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Venezuela’s authoritarian government released at least two jailed Americans on Tuesday, a potential turning point in the Biden administration’s relationship with Russia’s staunchest ally in the Western Hemisphere.
The release follows a rare trip by a high-level U.S. delegation to Venezuela over the weekend to meet with President Nicolás Maduro, part of a broader Biden administration program in autocratic countries that could rethink their ties with President Vladimir V. Putin in stride. of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Talks with Venezuela, which has huge proven oil reserves, took on new urgency after President Biden announced on Tuesday that the United States would ban Russian oil and gas imports because of the invasion. The move is expected to further tighten the availability of crude oil on the world market and could raise gasoline prices at a time when inflation has soared to its fastest pace in 40 years.
“It’s a step we’re taking to inflict more pain on Putin, but there will also be costs here in the United States,” Biden said of the Russian oil ban.
US officials have said the release of the prisoners is not part of a deal with Venezuela to restart oil sales to the United States, which were banned under the Trump administration. For weeks, American businessmen who have worked in Venezuela have had behind-the-scenes talks about resuming US oil trade with Mr Maduro’s government.
Venezuela could potentially help make up some of the shortfall caused by the Russian oil ban. But industry experts have warned that Venezuelan oil supplies will do little to bring U.S. gas prices and inflation under control quickly. Raising the country’s production may take time after years of mismanagement and underinvestment that have decimated the country’s energy sector.
Prominent members of Congress have also spoken out against efforts to unfreeze relations with Maduro, whose government has been accused by the United Nations of systematic human rights abuses.
“Nicolás Maduro is a cancer for our hemisphere and we should not breathe new life into his reign of torture and murder,” Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Monday. in a press release.
The freed men are Gustavo Cárdenas, an executive with the US branch of Venezuela’s national oil company who was arrested in 2017, and Jorge Alberto Fernández, Biden said in a statement.
“These men are fathers who lost precious time with their children and everyone they love, and their families suffered every day of their absence,” he said, adding: “We also remember the names and stories of every American who is wrongfully detained against their will – in Venezuela, Russia, Afghanistan, Syria, China, Iran and elsewhere in the world.
Mr. Fernández, a Cuban-American, was a tourist charged with terrorism for bringing a drone to Venezuela in February 2021, according to his lawyer.
At least eight other American nationals are still imprisoned in Caracas on charges ranging from embezzlement to terrorism.
The purpose of the US officials’ visit to Venezuela was to discuss “energy security” and the status of imprisoned Americans, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said at a press conference.
Maduro said he received the US delegation at the presidential palace and described the meeting as “respectful, cordial, very diplomatic”. Talks, he said, would continue. He also said he would resume talks with the country’s opposition.
The Venezuelan government wants to resume oil sales to the United States to take advantage of high oil prices and replace revenue from the trade channels it has built through the Russian financial system that have been frozen by Western nations to punish the Russian aggression against Ukraine, according to officials and oil businessmen of the country.
Selling directly to the United States would also allow Mr Maduro to take full advantage of the highest oil prices in more than a decade, instead of selling the crude at a very favorable price to a network of middlemen used to circumvent the US ban, they said.
Prior to the ban, Venezuela exported most of its oil to the United States, whose Gulf refineries were built to process the country’s heavy crude.
In 2017, Venezuelan security forces arrested six executives of Citgo Petroleum, the US subsidiary of the national oil company, after the Maduro government summoned them to meetings in Caracas. The State Department said all six detainees were US nationals.
The leaders were charged with financial crimes and imprisoned. Their former boss, Nelson Martínez, the boss of the national oil company, was arrested shortly after them and died in custody a year later.
The leaders’ families and their lawyers say the men, known as Citgo 6, are innocent and were lured to Caracas to be used by Mr Maduro as pawns in his negotiations with the US .
Venezuela’s treatment of the leadership varied as U.S.-Venezuela relations warmed and cooled. Sometimes the detainees were held in prison, other times under house arrest. Since last year, they have been held in a single cell in Venezuela’s secret police underground prison, where the United Nations has documented irregularities and human rights abuses in the case of at least one of them. one of them.
Among the other Americans detained in Venezuela is Matthew Heath, a Navy veteran who was detained in Falcon state in northern Venezuela in 2020. The Venezuelan government claims he was spying on critical infrastructure. Mr. Heath’s family and the US government said he was innocent and being held on account of his nationality.
Two other Americans still in detention, former special forces operatives Airan Berry and Luke Denman, were arrested in 2020 after trying to invade Venezuela by boat as part of a failed plot to overthrow Mr Maduro.
The Trump administration severed diplomatic ties with Venezuela in 2019, closing the US embassy in Caracas and imposing a ban on Venezuelan oil. A year later, the Justice Department indicted Maduro and more than a dozen other Venezuelan officials on drug trafficking charges, accusing them of facilitating cocaine shipments to the United States.
Mariana Martinez and Isayen Herrera contributed reporting from Caracas, Venezuela.