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U.S. To Ease A Few Economic Sanctions Against Venezuela

CARACAS — The United States government is moving to ease a few economic sanctions on Venezuela in a gesture meant to encourage resumed negotiations between the U.S.-backed opposition and the government of President Nicolás Maduro.

The limited changes will allow Chevron Corp. to negotiate its license with the state-owned oil company, PDVSA, but not to drill or export any petroleum of Venezuelan origin, two senior U.S. government officials told The Associated Press late Monday. The officials spoke under the condition of anonymity because the formal announcement had not been made.

Additionally, Carlos Erik Malpica-Flores — a former high-ranking PDVSA official and nephew of Venezuela’s first lady — will be removed from a list of sanctioned individuals, they said.

Hours after the announcement Tuesday, the opposition and Venezuela’s government acknowledged they had begun conversations on possibly restarting negotiations.

The moves follow goodwill gestures by Maduro after meeting in March with representatives of the administration of President Joe Biden and a recent gathering in Central America between U.S. officials and the main Unitary Platform opposition coalition to discuss a path forward.

“These are things that … the Unitary Platform negotiated and came to us to request that we do in order for them to be able to return to the negotiating table,” one of the officials said.

Scores of Venezuelans, including the country’s attorney general and the head of the penitentiary system, and more than 140 entities, among them Venezuela’s Central Bank, will remain sanctioned. The Treasury Department will continue to prohibit transactions with the Venezuelan government and PDVSA within U.S. financial markets.

Maduro himself is under indictment in the United States, accused of conspiring “to flood the United States with cocaine” and use the drug trade as a “weapon against America.”

Venezuela’s government suspended talks with the opposition in October after the extradition to the U.S. of a key Maduro ally on money laundering charges. Maduro at the time conditioned his return to the negotiating table on the release from custody of businessman Alex Saab, who was extradited from the African nation of Cape Verde.

The negotiations took place in Mexico City under the guidance of Norwegian diplomats.

California-based Chevron is the last major U.S. oil company to do business in Venezuela, where it first invested in the 1920s. Its four joint ventures with PDVSA produced about 200,000 barrels a day in 2019, but the U.S. government ordered it in 2020 to wind down production, and since then, it has only been allowed to carry out essential work on oil wells to preserve its assets and employment levels in Venezuela.

The change allows “Chevron to negotiate the terms of the potential future activities in Venezuela,” a senior U.S. official told reporters Tuesday. “It does not allow entry into any agreement with PDVSA or any other activity involving PDVSA or … Venezuela’s oil sector. So, fundamentally, what they are doing is just allowed to talk.”

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Governor Bryan Issues Statement About Transfer Day

CHARLOTTE AMALIE — Governor Albert Bryan issued the following statement in commemoration of Transfer Day on Thursday, March 31, 2022:

“As we go through this transformative time of rebuilding the U.S. Virgin Islands and head into a brighter future for all Virgin Islanders, I want to remind everyone of our history as a territory and how far we as a people have come since Denmark sold our islands to the United States,” he said. “Let us never forget our roots and resilience as we continue on this path of recovery and restoring our Territory toward the better standard of living all residents of the USVI deserve.”

More than one hundred years ago today, sailors from two nations stood facing each other as the captain of the Danish warship Valkyrien and American Navy ship Hancock officially transferred the islands from Denmark to the United States. Cannons were fired as first the Danish national anthem was played for a final time and the Dannebrog was lowered and then the Star Spangled Banner was played and the Stars and Bars raised. 

It was the result of three attempts at ending Denmark’s colonial rule that had begun more than 50 years before in 1865. While King Christian X and the Danish people approved the sale of St. Thomas and St. John to the United States for $7.5 million, the U.S. Congress never ratified the agreement.  

In 1900, rumors that Denmark would trade the islands to Germany in exchange for territory it lost during a war prompted a new U.S. offer, this time for all three islands. But feeling pressure from business interests, Danish legislators objected.

It would be World War I and fears of Germany establishing a base in the West Indies that would finally spur the sale of the islands for $25 million in gold. While Danish politicians were split on the issue, a referendum — the first in Denmark to include women and servants — would overwhelmingly back the sale. Virgin Islanders, however, were left out of the vote. 

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Puerto Rico Exits Bankruptcy After Grueling Debt Negotiation

Puerto Rico’s government is formally exiting bankruptcy after completing the largest public debt restructuring in U.S. history after announcing nearly seven years ago that it was unable to pay its more than $70 billion debt

SAN JUAN — Puerto Rico’s government formally exited bankruptcy Tuesday, completing the largest public debt restructuring in U.S. history after announcing nearly seven years ago that it was unable to pay its more than $70 billion debt.

The exit means that the American Caribbean territory’s government will resume billion-dollar payments to bondholders for the first time in several years, settle some $1 billion worth of claims filed by residents and local businesses and issue more than $10 billion worth of bonds. The government also will restore up to $1.3 billion taken from a public pension system.

“This is a significant success,” said Natalie Jaresko, executive director of the federal control board that oversees Puerto Rico’s finances and its debt restructuring process. “Remaining in bankruptcy has been a drag on the economy in multiple ways.”

The bankruptcy led to widely criticized austerity measures on an island that paid some $1 billion in fees to consultants and lawyers and in other expenses during the process.

The exit was a priority for the board and Jaresko, who previously announced she is retiring April 1. A replacement has not been named yet. The board is expected to remain in place until Puerto Rico has four consecutive balanced budgets, a feat that has yet to be achieved.

The debt restructuring plan was approved by a federal judge in January. It reduces claims against Puerto Rico’s government from $33 billion to just over $7.4 billion, with 7 cents of every taxpayer dollar going to debt service, compared with 25 cents previously.

“This is a transcendental moment,” said Gov. Pedro Pierluisi. “The plan is not perfect … but it has a lot of good things.”

The board has clashed several times with Pierluisi and previous administrations, particularly on a proposal to reduce certain monthly pension benefits that was ultimately scrapped.

The plan also creates a public pension reserve trust that will be funded with more than $10 billion in upcoming years.

“For decades, past governments have neglected to put aside enough money,” Jaresko said.

While many celebrated Puerto Rico’s exit from bankruptcy, Jaresko said it is unlikely the island will be able to access financial markets soon because it has yet to get its audited financial statements up to date.

Puerto Rico accumulated more than $70 billion in public debt and more than $50 billion in public pension liabilities through decades of corruption, mismanagement and excessive borrowing. The U.S. Congress created the federal board in 2016, a year after the island’s government said it was unable to pay its debt.

In 2017, Puerto Rico’s government filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S history. Months later, Hurricane Maria struck, razing the island’s power grid and causing billions of dollars in damage.

Still unresolved are the bankruptcy proceedings for the $5.8 billion in debt held by Puerto Rico’s Highways and Transportation Authority and the Electric Power Company, which owes $9 billion, the largest debt of any government agency.

In early March, Puerto Rico’s governor announced he was canceling a debt restructuring deal for the power company, saying that worsening inflation, surging oil prices and other factors had changed significantly since the deal was negotiated with creditors in 2019.

Jarekso said the board expects to soon renew negotiations, mediation and discussion with all those who bought bonds issued by the power company.

By DÁNICA COTO/The Associated Press

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Venezuela Frees American Hostage To Curry Favor For Deal To Replace Russian Oil

CARACAS — The Venezuelan government freed at least one jailed American on Tuesday night as it seeks to improve relations with the Biden administration, which is looking to undercut support for Russia in Latin America.

A nongovernmental group that tracks arbitrary detentions and another person familiar with the matter confirmed to The Associated Press the release of Gustavo Cardenas, one of six oil executives jailed for more than four years.

Venezuela Frees American Hostage To Curry Favor For Deal To Replace Russian Oil
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a ceremony marking the start of the judicial year at the Supreme Court in Caracas, Venezuela, Jan. 27, 2022. Maduro signaled an interest in improving relations with the U.S. following talks with high-level American officials prompted in part by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and concerns of rising gas prices in the U.S., in a televised meeting with cabinet members late Monday, March 7, 2022, but did not provide details of the discussions. (AP Photo/Matias Delacroix, File)

The move follows a secret weekend visit to Venezuela by senior Biden administration officials, including the top White House official on Latin America and the State Department’s top hostage negotiator.

The release came hours after Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro signaled an interest in improving relations with the U.S. amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and concerns in the United States over rising gas prices.

The State Department declined to comment Tuesday evening. But Cardenas’s release was confirmed by Foro Penal, a nongovernmental group, and by a person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to discuss the issue by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, came home empty-handed from a previous trip to Caracas in December. But he returned to Venezuela this weekend with other administration officials including Juan Gonzalez, the National Security Council director for the Western Hemisphere, and Ambassador James Story, who heads the U.S. government’s Venezuelan Affairs Unit out of neighboring Colombia.

Cardenas and five other executives of Houston-based Citgo, a subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-owned oil giant, had been in detention in Venezuela since 2017 over a never-executed plan to refinance billions in the oil company’s bonds. The U.S. government has pressed for their release.

Three other Americans are also being held in Venezuela — two former Green Berets, Mark Denman and Airan Berry, who were arrested for their involvement in a confusing plot to overthrow Maduro, and former U.S. Marine Matthew Heath, detained on weapons charges.

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SATANIC VERSE! Crotchety Old Crank Ayatollah Ali Khamenei Blames USA For Russian Invasion

TEHRAN — Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Tuesday the war in Ukraine should be stopped and accused the “mafia-like regime” of the United States of creating the conflict.

Russia, whose troops invaded Ukraine Thursday, is a strategic partner for Iran, which has been under Western sanctions for years. While Tehran and Washington have been foes for decades, Iran and Russia have deepened trade ties and have been allies in the Syrian conflict.

“The U.S. regime creates crises, lives off of crises and feeds on various crises in the world. Ukraine is another victim of this policy,” Khamenei said in a televised speech.

“In my view, Ukraine is a victim of the crises concocted by the United States,” he said. “There are two lessons to be learnt here. States which depend on the support of the U.S. and Western powers need to know they cannot trust such countries.”

Khamenei criticized Washington and other Western nations as talks reached a critical stage in Vienna between Iran and world powers about reviving a 2015 nuclear deal.

Despite progress in the talks, the key sticking point is Tehran wants the issue of uranium traces found at several old but undeclared sites in Iran to be dropped and closed forever, an Iranian official told Reuters.

Iran said on Monday efforts to revive the pact could succeed if the United States took a political decision to meet Tehran’s remaining demands, as months of negotiations enter what one Iranian diplomat called a “now or never” stage.

The stakes are high, because the failure of 10 months of talks could carry the risk of a fresh regional war, more harsh sanctions on Iran by the West and continued upward pressure on world oil prices already strained by the Ukraine conflict.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman has said the remaining issues included the extent to which sanctions would be rolled back and providing guarantees that the United States would not quit the pact again.

All parties involved in the talks say progress has been made toward the restoration of the pact to curb Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, which the United States abandoned in 2018. But Tehran and Washington have each said there are still some significant differences to overcome.

REUTERS

Reporting by Dubai Newsroom; Writing by Michael Georgy Editing by Alex Richardson and Jon Boyle

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