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The U.S. renews talks with oil-rich Venezuela after banning Russian oil imports


Gas prices in the United States continued to rise, and a ban on Russian oil is adding to the squeeze at the pump. As the Biden administration looks for ways to ease those costs at home, it's turned its attention to an oil-producing country that has faced heavy U.S. sanctions for years, Venezuela. Senior White House officials traveled to Caracas last week for a meeting with Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro, raising questions about the potential for future cooperation between the two countries. Diego Area is deputy director of strategic development at the Atlantic Council and joins us now. Good morning. Thanks for being with us.

DIEGO AREA: Thank you for inviting me. Happy to be here today.

ELLIOTT: So let's put this meeting into context, OK? The U.S. does not recognize Maduro as the president of Venezuela. Help us understand that relationship. How did we get to this point?

AREA: So in 2015, legislative elections were supposed to happen, and the opposition parties won two-thirds of the seats. And then just Maduro started looking for ways to dissolve the powers of the newly democratically elected legislative power. And in parallel, in the U.S., Donald Trump took office and started a maximum pressure strategy towards Venezuela, aiming to achieve regime change in the country. The U.S. started imposing economic sanctions over the Venezuelan economy in the - center in oil. And the peak of the tensions happened on 2019 when, invoking the Venezuela Constitution, Juan Guaido was sworn as interim president of Venezuela, president of the National Assembly, as well.

ELLIOTT: And that's the president that the United States recognizes, correct?

AREA: That is correct.

ELLIOTT: So what do last week's developments mean for the two countries? Is this about opening a more direct path to Venezuela's rich oil reserves?

AREA: So this is a multidimensional situation. One of the things for the U.S. to gain, I would say, is to deter or prevent further foreign - I'm thinking about Russia and Chinese influence in Venezuela but also other powers like Cuba and Iran. So it has a geostrategic importance now more than ever.

ELLIOTT: So Venezuela released two Americans it had detained following last week's meeting, but there are others. Do you think this could signal an opportunity to negotiate for the release of other U.S. citizens who are being held there?

AREA: Yes, I would say that this signals that there is openness for new concessions that can end in the release of more and more and more prisoners and more conditions and start rethinking incrementally going back to democracy in the country.

ELLIOTT: Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, including, I might add, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have come out very strongly against any measures that might ease sanctions on Venezuela. We're hearing especially from members of Congress in Florida. Can you talk to us a little bit about why that is and why Florida might be key in the decision-making here?

AREA: We have learned in the past how impactful and influential a diaspora community can be in U.S. politics. The same is happening with Venezuelans, with an increased presence of Venezuelans in Florida. So as you said, there has been opposition in Congress because the narrative center in an energy agreement that will mean easing sanctions towards the regime and that will signal that the U.S. is changing the policy of pressure over the dictator that is violating human rights, incredible amounts of corruption. Florida politics are right now what drive U.S. policy towards Venezuela specifically and historically towards Latin America. But in the current context, the national interest of the U.S. is to promote energy security, and that means open new spaces, new markets, new suppliers of oil with a potential escalation of the Russia conflict.

ELLIOTT: But don't some of these members of Congress have a point when they say, you know, how is the U.S. going to justify easing sanctions on one authoritarian government while it's imposing new sanctions on another? Isn't that a bit of a mixed message?

AREA: One hundred percent, and that's a big dilemma that the administration has right now because Maduro's violations of human rights, grip on power, disrespect for democratic institutions - but at the same point, it is an opportunity also. Beyond the moral dilemma, this brings an opportunity for the U.S. to promote democratic restoration in the country. And when thinking about the future and putting this in context, if the current political stalemate remains, what we're going to see is an increased wave of Venezuelan migrants going through the whole region, more vulnerable population in Venezuela suffering the humanitarian complex crisis, et cetera. So diplomacy, dialogue and trying to take strategic advantage of the global context, I think, is the right way forward.

ELLIOTT: That's Diego Area, deputy director of strategic development at the Atlantic Council. Thanks for speaking with us.

AREA: Thank you, Debbie. Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESSE COOK'S "BOGOTA BY BUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.