Senior US officials have flown to Venezuela for rare talks with Nicolás Maduro’s government in an apparent bid to prise the South American country away from its Russian backers after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
White House and state department negotiators met Maduro representatives in Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, on Saturday in what was the first such encounter in years.
Citing anonymous US officials, the New York Times claimed the Biden administration was motivated partly by concern that Russia’s Latin American allies – which include the authoritarian regimes in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela – could become “security threats” if the geopolitical clash with Putin escalated.
Others speculated that the US saw Venezuelan oil as a potential substitute for Russian imports were it to slap sanctions on Moscow as a result of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves and its output is currently growing despite US sanctions imposed at the height of the 2019 attempt to topple Maduro.
Reuters said no agreement was reached at Saturday’s talks. However, some experts believe the encounter could signal a significant shift in US policy towards the country, which has been plunged into humanitarian and political crisis since Maduro took power in 2013.
Christopher Sabatini, a senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, said the US’s precise objectives were unclear, although damaging Russian interests and multi-billion dollar investments in Venezuela was likely to be high on the list.
“Clearly, they want to really try to blunt Russia’s influence in the hemisphere. They don’t want any projections of power,” Sabatini said, adding: “This is also an opportunity to get the US private sector back into Venezuela and squeeze out the Russians.”
The US cut diplomatic ties with Maduro in 2019 as Donald Trump’s White House backed an ultimately unsuccessful push to drive him from power by recognising a young opposition politician, Juan Guaidó, as president and attempting to provoke a military uprising.
Maduro clung to power in large part thanks to continued economic support from China, Iran and Russia.
Recent months have seen growing hints that the US is changing tack on Venezuela under Biden, although officials insist there will be no sudden lifting of sanctions they say are intended to help restore Venezuelan democracy.
In an interview with the Americas Quarterly podcast last week, Biden’s top adviser on Latin America, Juan Gonzalez, said the US would continue to recognise Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful leader. However, Gonzalez left no doubt the new administration had ditched the Trump era effort to overthrow Maduro.
“Whereas the previous administration’s theory of change was based on regime collapse, ours is more on the need to recognise that only a negotiation will lead to concrete and sustainable change in Venezuela towards democratic order,” Gonzalez said.
Revealingly, even influential conservative voices who once championed Maduro’s downfall are changing their tune. “We need to rethink everything right now –including not allowing Russia to cozy up to countries near us!” the former Fox Business presenter Trish Regan tweeted on Sunday.
Regan added: “It’s not just US officials meeting in Venezuela right now – it’s also key executives from MAJOR US oil companies, including Chevron. This is real, folks. If agreements are reached, we will replace Putin’s oil with massive reserves from Orinoco region of Venezuela.”
Sabatini said the risk of US efforts to remake its relations with Maduro’s Venezuela was that issues such as human rights and democracy “could get squeezed in the name of realpolitik”.
“That would be tragic given the situation in Venezuela … so it’s going to be a delicate diplomatic balance.”