US officials quietly travel to Venezuela in bid to bring home detained Americans, rebuild relations

Senior US government officials have quietly traveled to Caracas in the latest bid to bring home detained Americans and rebuild relations with the South American oil giant as the war in Ukraine drags on, forcing the US to recalibrate other foreign policy objectives.

A US State Department spokesperson confirmed to CBS News that Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy on hostage affairs, as well as Ambassador James Story, who heads the US government’s Venezuelan Affairs Unit out of neighboring Colombia, went to Caracas “for discussions about the welfare and safety of US nationals in Venezuela. “

President Nicolás Maduro confirmed the visit during televised remarks, saying the delegation would meet with a trusted ally, National Assembly President Jorge Rodríguez, to “give continuity to the bilateral agenda between the government of the United States and the government of Venezuela.”

The trip follows a public plea to the Biden administration from the family of Matthew Heath, a former US Marine arrested nearly two years ago on what the US considers trumped-up terror charges. Heath’s family earlier this month called on the administration to take urgent action to save his life di lui following what they said was a suicide attempt. A person familiar with the situation confirmed to CBS News that one of the American detainees tried to commit suicide and that the incident is what sparked the visit to Venezuela by US officials.

A group of oil executives from Houston-based Citgo also remains jailed in Venezuela after being detained more than four years ago.

The US visit follows a surprise trip in March, also by Carstens and Story, along with Juan Gonzalez, the National Security Council director for the Western Hemisphere. That was the first White House trip to the county in more than two decades.

That trip resulted in the release of two American citizens who the US considered unjustly detained and a promise from Maduro to jumpstart talks with his opponents. Months earlier, he had suspended the negotiations, led by Norwegian diplomats in Mexico, after a key ally was extradited to the US on money-laundering charges.

It’s unclear what else the officials are seeking to accomplish during the mission. But high on the list are likely to be Maduro’s demand that the US lift crippling oil sanctions that have exacerbated hardships in what was once South America’s most prosperous nation.

Upon arrival in Caracas, Story met for two hours with Juan Guaidó, according to someone close to the leader of the US-backed opposition. The two discussed efforts to jumpstart negotiations in Mexico, according to the person on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private meeting.

Since the March trip, both the Biden administration and Venezuela’s socialist government have shown a willingness to engage after years of hostilities between Washington and Caracas over Maduro’s 2018 re-election, which was marred by irregularities. The US and other nations withdrew recognition of Maduro after that election, and instead, recognized Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.

Although negotiations between Maduro and the opposition have yet to resume, the US then renewed a license so that oil companies, including Chevron, could continue to perform only basic upkeep of wells they operate jointly with Venezuela’s state-run oil giant PDVSA.

The White House also lifted sanctions imposed in 2017 targeting the nephew of First Lady Cilia Flores, who at the time was accused of facilitating corruption while a top official at PDVSA.

The US is also interested in tapping into Venezuela’s vast oil wealth as the war in Ukraine has led to a 50% jump in oil prices that is fueling the worst inflation in decades.

Maduro during his televised remarks Monday alluded to remarks from an official close to French President Emmanuel Macron urging the US to ease sanctions on Venezuela and Iran to offset the spike in oil prices. The comments were made on the sidelines of a meeting of the Group of Seven leaders in Germany.

Venezuela has the world’s largest proven oil reserves but production has plummeted for the past decade as a result of a drop in prices, mismanagement and the US sanctions. Its presence in the world oil market is today marginal and any attempt to boost production would take time to materialize.

Ed O’Keefe and Margaret Brennan contributed to this report.

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