As gasoline prices continue to reach record highs across the country, President Joe Biden is considering lifting sanctions on the oil-rich communist nation of Venezuela. The move faced backlash from Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who called Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro “a cancer to our hemisphere.”
In 2019, President Donald Trump imposed tough sanctions on Venezuela after Maduro, with the assistance of Chinese and Russian actors, defeated a presidential rival in an election widely viewed by external observers as having been rife with fraud. With Americans focused on Russia and Ukraine, Maduro has undertaken a campaign to have some of these embargoes lifted.
Menendez warned Biden not to do so, arguing that the United States should not support a state that has continued to carry out human rights abuses against its citizens.
“Nicolas Maduro is a cancer to our hemisphere and we should not breathe new life into his reign of torture and murder,” Menendez said on Monday. “As such, I would strongly oppose any action that fills the pockets of regime oligarchs with oil profits while Maduro continues to deprive Venezuelans of basic human rights, freedoms, and even food.”
Maduro tried to encourage the United States to lift its sanctions in a March 3 speech, saying, “here lies the oil of Venezuela, which is available for whomever wants to produce and buy it, be it an investor from Asia, Europe, or the United States.”
A U.S.–Venezuela partnership could go far toward easing the burdens on the United States’ energy sector.
Venezuela has the most known oil reserves of any nation in the world. At 18 percent of all known oil reserves, the country has more oil at its disposal than Saudi Arabia. Despite this natural abundance, Venezuela’s economy has plummeted over the past decade due to the economic policies of Maduro’s socialist regime and Western sanctions.
On Tuesday, Biden announced that he would ban Russian oil imports.
However, Biden has given no indication that he will, as Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) have demanded, increase domestic oil production to fill in the gap left by the embargo. Rather, Biden has looked to Venezuela as a solution to lower gas prices ahead of the midterms.
Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) was lukewarm toward the Russian oil ban in an appearance on a Yahoo News podcast.
“If we really wanted to shut down Russian oil exports, we could try to do that—we could try to shut down their exports to Europe and Asia too,” Malinowski said. “But that would absolutely have a huge impact on global energy prices and gas prices in our country.”
“Some of my Republican colleagues have been urging Biden to do that while preparing to then blame Biden for the inevitable rise in gas prices,” he asserted.
Even before Biden’s ban on Russian oil, gas prices have risen dramatically in recent weeks.
According to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, when President Donald Trump left office, gasoline cost an average of $2.42 per gallon across the nation.
On March 8, according to the American Automobile Association, the average gasoline price across the United States was up to $4.17. In some population-dense and west coast states, including New York, Connecticut, Illinois, California, Oregon, and Washington, the rise in prices was particularly pronounced; In Los Angeles, prices nearly hit $7, an unprecedented cost.
Despite the massive increase in gas prices, the White House and Democrats in Congress have been hesitant to increase U.S. oil production.
In an interview with ABC News, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that boosting domestic oil production through ending the oil lease moratorium and restarting the Keystone pipeline is a “misdiagnosis.”
“I would also note that, on oil leases, what this actually justifies, in President Biden’s view, is the fact that we need to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, on oil in general, and need to look at other ways of having energy in our country and others,” Psaki argued.
On March 2, House Democrats blocked a bill, with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) approval, that would have restarted construction on the Keystone pipeline in order to promote “American energy independence from Russia.”
During a press conference, Pelosi said that she agreed with banning Russian oil but opposed Manchin’s demands that the United States increase its own domestic energy production.
In an effort to combat rising prices, Menendez has put forward legislation that would bar American oil companies from exporting their own oil, forcing the oil to stay on the American market.
“American families deserve to know that oil produced from land belonging to American taxpayers is used to increase the supply here at home, not sent to the other side of the world,” Menendez said. “When we talk about increasing the domestic supply of oil, this is something that can be done and done quickly to adjust the supply-demand balance here in the U.S. more in favor of American consumers.”
However, he stopped short of calling for Biden to reverse his energy policies or placing the blame for rising costs on these policies.
Rather, Menendez blamed “unchecked speculation on the oil trading markets” for the rise in prices. Like the White House, Menendez has pushed for the United States to “break [its] dependence on oil” through “renewable energy and advanced alternative fuels” instead of increasing its oil production.