US officials back in Venezuela in a bid to rebuild ties

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Senior U.S. government officials have quietly traveled to Caracas in the latest bid to bring home detained Americans and rebuild relations with the South American oil giant as the war in Ukraine drags on, forcing the U.S. to recalibrate other foreign policy objectives.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson described the trip as a welfare visit focused on the safety of several U.S. citizens detained in Caracas, including a group of oil executives from Houston-based Citgo jailed more than four years ago. The delegation includes Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy on hostage affairs, as well as Ambassador James Story, who heads the U.S. government’s Venezuelan Affairs Unit out of neighboring Colombia.

President Nicolás Maduro confirmed the visit during televised remarks.

″(National Assembly President) Jorge Rodríguez is receiving a delegation from the United States government at this time, an important delegation from the United States government, that arrived in Venezuela two hours ago and is working to give continuity to the communications that began on March 5 and to give continuity to the bilateral agenda between the government of the United States and the government of Venezuela,” he said.

Maduro was referring to another surprise trip in March by Carstens, Story and Juan Gonzalez, the National Security Council director for the Western Hemisphere. That was the first White House trip to the county in more than two decades.

That trip resulted in the release of two U.S. citizens who were considered unjustly detained and a promise from Maduro to re-engage in the dialogue process with his opponents. Months earlier, he had suspended the negotiations, led by Norwegian diplomats in Mexico, after a key ally was extradited to the U.S. on money-laundering charges.

It’s unclear what else the officials are seeking to accomplish during the mission to the country against which the U.S. has imposed severe economic sanctions.

Upon arrival in Caracas, Story met for two hours with Juan Guaidó, according to someone close to the leader of the U.S.-backed opposition. The two discussed efforts to jumpstart negotiations in Mexico, according to the person on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private meeting.

Since the March trip, both the Biden administration and Venezuela’s socialist government have shown a willingness to engage after years of hostilities between Washington and Caracas over Maduro’s 2018 re-election, which was marred by irregularities. The U.S. and other nations withdrew recognition of Maduro after that election, and instead, they consider Guaido Venezuela’s legitimate leader.

Although negotiations between Maduro and the opposition have yet to resume, the U.S. then renewed a license so that oil companies, including Chevron, could continue to perform only basic upkeep of wells they operate jointly with Venezuela’s state-run oil giant PDVSA.

The White House has also given Chevron an exemption to negotiate the terms of its license with PDVSA and lifted sanctions imposed in 2017 targeting the nephew of First Lady Cilia Flores, who at the time was accused of facilitating corruption while a top official at state run oil giant PDVSA.

The trip follows a public plea to the Biden administration from the family of Matthew Heath, a former U.S. Marine who was arrested nearly two years ago on what the U.S. considers trumped-up terror charges. The family earlier this month called on the administration to take urgent action to save Heath’s life following what they said was a suicide attempt, which AP has been unable to verify.

Maduro during his televised remarks Monday alluded to remarks from a French official to reporters during the gathering of the Group of Seven leaders regarding necessary efforts to diversify oil supplies, including getting Venezuelan oil flowing, as the war in Ukraine drags on and gas prices continue to climb.

Venezuela has the world’s largest proven oil reserves. Last decade, however, it began experiencing a drastic drop in production of crude oil and refined products as a result of a drop in prices , mismanagement and economic sanctions. Its presence in the world market is currently marginal.

But oil has risen by more than 50% so far this year, fueled by the war in Ukraine and sanctions against Russia, generating major inflationary concerns internationally.

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Goodman reported from Cleveland, Ohio.

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