Wed | Dec 1, 2021

Pressure on Biden to review diesel sanctions on Venezuela

Published:Thursday | March 25, 2021 | 12:10 AM
In this March 3 photo, youths who cull through trash for items to resell ride on the back of a garbage truck entering the Pavia landfill on the outskirts of Barquisimeto, Venezuela.
In this March 3 photo, youths who cull through trash for items to resell ride on the back of a garbage truck entering the Pavia landfill on the outskirts of Barquisimeto, Venezuela.

A United States senator urged the Biden administration on Tuesday to lift a ban on diesel fuel swaps with Venezuela, adding to pressure from some Democrats and aid workers who argue sanctions are worsening the South American country’s dire humanitarian crisis.

The Trump administration in November barred non-US companies from sending diesel to Venezuela in exchange for the country’s crude oil. Previously, such swaps had been exempted from US sanctions aimed at ousting President Nicolás Maduro because of the critical role diesel plays in public transport and helping farmers move food supplies to market in diesel-powered trucks.

Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, a Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent a letter to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken calling for the US to end what he called the “misguided” policy. He said that immediately restoring diesel swaps would “provide life-saving relief for millions of Venezuelans”, as current diesel reserves are expected to run critically low by April.

The ban “has created no real political leverage with Maduro, who was able to manoeuvre around the unilateral sanctions, and, instead, threatens to severely worsen the already-dire humanitarian situation in the country,” Murphy wrote in the letter, a copy of which was provided to The Associated Press.

Murphy’s request comes as the Biden administration reviews US policy towards Venezuela with the goal of building a multilateral front against Maduro and ensuring humanitarian aid gets to Venezuelans in need. It also would seem to reinforce tentative steps by Maduro and the US-backed opposition to work together to jointly address Venezuela’s crisis, beginning with a deal to import badly needed coronavirus vaccines.

It’s an approach favoured by many in the Democratic party as well as aid workers in Venezuela, who are seeking a recalibration of US sanctions policy. Last fall, a group of 115 organisations and individuals in the US and Venezuela wrote then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, warning of “devastating consequences” for regular Venezuelans as a result of the diesel ban.

Neither the Biden administration nor opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who the US recognises as Venezuela’s rightful leader, have said whether they support lifting the diesel ban.

US officials have insisted that current sanctions allow for the delivery of humanitarian goods, though many observers say there is a risk of overcompliance by companies and organisations fearful of doing business with Maduro’s government.

Companies that frequently engaged in the crude-for-diesel swaps with US government authorisation include India’s Reliance Industries Limited, Spain’s Repsol SA, and Italy’s Eni SpA.

Guaidó and his allies blame Maduro’s mismanagement of the oil-based economy for the fuel shortages, pointing out that his government, despite mounting hunger, continues to ship thousands of barrels of diesel daily to ally Cuba.

About 4 per cent of total diesel supplies in Venezuela were shipped to Cuba since January 2020, all of it domestically produced and of a poorer quality than the imported fuel, according to consultancy Gas Energy Latin America.

Feliciano Reyna, head of the Caracas-based aid group Accion Solidaria, which focuses on HIV/AIDS treatment and medical relief activities, said lifting the ban would hopefully unfreeze relations between the Maduro government and the opposition.

He hopes that lifting the diesel ban would eventually lead Maduro to yield on another key demand of aid groups: that the Rome-based World Food Program be allowed to operate in Venezuela.

“This would be a very strong sign from Biden that he’s thinking first of the Venezuelan people,” said Reyna, who testified about the fuel swaps this month before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.