U.S. lawmakers skeptical of potential easing of Venezuela sanctions

BOGOTA, Oct 19 (Reuters) - United States senators said on Wednesday they are skeptical of a potential easing of sanctions on Venezuela, amid meetings in Washington between the Biden administration and Venezuelan opposition leaders.

Chevron has asked the U.S. Treasury Department to relax sanctions, allowing the company to take operational control and have a greater say in procurement and trading at the four oil ventures it shares with Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA.

But the State Department has insisted any relevant easing of sanctions will only come if Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro returns to talks with the opposition and takes concrete steps toward free elections.

President Joe Biden's administration has been under pressure from Republicans and some of his fellow Democrats not to make any major concessions to Maduro.

With U.S. congressional midterm elections looming on Nov. 8, administration officials are mindful of the risk of looking soft on Maduro among largely conservative Cuban-American and Venezuelan-American voters in south Florida.

Officials met on Tuesday with visiting opposition figures, who will be in Washington through Friday.

"If the administration is headed down this path there has to be real substantive benchmarks so that we know that this isn't just a buy of time," New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez said at the close of a bipartisan visit to Bogota.

"What are the benchmarks for the process for political parties to unfold, for a press to be able to write about what's happening in Venezuela, for a process to take internationally supervised elections," he said, adding he was skeptical but open to a defined process.

"If we're going to do anything to loosen up the oil and gas situation we got to be sure that the conditions are clear and it's verifiable," said Ohio Republican Robert Portman.

Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin said that in addition to supervised elections, there would also need to be progress on human rights in Venezuela.

The three senators, along with Nebraska's Ben Sasse and North Carolina's Richard Burr, met for several hours on Tuesday with new leftist Colombian President Gustavo Petro and his foreign and defense ministers.

Petro has called for changes to bilateral anti-narcotics cooperation, urging more focus on intelligence and interdiction, and floating regulation of drugs.

The Senate delegation does not share Petro's ideas about "legalization", Menendez said, but there is common ground on efforts to fight drug gang financing, increase interdiction and support land reform.

Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb; editing by Richard Pullin

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