Breakthrough in Venezuela talks spurs US to ease embargo
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro speaks during a meeting with Belize's Prime Minister Johnny Briceño (out of frame), at Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, on November 25, 2022. (Photo by Pedro Rances Mattey / AFP)

MEXICO CITY, Mexico (AFP) --The government of Nicolas Maduro and the Venezuelan opposition broke a political stalemate Saturday with a broad social accord, and the US government responded by allowing a major US oil company to resume operations in Venezuela.

The accord heralded a potential easing of a grinding economic and political crisis in Venezuela.

It paves the way for the United Nations to oversee a trust fund of frozen assets of the Maduro government to be used for a variety of social projects in Venezuela.

"We have identified a set of resources belonging to the Venezuelan state, frozen in the global financial system, to which it is possible to access," said Dag Nylander, an envoy from Norway, which facilitated the negotiations.

The agreement, which ended 15 months of stalemate between the two sides, potentially could ease a massive flow of refugees from Venezuela throughout the region, and even impact world oil markets.

The accord represents "hope for all of Latin America," said Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, a sponsor of the talks.

The humanitarian agreement calls for a yet-to-be-established UN trust to finance programs in the education, health, food security, flood response and electricity sectors.

However Saturday's accord made no headway on a critical issue: How to move ahead toward presidential elections scheduled for 2024.

Venezuela's political crisis has worsened since Maduro declared himself victor of contested 2018 elections, which were widely seen as fraudulent, and generated widespread street protests.

The US Treasury Department said the accord on Saturday marks "important steps in the right direction to restore democracy" in Venezuela, and responded by issuing a license to Chevron Corp. to resume limited oil extraction operations in Venezuela.

The license will remain in effect for six months while the Biden administration assesses whether the Maduro government meets commitments made in the accord, Treasury said.

The relaxation of curbs on Chevron's operations in Venezuela, which has the world's largest oil reserves, would allow the nation to move toward re-entering global oil markets.

International efforts to resolve the Venezuelan crisis have gained strength since Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the pressure it has placed on global energy supplies.

A joint statement by Canada, the United States, Britain and the EU pledged "willingness to review sanctions" on Venezuela but demanded that it release political prisoners, respect press freedom and guarantee independence of the judiciary and electoral bodies.

The powerful Democratic chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez, said the Biden administration should move slowly.

"If Maduro again tries to use these negotiations to buy time to further consolidate his criminal dictatorship, the United States... must snap back the full force of our sanctions that brought his regime to the negotiating table in the first place," Menendez said in a statement.

Despite its huge oil reserves, Venezuela suffers grinding poverty and a political crisis that has led a UN-estimated seven million Venezuelans to flee the country in recent years. Food, medicine and such basics as soap and toilet paper are often in short supply.

Maduro's opposition is seeking free and fair presidential elections, next due in 2024, while Caracas wants the international community to recognize Maduro as the rightful president and to lift sanctions, particularly a US oil embargo and freeze on the nation's overseas assets.

After the contested 2018 elections, almost 60 countries, including the United States, recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as acting president.

Still to be hashed out at the negotiating table is how the 2024 elections might unfold to ensure that the opposition will take part.

The Unitary Platform opposition group has not reached consensus over the conditions it requires to take part in the vote, a source close to the negotiations told AFP.

Guaido's influence has waned in recent years, and he has lost key allies both at home and in the region, where many countries have since elected leftist presidents.

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