A delegation of senior U.S. officials visited Venezuela Saturday for talks with members of President Nicolas Maduro’s government to explore the possibility of easing U.S. sanctions against the major oil producer. 

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday the U.S. delegation discussed a range of issues, including energy security, as well as the health and welfare of detained U.S. citizens. 

She said those two issues were “separate paths and conversations.” 

Sources who participated in the talks told media outlets the discussions had been in the works behind the scenes for months but took on new urgency with the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  

Venezuela’s oil production has plummeted over the last two decades, down from roughly 3 million barrels per day in 2002 to fewer than 800,000 barrels per day at the start of this year, according to OPEC. Even so, the country’s crude exports could offset the fallout from a possible oil embargo against Russia. The South American country is also Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strongest ally in the Western Hemisphere. 

The U.S. under former President Donald Trump broke off diplomatic relations with Venezuela in 2019, after the U.S. recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate president, accusing Maduro of rigging the presidential reelection. The Trump administration also blocked all U.S. revenue to Venezuela’s national oil company.  

The Wall Street Journal reports that in recent weeks, some U.S. investors have called on the Biden administration to lift sanctions on Venezuela so it can send more crude oil into the market. That would fill the gap if Western nations decide to impose a boycott on Russian oil. Chevron has also lobbied the administration to modify its license to accept and trade oil in Venezuela.  

The sources say the U.S. delegation to Venezuela was led by Juan Gonzalez, National Security Council senior director for the Western Hemisphere; James Story, ambassador to Venezuela; and Roger Carstens, special presidential envoy for hostage affairs. Carstens was the top U.S. diplomat in Caracas when the Trump administration broke off relations with Maduro in 2019.  

Carstens previously traveled to Caracas in December and met in jail with six oil executives from Houston-based Citgo, former U.S. Marine Matthew Heath and two former Green Berets arrested in connection with a failed raid aimed at toppling Maduro that was staged from neighboring Colombia.  

The U.S. State Department and Venezuela’s Information Ministry declined direct comment on the talks. But Reuters reports little progress was made as both sides made what were characterized as “maximalist demands,” reflecting longtime tensions between the Western Hemisphere’s main power and one of its biggest ideological foes.  

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.