It was little more than a year ago that US officials were publicly rubbishing the prospect of engagement with Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro, who they described as a “dictator”.
“His repression, corruption and mismanagement have generated one of the most dire humanitarian crises this hemisphere has seen,” the state department spokesperson, Ned Price, declared in February 2021. “We certainly don’t expect any contact with Maduro anytime soon.”
Yet 2022 appears to have heralded a new dawn for Washington-Caracas ties, as geopolitical shifts caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and political deadlock in the economically devastated South American country prompt a major policy rethink from members of Joe Biden’s administration – and offer Venezuela’s authoritarian leader to eleven unlikely political lifeline.
On Tuesday, the US announced a gentle easing of the economic sanctions it has spent years using to push for political change in Venezuela – including against a nephew of its first lady – a move senior members of Maduro’s government celebrated.
“Venezuela hopes that these decisions by the United States of America will pave the way to the total lifting of the illegal sanctions which affect our entire people,” the country’s vice-president, Delcy Rodríguez, Tweeted in English as the news emerged.
Simultaneously, her brother, another top Chavista called Jorge Rodríguez, shared a photograph of himself shaking hands with the chief negotiator for Venezuela’s opposition, Gerardo Blyde, signaling the reactivation of stalled talks designed to bridge the country’s toxic political schism.
“Congratulations!” tweeted Marcelo Ebrard, the foreign minister of Mexico, where those negotiations were happening until their suspension last October after the extradition of the Maduro ally Alex Saab to the US.
Some see Washington’s change of heart as a direct consequence of Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine. In March, days after Russia’s onslaught began, senior US officials flew to Caracas for their first encounter with Maduro representatives in years.
That visit was partly motivated by a US desire to increase oil production in Venezuela – which boasts the world’s largest proven reserves – in order to restrain global oil prices, which have soared as a result of Putin’s war.
Christopher Sabatini, a Chatham House Latin America expert, said the war in Ukraine had also prompted a rethink in Caracas, which desperately needed new markets for its oil as well as access to western refineries, banking systems and investment. “It’s true that oil prices have gone up with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but, because of sanctions, Russia is now increasing the sale of its oil to China, which was Venezuela’s principal market,” he added.
Yet Sabatini believed Washington’s shift had been planned well before Putin’s invasion and reflected the US’s realization that the Trump-era “maximum pressure” policy – by which harsh sanctions were used to try to topple Maduro and replace him with the young opposition leader Juan Guaidó – had failed. “It is a demonstration that the US and much of the international community bet on a solution that simply hasn’t worked,” Sabatini said.
“That’s anathema to some people in the US Congress. It’s anathema to some elements of the Venezuelan opposition who always hoped and dreamed for some sort of cathartic collapse of the government and the fleeing of Maduro and his cronies of him. But clearly Maduro has hung on, [albeit] at a huge cost to his country … and now the US has to [engage].”
Representatives of Venezuela’s mainstream opposition, and the rival government Guaidó created when his campaign to unseat Maduro started in January 2019, now accept dealing with their foe is the only way forwards as the country heads towards its next scheduled presidential election in 2024.
Speaking to the Guardian during a recent tour of Europe, Guaidó’s deputy foreign minister, Isadora Zubillaga, admitted: “The reality is that we must talk. We were not able to wipe them out and they were not able to wipe us out either. That negotiation process must include discussion of the lifting of sanctions and penalties.”
However, Zubillaga warned the west against boosting what she called a Putin-led autocratic coalition by offering too many concessions to Maduro. “The Maduro regime is supported by the international alliance, including countries like Iran, Russia, Cuba and China. If Maduro is helped, so is Putin,” Zubillaga said.
A senior US administration official said that it would calibrate its sanctions policy depending on the behavior of Maduro’s administration and whether “ambitious, concrete and irreversible” steps towards free and democratic elections were achieved at talks.
Members of the US right denounced the loosening of sanctions, which include allowing limited contact between the US oil giant Chevron and Venezuela’s government. “Biden continues his effort to appease anti-American communist dictators,” tweeted the Republican Senator Marco Rubio, one of the cheerleaders for Trump’s bungled anti-Maduro drive. A Wall Street Journal editorial slammed Biden’s “dance with a Latin dictator.”
Others expressed cautious optimism that, while there would be no overnight solutions to Venezuela’s profound economic, humanitarian and political crises, the return of negotiations – and incentives for Maduro and others around him to offer concessions – was a step towards a democratic transition.
Geoff Ramsey, the director for Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America, said: “The only feasible transition is a covenanted transition which is going to require some level of negotiations with political, military and economic elites.
“What we are seeing is a recognition of that reality. I don’t think that means that the US or other actors of the international community are ignorant or naive about the difficulties that lie ahead,” he added. “If the problem in Venezuela were simply a lack of dialogue we would have seen the crisis solved years ago.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism