Latin America Advisor

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Does the U.S. Want Warmer Relations With Maduro?

Top U.S. officials met earlier this month with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas as the Biden administration seeks to increase global oil supplies following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. // File Photo: @NicolasMaduro via Twitter. Top U.S. officials met earlier this month with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas as the Biden administration seeks to increase global oil supplies following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. // File Photo: @NicolasMaduro via Twitter.

A U.S. delegation traveled to Caracas to meet with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and other officials in his government in early March. Characterized by Maduro as “respectful” and “cordial,” the meeting took place as the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden is seeking to boost global oil supplies in light of its decision to halt oil imports from Russia over the war in Ukraine. What do the visit and other recent communications mean for relations between the United States and Venezuela, and how can each country benefit from any agreements reached? What does the meeting suggest about the legitimacy and stability of Maduro’s rule in Venezuela, and where does it leave the U.S.-backed opposition? Would a potential easing of U.S. sanctions on the Andean country drive a wedge between Russia and Venezuela?

Marco Rubio, vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and senior member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations: “The Biden administration’s shameless decision to send emissaries to meet with Venezuela’s narco-dictator was not only a PR boost for the criminal Maduro regime, but also a slap to the face of the U.S.-recognized interim government led by President Juan Guaidó and the Venezuelan opposition. Begging for oil was such a disastrous move that the White House has reportedly backtracked, at least for now. But no matter what, Maduro has made clear his loyalty is with Putin.”

Asier Achutegui, former international affairs manager at PDVSA: “Even though Venezuela and the United States should be natural energy trading partners, politics have hampered this enormous commercial potential since the arrival of Hugo Chávez in 1999. Interestingly, most obstructions have come from the United States, while Venezuela was trying to insist on sticking to capitalist principles and leaving politics out of the energy relationship. By slowly making it more difficult for Venezuela to export oil to the United States and for U.S. companies to invest in Venezuela’s energy sector, different administrations have pushed Venezuela to look for new and more reliable partners. This peaked with Trump’s sanctions on the entire energy and financial sectors, forcing Venezuela to turn mainly to Russia for support. These policies have pushed Maduro to create such a strong dependence on Russia that it would be inconceivable for him to jeopardize it. Breaking this bilateral relationship would imply losing access not only to Russian support in oil joint ventures, but also to spare parts for almost all of the country’s military arsenal, as well as IT security networks. It is unlikely that the United States would accept alleviating sanctions without demanding a clear distancing from Russia. This would be too high of a price for Venezuela to pay. However, as current oil prices are driven mostly by perception rather than fundamentals, this visit—an implicit sign that the U.S. government recognizes Maduro’s presidency—might have some effect as it will bring a glimpse of hope with the possibility of international oil companies being allowed to access the world’s largest oil reserves.”

Vanessa Neumann, CEO of Asymmetrica and former Juan Guaidó-appointed Venezuelan ambassador to the United Kingdom: “Pulling Venezuela toward the United States when Russia is at its most isolated since the Cold War is certainly laudable, but the execution was clumsy and uncoordinated. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said it was about oil, but then had State Department spokesman Ned Price backtrack in light of the fierce and united backlash from both sides of the congressional aisle and electorally critical Florida. The Americans needed to astroturf the messaging with the Florida diaspora: explain that they are seeking a way out of the deadlock of Guaidó vs. Maduro, which does nothing for the Venezuelan people. As it played out, the Biden administration shot themselves in the foot heading into the midterms. The quest for a free and prosperous Venezuela should have been the message, even if pursuing U.S. interests in freed American hostages and cheap oil. If Venezuelans think they will get what they need, they will support the United States getting what it needs. Questions remain. If it is to retain any credibility, the United States will have to give some concession in exchange for the two freed hostages. Will that be Chevron’s pumping Venezuelan oil? The United States should not lift sanctions on non-Western companies. Why should they? Also, given Russia’s deep entanglement in PDVSA, we need clarification on how the revenues would be prevented from funding Putin’s war machine’s vast European ambitions but benefit the Venezuelan people. Again, confidence-building measures must be centered around delivering for Venezuelan citizens: food, water, medicine, security, a more stable and growing economy and irreversible steps back to democracy, including votes for the six million in the diaspora.”

Javier Coronado and Eric Pons, partner and associate attorney, respectively, at Diaz Reus: “It is uncertain what opportunity, if any, the war in Ukraine will create for the United States to wedge geopolitical ties between the Maduro regime and Russia. For decades, Russia and China (which has reportedly declared in official statements that its ‘friendship’ with Russia knows ‘no limits’) have spent substantial resources to bolster the finances and military forces of the government of Venezuela in exchange for crude supply and diplomatic allegiance. Putin has supported Maduro with billions of dollars in loans and military deals, as well as extensive training of Venezuela’s army, shielding Russian interests in the South American country. Conversely, the U.S. relationship with Maduro has been crippled for years, with the U.S. government recognizing Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s president, enforcing broad economic sanctions related to Venezuela and actively investigating and prosecuting individuals connected to the Government of Venezuela for allegations of corruption and money laundering. Against this backdrop and considering the U.S. bipartisan opposition to a lifting of sanctions, as well as PDVSA’s complex infrastructural challenges to reanimate oil output, it is unlikely that the visit from Biden’s delegation to Venezuela and the other recent U.S. communications with Maduro will be fruitful, at least in the short term. These U.S. talks with Maduro, however, show that unforeseen times can push drastic measures, and over the medium-to-long term the U.S. Government might reconsider the blocking of certain assets of PDVSA, or license U.S. dealings otherwise prohibited by sanctions related to Venezuela, if necessary to balance oil supplies or help any other U.S. policy objective.” 

Geoff Ramsey, director for Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America: “On March 5, at least three U.S. diplomats traveled to Caracas to meet with Maduro. While there, they also met with some in the Venezuelan opposition, including Gerardo Blyde, the head of the opposition delegation to the negotiations that began last year in Mexico City. In the days that followed, two detained U.S. citizens were released, and Maduro has given tentative signals that he may return to negotiations. This is a major shakeup of U.S. policy, and it’s not without risks. In order for this to succeed, the U.S. government will have to ensure a focus on restoring Venezuela’s democratic institutions. The Biden administration should work to reactivate negotiations in the Mexico City framework but also ensure that negotiations produce substantial reforms that can fulfill the fundamental human rights of the Venezuelan population. In supporting future negotiations, the United States and other governments need to keep their eyes on the prize. Any ‘reformatting’ of the talks, as the Maduro government is seeking, should create spaces for greater participation from civil society and victims—not for the Maduro to evade issues of justice and human rights. The truth is the international community should not support dialogue for dialogue’s sake. The fundamental objective should not be to normalize relations with a dictator, but rather to break the stalemate. If executed properly, this new approach stands a better chance at creating spaces for a democratic opening than the previous administration’s failed ‘maximum pressure’ campaign.” 


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