While everyone’s attention is focused elsewhere during these chaotic days, the White House has “quietly” sent a delegation to Venezuela to meet with government representatives there. (The word “quietly” was chosen by the Associated Press to describe the trip.) And there are plenty of reasons to want to keep such a trip quiet. The purpose of the visit is being described as a diplomatic effort to secure the release of American captives including four Citgo executives that Nicolas Maduro has been holding hostage for the past four years. But there are obviously other items on the agenda to be discussed and Maduro is playing up this visit to his own benefit.
Senior U.S. 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 U.S. to recalibrate other foreign policy objectives.
A U.S. State Department spokesperson described the trip as a welfare visit focused on the safety of several U.S. citizens detained in Caracas, including a group of oil executives from Houston-based Citgo jailed more than four years ago. The delegation includes Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy on hostage affairs, as well as Ambassador James Story, who heads the U.S. government’s Venezuelan Affairs Unit out of neighboring Colombia.
President Nicolás Maduro confirmed the visit during televised remarks.
I’m not going to fault Joe Biden for trying to secure the release of the hostages. Sometimes we have to deal with unsavory leaders in the interest of getting our people back. We’ve had to do the same thing with Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and even the Iranian Mullahs in the past. But this trip involves some very uncomfortable realities for the White House that can’t be ignored.
In case the President has forgotten, our government does not recognize Nicolas Maduro as the legitimate president of Venezuela. Nor does most of the civilized world. He stole the last election in 2018 and we recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as the legitimate leader of that country. But now we’re going back into negotiations with Maduro’s people.
And as I mentioned above, Maduro is taking full advantage of the situation. He went on national television to announce the arrival of “an important delegation from the United States government.” He went on to describe the purpose of the visit as being a process intended to “give continuity to the bilateral agenda between the government of the United States and the government of Venezuela.” This is an obvious ploy on Maduro’s part to make himself appear more legitimate. If he can regain recognition from the United States, that would greatly enhance his chances of being recognized more broadly on the world stage and cut the legs out from under Guaido’s supporters.
Also, while it’s not being announced through official channels, it seems obvious that the Citgo connection is giving the Biden administration an opportunity to speak to Maduro’s people about the possibility of arranging for some oil exports for us. We’re not supposed to be taking any oil from Venezuela because of the sanctions, but why let a little thing like that stop us, right? There’s also the inconvenient fact that Russia now controls a majority interest in Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA. So we are now apparently considering doing business indirectly with the Russians and an illegitimate socialist regime in South America rather than pumping our own oil domestically.
A good-faith effort by the Biden administration to secure the release of the American hostages is to be applauded. But as to any other negotiations that are likely going on, this may be a good time to remind ourselves of an old diplomatic rule of thumb. When you decide to wrestle with a pig, you inevitably come away muddy. So will the pig, but he doesn’t really care.