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US plans more talks with Maduro on releasing other Americans detained in Venezuela

President of Venezuela Nicolas Maduro speaks during a press conference at Miraflores Government Palace on March 12, 2020 in Caracas, Venezuela. (Photo by Carolina Cabral/Getty Images/TNS)

The Biden administration plans to continue talking with President Nicolás Maduro on “a range of issues,” including the release of more Americans being detained in Venezuela, the White House said on Wednesday.

Maduro released two Americans Tuesday evening after U.S. officials met with him last weekend. The State Department worked quietly for months to set the stage for the release of Gustavo Cardenas, an oil executive with Citgo, and Jorge Fernandez, a Cuban-American tourist, from Venezuelan prisons. Eight Americans remain in custody there.

The direct engagement between the two governments came three years after the United States severed diplomatic ties with Venezuela over Maduro’s crackdown on democratic institutions. The talks have faced criticism from Venezuelan opposition as well as U.S. lawmakers.

“We will continue to discuss a range of issues, including first and foremost Americans unjustly held,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. “Those are conversations we are always going to want to engage in.”

The weekend talks were also focused on energy as gas prices soar for U.S. consumers after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Since President Putin began his military buildup on Ukrainian borders, the price of gas at the pump in America has gone up 75 cents, which is significant,” Psaki said.

“We need to ensure the supply meets the demand out there in the marketplace,” she said. “Obviously, we’re engaging with big global oil producers around the world to meet that demand.”

President Joe Biden announced on Tuesday that the United States would stop importing oil from Russia.

Venezuela holds the world’s largest oil reserves — and wants U.S. sanctions relief on its oil sector to allow outside investment to ramp up its production capacity. The country can currently produce roughly 600,000 barrels of oil a day, a fraction of Russia’s output and of U.S. demand.

Most of Venezuela’s current production is committed to China and Cuba, and to provide oil to the United States some of those shipments would have to be redirected, said Francisco Monaldi, an expert on Venezuelan energy at Rice University in Houston.

Venezuela’s opposition, led by Juan Guaidó, has criticized the talks, with one high-ranking member of his team telling the Miami Herald that it would be “foolish” of Biden to think that he could reach a deal on Venezuelan oil without compromising the democratic movement.

The United States and a number of European and Latin American countries recognize Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela, but the meeting in Caracas was held without his team being consulted.

The talks were also criticized by some U.S. lawmakers who have denounced the Maduro regime for years.

Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, told reporters that the dialogue initiated during the weekend in essence cut the opposition’s legs from under them.

“By dealing directly with Maduro you are stripping the opposition of all the power and all the legitimacy that it still has,” Rubio said, describing the talks as a devastating blow for Guaidó.

And it would be worse if an agreement is actually reached, he said, because “it would condemn the Venezuelan people to a whole generation or more of a Marxist narco dictatorship.”

Rep. Gregory Meeks, a Democrat from New York and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, endorsed the lifting of U.S. sanctions on Wednesday.

“We now have a real opportunity to advance meaningful negotiations between President Maduro and the opposition. It is important for the United States to be a credible interlocutor,” Meeks said.

“The Biden administration should take the necessary steps to suspend oil sanctions on Venezuela in support of negotiations,” he added, “while maintaining necessary pressure on human rights violators and corrupt actors in Venezuela through individual sanctions.”

Speaking with reporters ahead of the visit of Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez to the White House, a senior administration official said that decisions on oil are “being considered on a much broader level” and that no commitments were made to Venezuela.

“Frankly, diplomatic outreach regardless of whether or not we like a leader or the leader’s been democratically elected, is really fundamental toward advancing our national security interests,” the U.S. official said.

The administration insists that it has kept talks on oil and freeing Americans separate, and will continue to do so.

“At no point was there an offer in exchange for detained Americans,” the official added. “At no point would we do that. It would certainly risk the Americans that are currently detained and send a signal around the world that the United States is going to barter oil for people, which frankly is wrong.”

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