Venezuela has released at least one prisoner from the United States on Tuesday, one more gesture that confirms the rapprochement between two countries whose positions seemed irreconcilable until a few days ago. Last weekend, officials from the Joe Biden administration met unannounced in Caracas with President Nicolás Maduro to discuss energy security, at a time when the price of oil has soared due to Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine.
Until now, the Chavista government was the most unconditional ally of Vladimir Putin on this side of the world. The change of course in Caracas and Washington, in an exploratory phase, has caught the whole world by surprise. Maduro has now taken this understanding one step further by releasing one of the six Citgo refinery executives who were arbitrarily detained in November 2017. Some sources say that two have been released.
The invasion of Russia has turned the geopolitical context upside down. The US delegation that secretly traveled to the Venezuelan capital made addressing the energy crisis a top priority. The United States has banned the import of oil and gas from Russia, a direct blow to the main financing of the Eurasian giant. In that context, look for other ways to stock up. And that is where Venezuela comes into play.
To improve relations that did not exist until recently, the Biden administration considers the release of American prisoners essential. The State Department’s Hostage Commissioner, Roger Carstens, has insisted on several occasions in calling for the release of the six Venezuelan-Americans for medical reasons. After the meeting between officials of Biden and Maduro, it was learned that Carsten negotiated his release in December and that he was included in the recent delegation and would still be in the country awaiting responses from Chavismo.
The case of the Citgo six has been a constant source of tension between Caracas and Washington. Chavismo has tightened prison conditions for executives every time the relationship with the United States deteriorates. In 2020, after the meeting between Donald Trump and Juan Guaidó in the White House, the house arrest measure was lifted and they were taken to the El Helicoide prison in Caracas. They later returned to house arrest, but the extradition of Álex Saab, Maduro’s alleged figurehead to Miami, caused the executives to be returned to jail again.
The directors of the company were arrested in November 2017. They had been called by the state-owned Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) to an emergency meeting in Caracas. At the Maiquetía airport they were arrested and transferred to the cells of the Military Counterintelligence Directorate. They were accused of fraudulent embezzlement, money laundering, conspiracy to commit a crime, and concert between an official and a contractor for allegedly agreeing to refinance the debt of this company, the most valuable asset of the Venezuelan oil company abroad. They have always denied the accusations and the United States considers that they were imprisoned for political reasons.
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Maduro seems determined to take advantage of the crisis. On Monday he assured that PDVSA is prepared to produce between one and three million barrels of oil per day if necessary. However, there are doubts about it. The decline of the public company due to its mismanagement and the United States’ own sanctions has caused it to reach its historical minimum production last year. It is believed that Venezuela is not yet in a position to supply the market share that Russia had until now.
The US president has warned that the punishment of Russia will not come free to the Americans, who are experiencing the worst inflationary escalation in 40 years. “Defending freedom has a cost, also for us”, he has said. The United Kingdom has supported the sanction, but the rest of the European countries have not joined, for the moment, given their high dependence on Russian energy.
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