At least two Americans who were imprisoned in Venezuela were released on Tuesday, a U.S. official and Venezuelan human rights defenders said, a milestone in the Biden administration’s relationship with a longstanding adversary that is Russia’s staunchest ally in the Western Hemisphere. But at least eight other U.S. nationals remain jailed in Caracas on charges ranging from embezzlement to terrorism.
The release followed a rare trip by a high-level U.S. delegation to Venezuela over the weekend to meet with President Nicolás Maduro, part of a broader effort to advance the Biden administration’s agenda in autocratic countries that may be rethinking their ties with President Vladimir V. Putin in the aftermath of the Ukraine invasion.
The talks with the South American oil producer assumed new urgency after President Biden announced Tuesday that the United States would ban Russian oil imports. That move is expected to further tighten the availability of crude on the global market, and could raise gas prices at a moment when inflation has climbed at its fastest pace in 40 years.
“This is a step that we’re taking to inflict further pain on Putin, but there will be costs as well here in the United States,” Mr. Biden said.
For weeks, American lobbyists and industry executives who have worked in Venezuela have had back-channel discussions about restarting America’s oil trade with Venezuela, which was banned under the Trump administration.
But industry experts warned that Venezuelan oil supplies would do little to tame American gas prices and inflation quickly. Increasing the country’s production may take time after the years of mismanagement and underinvestment that have decimated the country’s energy sector.
Prominent members of Congress have also come out against any effort to thaw relations with Mr. Maduro, whose government has been accused by the United Nations of systematic human rights violations.
“Nicolás Maduro is a cancer to our hemisphere and we should not breathe new life into his reign of torture and murder,” Senator Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who leads Foreign Relations Committee, said Monday in a statement.
The purpose of the American officials’ visit to Caracas, the capital, was to discuss “energy security” and the status of imprisoned Americans, the White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a news conference.
Mr. Maduro said he received the American delegation at the presidential palace and called the meeting “respectful, cordial, very diplomatic.” The talks, he said, would continue. He also said he would restart talks with the country’s opposition.
The Venezuelan government wants to resume oil sales to the United States to take advantage of high oil prices and to replace the revenues from trade channels it built through the Russian financial system that have been frozen by Western nations to punish Russian aggression against Ukraine, according to officials and oil businessmen in the country.
Selling directly to the United States would also allow Mr. Maduro to reap full profits from the highest oil prices in more than a decade, instead of selling the crude at deep discount to a network of middlemen used to bypass the U.S. ban, they said.
Before that ban, Venezuela exported most of its oil to the United States, whose Gulf refineries were built to process the country’s heavy crude.
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Things to Know
Russian oil imports. President Biden banned Russian oil, natural gas and coal imports into the United States. The move, which effectively shuts off the relatively small flow of Russian fuel into the country, could further rattle global energy markets and raise gas prices.
A halt to Russian sales. After days of seeming reluctance to take a stance over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, three high-profile American food and beverage companies — McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Starbucks — said they were pausing operations in Russia.
The key cities. Ukrainian military and civilian soldiers continued to bog down Russian forces, protecting the borders of key cities and inflicting heavy losses against the larger and better equipped Russian army.
A humanitarian crisis. Indiscriminate Russian shelling has trapped Ukrainian civilians and left tens of thousands without food, water, power or heat in besieged cities. The United Nations said that the number of refugees who have fled Ukraine has reached two million.
In 2017, Venezuelan security forces arrested six executives from Citgo Petroleum, the American branch of the state oil company, after the Maduro government summoned them to meetings in Caracas. The State Department has said that all six detainees are U.S. nationals.
The executives were charged with financial crimes and jailed. Their former boss, Nelson Martínez, the head of the state oil company, was detained soon after them and died in custody a year later.
The executives’ families and their lawyers have said that the men, who have come to be known as the Citgo 6, are innocent and that they were lured to Caracas to be used by Mr. Maduro as pawns in his negotiations with the United States.
Venezuela’s treatment of the executives has varied.
As U.S. government announcements either worsen or improve relations with Mr. Maduro, the detainees have moved between prison and house arrest.Since last year, they have been held in a single cell in the Venezuela’s secret police’s underground prison, where the United Nations has documented irregularities and human rights abuses in the case of at least one of them.
Among the other Americans held in Venezuela is Matthew Heath, a Marine veteran who was detained in Venezuela’s northern state of Falcon in 2020. The Venezuelan government claims he was spying on critical infrastructure. Mr. Heath’s family and the U.S. government said that he was innocent and that he was detained because of his nationality.
Two other Americans still detained, former Special Forces members Airan Berry and Luke Denman, were arrested in 2020 after they tried to invade Venezuela by boat as part of a failed plot to overthrow Mr. Maduro.
The Trump administration cut off diplomatic relations with Venezuela in 2019, closing the United States Embassy in Caracas and imposing the ban on Venezuelan oil. A year later, the Justice Department indicted Mr. Maduro and more than a dozen other Venezuelan officials on drug trafficking charges, accusing them of facilitating cocaine shipments to the United States.
Mariana Martínez and Isayen Herrera contributed reporting in Caracas, Venezuela.