Biden eases Venezuela oil sanctions after Maduro signs election deal

The Biden administration on Wednesday eased oil, gas and gold sanctions against Venezuela a day after the government of President Nicolás Maduro and the U.S.-backed opposition agreed to terms for a competitive presidential election next year.

The Treasury Department issued a general license authorizing U.S. companies to engage in long-barred transactions primarily in the state-controlled energy sector. It said the license is to be valid for six months, to be renewed only if the authoritarian socialist government “meets its commitments” for elections and “with respect to those who are wrongfully detained.”

The agreement signed by the government and opposition politicians Tuesday, following years of on-again, off-again negotiations, could be a breakthrough in the South American nation’s stifling political stalemate. The Biden administration promised to consider suspending some sanctions in exchange for progress.

The planned elections deal and the sanctions relief were first reported this week by The Washington Post. Administration officials, who have long insisted that negotiations were only among Venezuelans, denied Monday that any U.S. sanctions “deal” was part of the package.

U.S. to ease sanctions on Venezuela for freer presidential election next year

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Wednesday that the Treasury Department announcement was “consistent with our long-standing commitment to provide U.S. sanctions relief in response to concrete steps toward competitive elections and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Other sanctions, he said in a statement, would remain in place.

The United States “has also conveyed our expectation and understanding” that before the end of November, Maduro will “define a specific timeline and process for the expedited reinstatement of all” candidates in upcoming elections, including “all who want to run for president” next year, and a “level electoral playing field,” Blinken said.

Venezuela, he said, will also “begin the release of all wrongfully detained U.S. nationals and Venezuelan political prisoners.”

Four Americans are known to be detained in Venezuela. They include Luke Denman and Airan Berry, arrested in 2020 for their alleged participation in a failed attempt to capture Maduro. Eyvin Hernandez has been charged with criminal association and conspiracy after entering Venezuela during a vacation trip. Jerrel Kenemore, 52, was detained by migration officials upon entering the country with his Venezuelan girlfriend.

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The human rights organization Foro Penal says more than 250 Venezuelans are currently being held for political reasons.

A senior administration official said none of the U.S. actions will affect ongoing litigation related to CITGO, the U.S.-based, PDVSA-owned oil refining and marketing company, which is being sued by creditors in U.S. courts, or Venezuelan assets frozen in the United States or elsewhere. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity under rules imposed by the administration.

The Maduro government pledged Tuesday to allow all parties to choose their candidates, permit international observers to monitor the vote and grant all campaigns fair access to the media. The government did not promise to lift bans that now prevent some opposition candidates from running.

Maduro, speaking during a televised meeting Wednesday evening with members of his government involved in the talks with the opposition, called the lifting of oil sanctions a “victory for the country” and the product of negotiations with the United States.

“This path must lead to the complete lifting of sanctions against Venezuela,” he said. “We are people of our word. What is written and signed is fulfilled. … With this license, we are moving forward progressively.”

The Treasury Department also amended licenses to remove a secondary trading ban on certain Venezuelan sovereign bonds along with debt and equity of PDVSA, the state-controlled oil company. “We assess that this,” along with the lifting of restrictions on the state gold mining company, “would have the positive effect of displacing nefarious players in this market, and with negligible financial benefit to authorities from Venezuela,” Treasury said.

Maduro, the handpicked successor to Hugo Chávez, the founder of Venezuela’s socialist state, claimed victory in a 2018 election viewed by the United States and other countries as fraudulent.

The Trump administration severed relations with the government in 2019, and to existing sanctions added prohibitions barring Venezuelan access to U.S. financial markets. President Donald Trump at times threatened military action against Venezuela, which he accused of plotting against the United States with Russia and Iran, with which Maduro has maintained close relations. Iranian President Ibraham Raisi visited Caracas last summer on his first trip to Latin America.

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Venezuela boasts the world’s largest proven oil reserves, but years of mismanagement and sanctions on the oil sector have brought the economy to a near standstill. More than 7 million Venezuelans — a quarter of the population — have fled the country. While many now live in other South American countries, nearly 500,000 have crossed the U.S. southern border in the last three years; they include around 50,000 taken into custody by U.S. agents last month.

In another result of talks between Washington and Caracas, the United States on Wednesday conducted its first deportation flight to Venezuela, returning nearly 130 migrants.

Herrero reported from Caracas, Venezuela.

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