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US officials visit Venezuela, an ally of Russia, as the West isolates Putin

US officials visit Venezuela, an ally of Russia, as the West isolates Putin

Senior US officials are traveling to Venezuela on Saturday to meet President Nicolás Maduro’s government, according to people familiar with the matter, as the Biden administration steps up efforts to separate Russia from its remaining international allies amid a growing standoff. on Ukraine.

It is the highest visit by Washington officials to Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, in years. The United States severed diplomatic ties with Mr Maduro and closed its embassy in Caracas in 2019, after accusing the authoritarian leader of election fraud. The Trump administration then tried to overthrow Mr Maduro’s government by sanctioning Venezuelan oil exports and senior officials in the country, and recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president.

Mr Maduro has responded to the sanctions by seeking economic and diplomatic assistance from Russia, as well as Iran and China. Russian energy companies and banks have helped allow Venezuela to continue exporting oil, the country’s main source of foreign currency, despite sanctions, according to U.S. officials, Venezuelan officials and businesspeople.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted the United States to pay greater attention to President Vladimir V. Putin’s allies in Latin America, who Washington says could become security threats if the stalemate with Russia is deepening, according to current and former U.S. officials who have spoken about the condition. anonymity to discuss sensitive political issues.

As Russia’s economy slumps, the United States is seizing the opportunity to push its agenda among Latin American autocracies who may begin to see Mr. Putin as an increasingly weak ally.

When the United States and its allies began this month to consider sanctions on Russian oil and gas exports to punish the country for the devastation wrought in Ukraine, prominent voices affiliated with both major US political parties pointed to the Venezuela as a potential substitute.

Well-connected Republicans have been involved in talks about restarting the oil trade, including Scott Taylor, a former Republican congressman from Virginia who works with Robert Stryk, a Washington lobbyist who briefly signed up to represent the regime. of Mr. Maduro in 2020 and keep in touch. with the people around him.

Mr. Taylor said he spoke to a Venezuelan businessman on Friday evening who reported that Mr. Maduro’s team was eager to reconnect with the United States.

“We should seize this opportunity to achieve a diplomatic victory and a wedge between Russia and Venezuela,” he said in a statement.

Trish Regan, a former Fox Business host and conservative media personality, has called for an alliance with Venezuela to displace Russian oil from the US market.

“Venezuela has THE biggest source of oil reserves to date, are we handing it over to the Chinese and the Russians?” she wrote on Twitter Friday.

Shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Yuri Borisov, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister, traveled to Caracas to meet with Maduro officials. Mr. Maduro has spoken to Mr. Putin by phone at least twice in the past month, according to statements by the two governments.

It’s unclear how long the US delegation, which includes senior State Department and White House officials, will stay in Caracas or who the group will meet with. Spokespersons for Maduro and the State Department and National Security Council in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.

Before the US imposed sanctions, Venezuela sent most of its oil to the US Gulf Coast, whose refineries were built specifically to process the heavy grades of Venezuelan crude.

If the United States cut Russian oil imports, Venezuela would be able to replace some of the lost supplies, said Francisco Monaldi, a Venezuelan energy expert at Rice University in Houston.

Mr Maduro has shown himself to be open to discussing oil deals with the United States.

“Here is Venezuela’s oil, which is available to anyone who wants to produce it and buy it, whether it’s an investor from Asia, Europe or the United States,” he said in a speech. public Thursday.

Mr. Maduro and other Russian allies in Latin America have begun to distance themselves from the war in Ukraine. Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba abstained or did not vote on two resolutions proposed at the United Nations this week condemning Russian aggression, and the leaders of Venezuela and Cuba have called for a diplomatic solution to the crisis .

Sheyla Urdaneta contributed reporting from Maracaibo, Venezuela.