President Joe Biden has authorized a U.S.-based energy company to explore business opportunities in Venezuela, much to the dismay of a senior Senate Democrat who denounced the maneuver as a weak-minded overture to Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro at the expense of his legitimate domestic opponents.

The decision allows Chevron to begin negotiating for business opportunities in Venezuela without revoking the mainstays of the sanctions imposed following former President Donald Trump’s dramatic denunciation of Maduro as an illegitimate ruler. The measure comes just weeks after a senior U.S. delegation traveled to Caracas and secured the release of two Americans as part of a visit that reportedly focused also on the prospects of bringing Venezuela’s oil industry back into global markets amid the war in Ukraine.

“Giving Maduro a handful of undeserved handouts just so his regime will promise to sit down at a negotiating table is a strategy destined to fail,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ) said Tuesday. “The United States should only consider recalibrating sanctions in response to concrete steps in negotiations, not simply in response to cheap talk from a criminal dictator.”

U.S. officials tried to forestall such criticism Tuesday by underscoring that Chevron will not pay the Maduro regime under the new policy. The administration insisted the sanctions shift was promulgated at the request of interim Venezuelan President Juan Guaido, the opposition lawmaker who secured widespread recognition as the legitimate head of state under the Venezuelan Constitution but struggled to break Maduro’s hold on power in the capital.


“The United States is undertaking a number of measures at the request of the Venezuelan interim government and the Unity platform of opposition parties, negotiating with the Venezuelan regime to support their decision to return to the negotiating table in Mexico City,” a senior administration official told reporters Tuesday. “It’s been their conversation and they have come to us to ask for [us] to take these actions.”

Those assurances cut no ice with Menendez, who faulted Biden for making “unilateral concessions” that he considers likely to embolden Maduro. “From Tehran to Havana to Pyongyang, history shows us negotiations based on unilateral concessions have a failed track record of producing actual changes to the behavior of authoritarian regimes,” the New Jersey Democrat said. “The onus for action is on Maduro, and the last thing we should be doing is giving him a ‘well done’ prize as opposed to sending his murderous regime a ‘do better’ message in exchange for relief.”

Menendez also implied that the move represents a stealth move toward lifting the Venezuela sanctions in a bid to offset the oil market shocks wrought by the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February.

“For nearly a decade, Maduro has destroyed his country, killed and tortured Venezuelans by the thousands, and unleashed a wave of unbridled criminality and humanitarian catastrophe that has destabilized our hemisphere,” he said. “Those who lament the United States's and our allies’ dependence on foreign oil because it enriches regimes in terrorist states like Russia should not have a double standard when it comes to enriching a brutal dictatorship like Venezuela.”


The administration insisted that the authorization for “Chevron to negotiate the terms of the potential future activities in Venezuela” is a modest political concession with no financial significance. “Some fundamentally, what they're doing is just [being] allowed to talk,” the senior administration official said. “It follows on a request from the interim government.”