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The Biden administration on Wednesday broadly eased sanctions on Venezuela's oil sector in response to a deal the administration struck with opposition parties on the 2024 elections, the broadest rollback of Trump-era restrictions on Caracas.
The new general license issued by the U.S. Treasury Department authorizes OPEC member Venezuela, which has been under tough sanctions since 2019, to produce oil without restrictions for the next six months and export it to markets of its choosing.
U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken welcomed President Nicolas Maduro's electoral concessions but said Washington had asked him to begin lifting the ban on opposition presidential candidates by the end of November and to begin releasing political prisoners and Americans "wrongfully detained."
A senior State Department official, who declined to be named, threatened to withdraw sanctions relief unless Maduro took such action.
The U.S. move comes after months of negotiations in which Washington urged Caracas to take concrete action to push for democratic elections in exchange for lifting some, but not all, of the tough sanctions imposed by former U.S. President Donald Trump.
It also represents an important step for President Joe Biden's administration to increase engagement with Maduro on issues ranging from energy to immigration, shifting away from Trump's "extreme pressure" campaign against the socialist government.
Venezuelan ruling party official Jorge Rodriguez, who leads the government's negotiating team with the opposition, said on state television late Wednesday that the lifting of sanctions affected all oil activities.
"The possibility of any individual or company coming to invest in Venezuela is completely open," he said.
Maduro's government and the opposition reached an agreement in Barbados on Tuesday on electoral guarantees for an internationally supervised vote in the second half of 2024. But the deal did not see Maduro agree to reinstate opposition candidates barred from holding public office.
In a statement, Blinken said what the U.S. did "is consistent with our long-standing commitment to ease U.S. sanctions in response to taking concrete steps toward competitive elections and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms."
Wednesday's statement eases some of the toughest sanctions Venezuela faces, but retains some other restrictions.
Even so, the U.S. measures could reopen the door to dozens of oil companies that have frozen or reduced operations in Venezuela.
The U.S. imposed tough sanctions on Venezuela to punish the Maduro government for its performance after its re-election in 2018, but the U.S. and other Western governments saw it as a hoax. Since 2019, U.S. sanctions have prohibited state-owned oil company PDVSA from exporting to markets of its choosing.
Venezuela's oil industry in trouble
The changes announced Wednesday include the issuance of a six-month general license to produce, sell and export Venezuelan crude oil and natural gas without restrictions on customers or destinations, and another general license authorizing transactions with Venezuela's state-owned gold company, Minerven Mining.
However, the U.S. Treasury Department said in a statement that it is prepared to revoke these authorizations at any time if Maduro's representatives fail to meet their commitments under the agreement with the opposition.
The Treasury also lifted the ban on secondary trading in certain Venezuelan sovereign bonds and debt and equity of state-owned oil company PDVSA, but the ban on trading in Venezuela's primary bond market remains in place.
The U.S. has been looking for ways to increase global oil flows to mitigate high oil prices caused by Russian sanctions and the OPEC+ decision to cut production.
But oil industry experts say there is little chance that Venezuela's exports will offset those cuts without a significant increase in investment in the country's ailing oil sector.
Two decades of mismanagement and underinvestment, coupled with U.S. oil sanctions since 2019, are expected to hamper the ability of the state-run PDVSA to quickly return to the cash-for-oil market and offer crude at fair prices.
Talks between the government and opposition were held on Tuesday for the first time in almost a year to offer a way out of Venezuela's prolonged political and economic crisis. They agreed to hold further meetings on an unspecified date.
The agreement they announced says the parties can choose their 2024 candidates according to their internal rules, but it doesn't rescind bans on some opposition figures, including Maria Corina Machado, the frontrunner in the Oct. 22 primary, that prevented them from holding public office.
Opposition sources say they have not given up on efforts to lift those bans.
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