WASHINGTON, April 19 (Reuters) – President Joe Biden will discuss Venezuela in wide-ranging talks with Colombian President Gustavo Petro on Thursday, including U.S. willingness to further ease sanctions on the OPEC nation only in return for concrete steps toward free elections there, a senior administration official said.
Previewing the leaders’ first meeting, the official told Reuters that Biden would reiterate to Petro, who has called for lifting sanctions on Venezuela, that he is not prepared to provide significant sanctions relief to President Nicolas Maduro’s government until he agrees to democratic steps with the country’s opposition.
Relations between neighbors Colombia and Venezuela have warmed since Petro’s inauguration in August, and Maduro has welcomed moves by Bogota to organize an international conference on April 25 to promote resumption of talks between his Socialist government and opposition politicians.
The White House talks are aimed at renewing historically strong ties between Washington and Bogota and charting a new relationship with Colombia’s first leftist president. The broad agenda will also include anti-drug cooperation, regional migration, Petro’s peace efforts with rebel groups as well as climate change.
Since taking office, Biden has eased some U.S. sanctions on Venezuela – many imposed by his predecessor Donald Trump in a “maximum pressure” campaign – to encourage dialogue. But negotiations have stalled again.
“Unilateral lifting of sanctions,” the official said on condition of anonymity, “will line the pockets of people who have already stolen billions of dollars from Venezuela … The two presidents are going to likely discuss it and I think we can find common ground.”
Underscoring their differences, however, Petro said at the United Nations this week the objective of the Venezuela conference would be “more democracy, zero sanctions.”
The U.S. has expressed a positive view of the planned conference but is waiting for details to decide formally whether to attend and at what level, the official said.
The Colombian government has said it expects officials from the U.S., Latin America and Europe but Maduro and the opposition will not be represented.
Anti-drug efforts will also expected to figure into Thursday’s talks, another issue on which the Biden administration and Colombia’s leader, a former M-19 rebel, have not seen eye-to-eye.
Petro, whose country is a top cocaine producer, has derided as a failure what has long been considered a U.S.-led war on drugs, calling for a new international approach.
The official said it was now a misnomer to call it a drug war, that the U.S. was pursuing a more “holistic response” and was looking for ways to “adapt to the priorities of his government.”