WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden will tell Colombian President Gustavo Petro in White House talks on Thursday that he is willing to further ease sanctions on Venezuela only in return for concrete steps toward fair elections there, a senior administration official told Reuters.
Previewing the leaders’ first meeting, the official said Biden would make clear 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, with re-established trade between them. Maduro has celebrated 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 agenda will include not only Venezuela but anti-drug cooperation, regional migration and Petro’s peace efforts with rebel groups.
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Since taking office, Biden has eased some U.S. sanctions on OPEC-member nation Venezuela to encourage political dialogue. But negotiations have stalled again and Washington has resisted any additional major steps for now.
“Unilateral lifting of sanctions is not going to help the Venezuelan people but rather line the pockets of people who have already stolen billions of dollars from Venezuela,” the official said on condition of anonymity. “The two presidents are going to likely discuss it and I think we can find common ground.”
However, underscoring their differences, Petro said at the United Nations in New York earlier this week that the objective of the Venezuela conference he is organizing will be “more democracy, zero sanctions.”
The Biden administration has taken a positive view of Petro hosting such a conference but is waiting to see the details before it decides 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’s government and the opposition will not be present.
Anti-drug efforts are also expected to figure into Thursday’s talks, the official said, another issue on which the Biden administration and Colombia’s new leader have not always seen eye-to-eye.
Petro has derided the U.S.-led war on drugs as a failure and called for a new international approach.
(Reporting By Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Additional reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb and Oliver Griffin in Bogota; Editing by Alistair Bell)
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