Image copyright Reuters Image caption Ex-national security advisor on energy Rafael Ramirez in Venezuela
Four years ago, then-secretary of state Rex Tillerson said relations with the Venezuelan government were “up for renegotiation”.
The US accused Nicolas Maduro’s government of trampling upon freedom of expression, and they’re not alone.
In the streets of Caracas, the most poignant visitor is a statue of a man giving the sign of the cross, bearing the initials “C9N”.
President Nicolas Maduro has put it on the street for all to see, outside his home and official office.
Image copyright AFP Image caption Oil executives are at the forefront of the conflict
It is a gesture, built on the metaphor of the crucified Christ, symbolic of an apocalyptic persecution at his hands.
But behind it, another symbolism is unfolding in Venezuela’s capital: blood on the streets.
The oil executives who could protect the people have found themselves as the pawns of a power struggle, between Mr Maduro and the US, whose government it says is trying to topple him.
Image copyright Reuters Image caption Rafael Ramirez, ex-national security advisor on energy, in Venezuela
In the political scene, most of the levers of power, the power structure of Nicolás Maduro’s government, are firmly in the hands of two brothers and their families, led by his heir-apparent Juan Rodríguez.
But, with the help of the US administration, opposition groups are gaining power.
The US has increased pressure on Mr Maduro with the threat of tougher sanctions, saying that if there is a political transition, “voting machines have been used to steal elections”.
Image copyright AP Image caption A Venezuelan woman holds up a huge sign to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro
There have been 1,000 protests in recent months, with 27 dead, according to official figures, but opposition groupings say that the official numbers are inflated and that the real number of deaths is at least twice that.
If things get any worse, and tensions continue to rise, regional countries such as Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador could join the US in the push to oust Mr Maduro, setting off a major constitutional crisis.
So, at any moment, change is just over the corner.
Image copyright AFP Image caption Policemen in Caracas clash with activists (background)
For now, barring an unlikely summit between the two countries’ presidents, John Kerry, the US secretary of state, visits Caracas with fresh allegations of human rights abuses in Venezuela, presented alongside images of Venezuelan jailed opposition activists.
Three of those taken into custody, Leopoldo López, Antonio Ledezma and Freddy Guevara, are being held on remand, a national security judge refusing to hear their pleas for bail.
Mr López was briefly jailed in 2014. Mr Ledezma was jailed in 2015. Mr Guevara spent two years in jail before being released.
Image copyright AFP Image caption Mr Kerry’s comments follow days of clashes between protesters and security forces
Mr Ledezma said he was glad to see the Secretary of State visiting Venezuela.
But Mr Ledezma, who has been outspoken about the treatment of political prisoners, highlighted another side of a visit that the US regards as the most dangerous in decades.
Image copyright AFP Image caption National security advisor in charge of Ecuador, Gustavo Coronel, in Caracas
He said “the US needs to stop talking about human rights, and start protecting our friends in the region”.
For its part, Venezuela’s government insists that “political crimes” committed on its territory are a “deep national shame”.
It has threatened to release the three prisoners if the US backs off, but a reprieve may not seem probable until the freedom of a former oil executive, Rafael Ramirez, his country’s former leader of national oil company PDVSA, is under threat.
He was arrested in 2015 and held in a military jail, but was released after four months. Now, despite never being charged, he is back in prison.
The government says he is being held because of “anti-Chavista” activity, including his comment last year that Fidel Castro was “not a communist”.
Mr Maduro is angry about US-orchestrated links to anti-government groups.
He has called for the US to take action against members of the CIA, the DEA and the FBI, which are alleged to have formed an anti-government coalition.