day, I would maintain that Russia doesn’t really care that much about the Western Hemisphere at all,” he said. “Rather, it’s a region that Russia believes that if it can sow some instability and volatility that will negatively impact U.S. interests.”
Biden will meet with Colombian President Iván Duque at the White House
The White House is pushing back. On Thursday, Biden will host Colombian President Iván Duque at the White House.
Colombia is the United States’ closest ally in the region. It also has a special relationship with NATO.
Duque has been one of the more outspoken leaders against the invasion of Ukraine and the dangers of Russian influence. It’s a message the United States would clearly like to see spread across the region.
“President Duque has been particularly outspoken on the linkages between Russia and certain countries of the region, especially Venezuela,” Whitaker told reporters, noting Duque has said Moscow’s move “not only goes against the interests of Colombia directly, but could represent a threat more broadly in the hemisphere by giving Russia a platform from which to act.”
However, Duque’s energy minister warned against the idea of working with Venezuela on oil. In an interview with The Financial Times, Diego Mesa said: “If you’ve just banned oil from what they call the Russian dictator, it’s difficult to explain why are you going to be buying oil from the Venezuelan dictator.”
Armed police and an ambulance are seen outside the Field’s shopping center in Oresta…