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As the price of gas goes up, can the U.S. turn to Venezuela for oil?

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Russia is one of the world's largest oil producers. But its brutal war on Ukraine has pushed the U.S. to look elsewhere for that oil, that includes the home of the largest crude oil reserves in the world, Venezuela. But there are complications. The U.S. doesn't recognize the presidency of Nicolas Maduro. He's regarded as a corrupt dictator. He's also one of the strongest Latin American allies of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. And because of the Maduro regime, the U.S. has banned American oil companies from operating in Venezuela.

WILLIAM NEUMAN: Venezuela has been in the midst of, you know, a historic, epic economic collapse for the last eight years.

MARTINEZ: William Neuman is a former New York Times Andes region bureau chief. He's also the author of "Things Are Never So Bad That They Can't Get Worse: Inside The Collapse Of Venezuela."

NEUMAN: It's lost 80% of its economic production. It's had hyperinflation, the, you know, shortages of food, medicine, gasoline, the collapse of the infrastructure.

MARTINEZ: And this leads to what the U.N. Refugee Agency describes as the second-largest external displacement crisis in the world, over 6 million Venezuelans fleeing.

NEUMAN: Right, second only to Syria, which has been in the middle of a civil war. And in Venezuela, all it took was just mismanaging the economy.

MARTINEZ: The Biden administration recently made diplomatic overtures toward the Maduro government. And I wanted to get Neuman's reaction to that.

So on the heels of the war in Ukraine and the ban on Russian oil, when the Biden administration appeared like they were opening up a line of communication to Maduro in Venezuela, what did you make of that?

NEUMAN: The thing is that Venezuela's oil industry has really been brought to its knees over the last several years. And so production is way down. And at this point, even though they're sitting on top of all that oil, they can't increase production that much. So there's no way that you could get enough oil out of Venezuela at this point to affect the world oil price, which is really what determines the price at the pump in the U.S. I think that Biden did that mostly because he is trying to signal to American voters, look; I'm trying to do everything possible to bring in as much oil as I can because I recognize that the price of gasoline keeps going up.

MARTINEZ: But if that continues to happen, though, William, if the price of oil keeps going up and up and up to a point where Biden would have to maybe make strange bedfellows with Venezuela, I mean, could he maybe leverage the U.S. market in exchange for democratic reforms in Venezuela, or do something where it would help the people of Venezuela actually get something good out of this deal?

NEUMAN: Sure. Well, you know, the U.S. policy, even at the end of the Trump administration, was to promote negotiation between the opposition in Venezuela and Maduro. And one of the things that they discussed when the Biden folks went to talk to Maduro was resuming negotiations. And that's still being talked about in Venezuela. But in terms of - what everybody's hoping for is some kind of negotiation that would guarantee a more fair election. There's a presidential election coming up in 2024. And the country's politics are all pointed to that. The problem is, with the sanctions, once you put them in - it's very easy to put sanctions on. It's very difficult to remove them. So you have this oil sanction. And even though it hasn't given you the results that you wanted and it's actually made the crisis in Venezuela worse for ordinary people, its existence is now it's justification. So once it's there, it's very hard to remove the thing. So there's incentive for Maduro to try and do something. There's incentive for the U.S. The question is, what sort of political arrangement can you get in Venezuela?

MARTINEZ: But if the U.S., William, were to somehow start doing business with Venezuela, allow American oil companies to operate more in Venezuela, would that legitimize the presidency of Nicolas Maduro?

NEUMAN: I don't think that it legitimizes Maduro. You know, I was talking the other day to Chuo Torrealba, who's an activist in Caracas. And he was the head of the coalition of opposition political parties for several years. And he would - talking about the sanctions, he calls it the politics of pain. There's this very cynical logic behind the sanctions, which is that if we make things bad enough, if we squeeze the economy and squeeze people and increase their suffering, then the people will rise up and rebel against the government. Or the armed forces will stage a coup to get rid of Maduro. But it doesn't work that way. People who are starving don't make revolutions. It hasn't worked that way in Venezuela. And Chuo, who I was talking with, he says, to make politics with people's pain is a mistake.

MARTINEZ: Would it be a failure of sorts if the United States satisfies its dependency on oil by opening the door to Venezuela in order to stick it to Russia?

NEUMAN: I think that we should reverse that. I mean, the question is certainly worth asking. But the opposite question is also worth asking, which is, is it a failure to maintain the sanctions because the sanctions have contributed to the suffering in Venezuela? And so by keeping the sanctions in place, you are essentially saying, we would rather, you know, continue this level of suffering even though it hasn't produced the results we wanted. It's one thing to talk about inflation and economics and geopolitics and all that. But the important thing to keep in mind with Venezuela is that there's real people on the ground who are hurting from this. And in the book, one of the things that I try to do is really focus it on people's stories.

So you know - so there's a woman who lives in Petare, which is one of the biggest slum in Latin America. Her name is Hilda (ph). She has seven kids. Her youngest son, Gregorio (ph), who is 4, his teeth were turning black and falling out because he wasn't getting enough calcium. There's a woman named Marlan, who, during the massive blackouts, participated in the looting because she had no food at home. And then she said, you know, how did I fall this low that I went and had to go and steal food? And how did my country get to this point? So it's people like that and their stories that really bring this kind of thing home.

MARTINEZ: That's William Neuman. His new book is called "Things Are Never So Bad That They Can't Get Worse: Inside The Collapse Of Venezuela." William, thanks.

NEUMAN: Thanks very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANKO'S "RAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.