WASHINGTON, Dec 1 – The White House said on Friday it was prepared to “pause” sanctions relief for OPEC member Venezuela in coming days unless there is further progress on the release of Venezuelan political prisoners and “wrongfully detained” Americans.
Speaking after a deadline for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to meet certain commitments, White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said the U.S. welcomed an announcement on Thursday that opposition presidential candidates barred from public office would be able to appeal to Venezuela’s highest court.
But he said the Venezuelan government needed to do more or else Venezuela would risk a U.S. freeze on some relaxed sanctions unveiled in mid-October in response to a deal between Maduro and the country’s opposition on holding a 2024 presidential election.
Any “snapback” of partially lifted U.S. sanctions would mark a major shift from President Joe Biden’s new approach toward Venezuela.
In the most significant lifting of tough Trump-era sanctions, Washington issued a six-month general license authorizing U.S. transactions with Venezuela’s vital oil and gas sector and a second license authorizing operations of state gold mining company Minerven. It also removed a U.S. prohibition on secondary-market trading of Venezuelan sovereign bonds.
Washington had vowed to reverse that sanctions relief unless the Venezuela’s Socialist government took steps by the end of November to release political prisoners and three Americans it considers unlawfully jailed, and also lift public-office bans on opposition candidates.
Thursday’s announcement by the Venezuelan government and opposition, which opened a path that could enable opposition politicians to run, appeared to satisfy one of Washington’s chief demands.
“It’s welcome news,” Kirby said. “We are, however, deeply concerned about the lack of progress on the release of wrongfully detained U.S. citizens and Venezuelan political prisoners.”
“So we’re going to continue to be actively engaged here in diplomatic efforts on those particular issues, and we’re prepared to take action in the coming days to pause certain sanctions relief, unless further progress is made,” he added.
Kirby did not specify which of the sanctions-easing measures could be put on hold if Maduro fails to comply.
Reflecting skepticism in some quarters about the likely extent of any new U.S. action, two sources in Washington said earlier this week that the administration may respond initially by just reinstating sanctions on state-run Minerven.
The Venezuelan government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
If the U.S. deems Maduro’s actions insufficient, it faces a decision on whether to reignite tensions with Venezuela when Washington is grappling with major foreign policy crises, principally the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza and Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Under the appeals process announced late on Thursday, candidates can file petitions to the court between Dec. 1 and Dec. 15.
The winner of the opposition’s presidential primary, Maria Corina Machado, is among those barred from office.
The Venezuelan government released five political prisoners in October but there have been no releases since.
It also holds at least three Americans who the U.S. government says are wrongfully detained.
Reporting By Matt Spetalnick and Steve Holland; additional reporting by Mayela Armas in Caracas; Editing by Daniel Wallis
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
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