A group of senior U.S. officials flew to Venezuela on Saturday for a meeting with President Nicolás Maduro’s government to discuss the possibility of easing sanctions on Venezuelan oil exports as the Biden administration weighs a ban on imports of Russian oil and gas, according to two people familiar with the situation.
The trip is the highest-level U.S. visit to the socialist state in years and comes as the United States is seeking to isolate Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Venezuela, the Kremlin’s most important ally in South America, used to be a significant supplier of crude to the United States before exports were hobbled by domestic mismanagement and crippling sanctions from Washington.
In recent weeks, former American lawmakers have pushed for the U.S. to ban Russian oil and gas exports while lifting restrictions on Venezuela, home to the world’s largest oil reserves.
The U.S. delegation included Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs; Juan Gonzalez, the National Security Council’s senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs; and Jimmy Story, the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, said one person familiar with the visit.
The trip comes just days after Maduro and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke over the phone about boosting the partnership between their countries.
The State Department and the White House declined to comment.
During the trip, U.S. officials are also trying to secure the release of six former executives of Houston-based Citgo Petroleum Corp., an oil refiner formerly controlled by the Maduro government, according to a person familiar with the visit who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic meetings. The “Citgo 6” were arrested during a business trip to Caracas in November 2017 and charged with money laundering, embezzlement, racketeering and participating in organized crime. They denied the allegations.