On Saturday, March 5, a group of high-level U.S. officials embarked on a high-profile visit to Caracas to meet with Venezuela’s de facto leader Nicolás Maduro, as well as relevant figures in Venezuela’s opposition. The visit included at least three officials from the Biden administration: presidential advisor Juan Gonzalez, U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela Jimmy Story, and Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens. While little is known about the delegation’s agenda, press reports suggest that they met with Nicolás Maduro, First Lady Cilia Flores, and National Assembly leader and head of the government negotiating team Jorge Rodríguez, and spoke separately with Juan Guaidó and chief opposition negotiator Gerardo Blyde. The delegation also reportedly visited El Helicoide prison, where several U.S. citizens are detained. The visit to Venezuela was the first by a high-level delegation of U.S. officials in nearly six years.

Following the officials’ visit to Caracas, there were two important developments: During a televised address on March 7, Maduro announced that he would return to dialogue with the opposition, a move which has been welcomed and publicly encouraged by the Biden administration. The following day, the Maduro government released two U.S. citizens previously detained in Venezuela, Gustavo Cárdenas and Jorge Alberto Fernández, who have since been reunited with their families in the U.S.

Early reports suggested that the purpose of the visit was to isolate Venezuela from longtime ally Russia and pursue options to alleviate sanctions on Venezuelan oil amid Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine. In the days following the visit, however, the Biden administration has said that sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector will not be lifted until meaningful progress is made at the negotiating table between the Maduro government and the Unitary Platform in the framework of the Mexico City dialogue, which has been suspended since October. In an interview on March 13, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated that “any sanctions relief that we provide, as was true in the last administration and is true in this administration, has to be tied to concrete steps that Maduro and the people around him take.” And following speculation that the release of the two U.S. citizens was linked to a broader arrangement to alleviate sanctions on Venezuela, an administration official said in a press call on March 9 that “on the issue of quid pro quo, there was none…at no point was there an offer for oil in exchange for the detention of Americans.”

The visit has met criticism from both Democratic and Republican members of Congress. Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez (D-NJ) swiftly issued a statement on March 7 opposing any agreement to permit the importations of Venezuelan oil to the United States. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) repeatedly attacked the Biden administration over the visit and over the potential return to negotiations, later proposing a bill in the Senate which would prohibit the importation of oil products from Venezuela and Iran. On March 10, a group of Democratic Representatives from Florida sent a public letter to President Biden in which they opposed easing oil sanctions on Venezuela “absent meaningful change,” and expressed support for the potential return to negotiations in Mexico City.

Reactions from other actors in the U.S. and internationally, however, have been less critical and more open to the prospect of negotiations. Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Gregory Meeks (D-NY) issued a statement on March 9 congratulating the Biden administration on the release of the two U.S. citizens, and describing the visit as “a real opportunity to advance meaningful negotiations between President Maduro and the opposition.” Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) issued a statement applauding the release of the detained Americans, while making no mention at all of U.S. sanctions. Juan Guaidó published a statement reiterating the opposition’s disposition to return to the negotiating table, emphasizing that U.S. sanctions should be conditioned on advances made in the context of negotiations, and urging for the immediate release of the more than 200 political prisoners in Venezuela. A UN spokesperson also welcomed the recent messages from Maduro and the opposition indicating their intention to return to negotiations.




Human Rights