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BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Under former President Donald Trump, the United States pushed for regime change in Venezuela. In response to Venezuela’s authoritarian leader Nicolás Maduro’s crackdown on democracy, Washington in 2019 imposed sanctions on the country’s vital oil sector. Along with more than 50 countries, the United States has recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president. And that encouraged the Venezuelan military to overthrow Maduro.
But none of that worked. The military continues to back Maduro, who has (barely) kept Venezuela’s economy afloat by selling oil to China and other allies. Support for Guaidó, who cedes no real power, is dwindling, with more and more countries re-engaging with Maduro. Today, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the banning of Russian oil imports are prompting the United States to seek new sources of energy.
For all of these reasons, the Biden administration is extending a tentative olive branch to Venezuela.
How is the US reaching out to Maduro?
The Biden administration sent delegations to Caracas where the two sides brokered a prisoner swap that freed seven Americans, including five oil executives. They also discussed easing US sanctions, a move that could help US-based Chevron expand its oil operations in Venezuela.
But before that happens, the United States wants the Maduro regime to return to stalled negotiations in Mexico with Venezuela’s political opposition. Its leaders are demanding democratic reforms that would open the door to free and fair Venezuelan presidential elections in 2024.
“We would like the release of political prisoners,” Carlos Vecchio, the Venezuelan opposition envoy to Washington, told NPR, speaking of his compatriots imprisoned in Venezuela. “We would like to see a date for elections. We would like to see free media and protection against human rights abuses.”
What’s in it for the Maduro regime?
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Sanctions relief would help Venezuela rebuild its oil industry and allow its crude to start flowing again to world markets, including to the United States, which was once Venezuela’s top buyer. Venezuela is home to the largest proven oil reserves in the world and produces nearly 3 million barrels of oil per day. That figure fell to just 534,000 in October, according to Reuters.
Reviving the oil sector would help revive Venezuela’s moribund economy which, mainly due to corruption and mismanagement, shrank by around two-thirds between 2014 and 2020. A growing economy, in turn , would boost Maduro if he runs for president again in 2024.
Maduro “can use repression and fraud to stay in power. But I think he would much rather win a relatively clean election,” said Phil Gunson, senior analyst in Caracas for the International Crisis Group. “And he can’t do that unless the economy is fixed or at least seems to be heading in the right direction.”
What’s in it for the Biden administration?
A re-engagement could convince Maduro to resume negotiations with the political opposition with the aim of free elections and a democratic transition.
If that happens, a gradual lifting of sanctions could put more Venezuelan oil on the world market, a key objective amid the energy shock caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The re-engagement of the United States could help mitigate the growing influence of Russia and China in Venezuela.
Sanctions relief could, in turn, help improve the Venezuelan economy and reduce the exodus of Venezuelan migrants. Under Maduro, more than 7 million people fled Venezuela, many heading to the United States.
Meanwhile, Colombian President Gustavo Petro met Maduro in Caracas on Tuesday and pledged to improve trade and security cooperation between neighboring countries, in another sign of nations warming up to the regime.