US weighs policy on Venezuela as Maduro signals flexibility
V enezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government is intensifying efforts to court the Biden administration as the new United States president weighs whether to risk a political backlash and ease up on sanctions.
In the past two weeks, Maduro conceded to long-standing US demands that the World Food Program be allowed to establish a foothold in the country at a time of growing hunger. His allies also vowed to work with the US-backed opposition to vaccinate Venezuelans against the coronavirus, and have met with diplomats from Norway trying to revive negotiations to end the country’s never-ceasing political strife.
The frenzy of activity comes as senior US officials are reviewing policy towards Venezuela. An interagency meeting, which was originally scheduled to take place on Monday, and include Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, but was postponed at the last minute, will focus on whether the US should take steps to support an uncertain attempt at dialogue between Maduro and his opponents, said two people, who insisted on anonymity to discuss classified diplomatic matters.
“All these recent movement points to Maduro trying to get Washington’s attention,” said Geoffrey Ramsey, a Venezuela watcher at the Washington Office on Latin America. “The question is whether the White House is ready to commit to a full-fledged negotiations strategy, or whether it will continue to play it safe and keep the policy on the back burner.”
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza and Jorge Rodriguez, the head of the pro-Maduro congress and a key promoter of dialogue, wouldn’t comment when asked about the recent moves by Maduro.
Ramsey said even more goodwill gestures could be on the horizon.
Tuesday is the deadline for a committee in the Maduro-controlled congress to present a list of candidates for the National Electoral Council. Behind the scenes, moderates aligned with former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles have been meeting with Maduro representatives to push for the inclusion of two opposition rectors on the five-member board. If the demand is met, it could pave the way for Maduro’s opponents to participate in mayoral and gubernatorial elections later this year.
Also in the mix is the future of several American citizens jailed in Venezuela. In recent months, former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson has pressed Maduro and senior aides to release six former executives at Houston-based CITGO, who US officials believe are unjustly imprisoned, as well as two former Green Berets who participated in a failed raid last year staged from neighbouring Colombia and a former US Marine being held on unrelated allegations.
So far, the posturing by Maduro has failed to impress officials in Washington.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has described Maduro as a “brutal dictator” and vowed to continue recognising opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful leader — a position shared by more than 50 nations.
With Democrats holding a slim six-seat majority in the House of Representatives, betting on Maduro to follow through on his word could end up hurting their chances in midterm elections.
“As of today, there is simply no reason to believe the Maduro regime is acting in good faith,” said Elliott Abrams, who served as the former administration’s special US envoy to Venezuela and Iran. He cited Maduro’s failure to honour an agreement last year brokered by the World Health Organization’s regional arm to combat the coronavirus pandemic as just one example.
“If the US is going to engage at any point, it should only be done in the context of serious negotiations between the regime and the opposition, to help those negotiations succeed,” said Abrams, now a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations.
The planned US policy meeting could provide a road map for future US actions should momentum towards negotiations build, the two people said, including the lifting of a Trump-era ban on diesel fuel swaps that even some of Maduro’s opponents say is worsening hunger by making it harder to move food supplies to market in diesel-powered trucks.
The US must also decide by June whether to allow Chevron to resume limited drilling and oil shipments — a potential lifeline to Maduro, who is desperate for every dollar as oil production under his watch has fallen to its lowest level since the 1930s despite abundant crude reserves.
As part of a waiver from sanctions granted last year, the US oil giant and its American partners were ordered to cease all operations except those strictly necessary to maintain its assets in the country.
The US State Department wouldn’t comment on Monday’s meeting or the status of the review of US policy. However, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere said the US welcomes efforts to relieve the suffering of the Venezuelan people and bring the country’s humanitarian crisis to an end through effective international cooperation.
To be sure, not all of the signals coming from Caracas are encouraging.
Last week, when the State Department celebrated the World Food Program’s announcement that it would begin providing emergency food assistance to 1.5 million Venezuelan children, Foreign Minister Arreaza took to Twitter to accuse the US of “kidnapping” Venezuela’s resources in international banks through “criminal sanctions”.
That triggered a bitter exchange which ended with Arreaza vowing to present as evidence of blackmail to the International Criminal Court, a tweet by a senior US State Department official conditioning sanctions relief on the release of political prisoners and the organising of free and fair elections.