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World News

Venezuela's opposition presses U.S. to hold off its consideration of oil imports

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Sidelined in high-level talks between the United States and Venezuela, the South American country’s opposition is pressing Washington to condition any easing of oil sanctions on political concessions, three people involved in the matter said, adding new hurdles to oil companies hoping to resume operations there.

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido speaks to supporters as he takes part in an event called "Save Venezuela", in Maiquetia, Venezuela February 19, 2022. REUTERS/Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/File Photo

U.S. diplomats have sought to find energy supplies worldwide that can help replace Russian oil and gas as buyers steer clear of Russia’s imports over its invasion of Ukraine. U.S. officials met Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas for the first bilateral talks in years earlier this month.

The Venezuelan opposition request adds to the issues temporarily thwarting efforts by oil firms to win U.S. approvals to get access to the country’s crude for unpaid debts. If accepted, the opposition’s proposal will pause any consideration of U.S. imports of Venezuelan oil.

Furor created by the diplomats’ visit to Caracas has effectively chilled hopes for Chevron Corp, Eni SpA and Repsol to win U.S. approvals that would help them trade Venezuelan oil cargoes for billions of dollars in past debts.

The opposition’s stance, laid out in recent meetings between U.S. State Department officials and opposition leader Juan Guaido’s envoys, undercuts a faction within President Joe Biden’s administration seeking a new policy toward the country with the world’s largest crude reserves.

Washington recognizes Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful leader and had shunned Maduro after calling his 2018 reelection a sham. U.S. oil sanctions imposed in 2019 were aimed at ousting Maduro. The U.S. officials’ visit to Venezuela caught the opposition by surprise and sparked a backlash from U.S. Republicans and some of Biden’s fellow Democrats in Congress.

Democratic Senator Bob Menendez urged Biden to “not breathe new life” into what he called Maduro’s “reign of torture and murder” by relaxing oil sanctions.

HIGH COST

Weighing into the fray, Guaido warned oil companies lobbying for access to Venezuelan oil to stick with democracy and not aid Maduro’s government.

“Biden’s administration has realized playing with Venezuelan barrels comes at high cost,” one of the people familiar with the Washington discussions said.

U.S. officials have so far assured the opposition that no decision has been made on sanctions relief, according to two people familiar with the matter. Washington also wants to see concrete steps by Maduro for restarting discussions with the opposition in Mexico and organizing free elections, the three people familiar with the matter said.

A prompt authorization of U.S. imports of Venezuelan oil could happen if global crude prices again hit levels reached earlier this month, pushing up U.S. gasoline prices that the Biden administration is closely monitoring, one of the people said.

The U.S. State Department did not immediately comment on the discussions.

A WRAPUP

High-level talks between Maduro and U.S. officials were conceived to prod him to resume a political dialogue with the opposition that has been suspended since October, and to free Americans jailed, according to people familiar with the visit preparation.

“Nobody in Washington has taken responsibility for the idea of wrapping the oil licenses discussion with the political demands,” another source said after one of the meetings with State Department officials.

Among the opposition’s arguments against easing sanctions are the limited effect oil from Venezuela - whose output has been cut to a third in five years by under-investment, mismanagement and sanctions - would have among U.S. refiners, versus the aid it would provide Maduro as he continues dragging his feet toward new elections.

Some U.S. officials share that view, while others are trying to secure any possible source of oil to replace Russia’s barrels even at a high cost.

“What’s the value of the commodity of freedom?” said a member of Guaido’s team.

Chevron’s current license, which is set to expire in June, has allowed the firm only to keep and maintain its assets. The U.S. Treasury had started drafting a revamped license to the firm and authorizations to others, people familiar with the matter said.

But final policy guidance from the U.S. State Department has not been received, two of the people said, as political winds shifted against any proposal to ease the U.S. sanctions.

Reporting by Marianna Parraga and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Additional reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Howard Goller

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