Since the imposition of the first sanctions in 2017, the dominant structure of the Chavista regime in Venezuela knew how to read the unfavorable international context and decided to use all the resources that it had in its favor: entrench in power, seek help from international allies that are also committed to dent the U.S. global leadership and hope for better conditions in the future.
In recent years, the Chavista regime has made progress in the consolidation of authoritarianism and today it finds itself strengthened against a divided and exhausted opposition. But in economic terms, conditions have improved. Uncoordinated and government-driven liberalization policies have indeed yielded some results, even with the economy in dismal shape and record levels of poverty and inequality. By the end of 2021, the economy returned to growth after seven consecutive years of shrinking activity that had prompted GDP to contract by more than 80%, and by early 2022, the country showed signs of emerging from hyperinflation.
On the external front, since 2021, Maduro has strived to improve his image as a dictator and tried to regain the recognition lost since the disputed 2018 presidential elections. Also in 2021, Biden’s inauguration as U.S. president came with new foreign policy priorities, including the exit from Afghanistan, dealing with the consequences of Trump’s diplomacy, political tensions in different parts of the world and a strategic reformulation to contain China’s advance.
At the region’s level, the swing of the ideological pendulum in the region’s governments in recent years has been accompanied by postures of distancing from the United States and its policies for the hemisphere, as well as greater tolerance for the left’s authoritarianism in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine as a turning point
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine demanded attention and priority from the U.S. and European agenda. Contrary to many predictions, the allies reacted to the Russian invasion with the imposition of sanctions, including, among other measures, a ban on imports of Russian oil and gas.
The measures come amid a slow recovery of oil and gas supplies, stemming from the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. In this sense, the sanctions have put further pressure on the international prices of these resources, generating economic impacts on a global scale.
To contain the impact of the sanctions, last March the US and other member countries of the International Energy Agency agreed to release part of their strategic reserves. However, this decision is not a sustainable solution in time and runs the risk of not having the desired impact on the price of the barrel.
In this context, Venezuela reappeared on the geopolitical chessboard as an option to contribute to the substitution of part of Russia’s oil exports. The idea puts Biden in a dilemma.
From a strategic point of view, Putin is a much more dangerous adversary than Maduro. By this logic, lifting sanctions on Venezuela would help reduce domestic pressure stemming, in part, from rising fuel prices, and external pressure from European allies concerned about the security of hydrocarbon supplies. However, the lifting of sanctions proved problematic for the Democratic administration with congressional elections approaching, especially in the swing state of Florida.
Looking at recent decisions, the Biden administration seems to have opted to reduce expectations of major political changes in Venezuela and to throw the carrot. The still symbolic proposal to lift sanctions against a nephew of Nicolás Maduro and allow Chevron to negotiate the terms of possible future activities in Venezuela seeks to persuade the regime that it is possible to reach agreements with Maduro and his collaborators, provided there are concessions that allow for a re-institutionalization of the country and an orderly transition to democracy.
In exchange, the progressive lifting of sanctions would allow improving the economic conditions of a Venezuela in ruins, mainly through the entry of foreign operating companies to promote the recovery of the oil industry.
The initiative also seeks to reverse Russian influence in Venezuela, and would even have the potential to generate friction between Maduro and Putin. Since the sanctions came into effect, Russia has begun to compete with Venezuela for Chinese market shares, selling oil at a greater discount than the South American country. The coercive measures also hinder the Chavista regime’s ability to move funds deposited in sanctioned Russian banks.
Open questions from the new approach
Although the policy of maximum pressure has not been sufficient to produce a political transition to democracy in Venezuela, sanctions remain one of the few things that encourage Chavismo to talk. However, these measures seem insufficient to bring about a change in the behavior of a regime that continues to advance in the deepening of its authoritarian project, even after the unexpected reception of White House officials in Caracas last March.
Chavismo does not hide its disinterest in negotiating with the opposition either. Upon learning of the possibility of the lifting of sanctions, it announced the resumption of talks to reactivate negotiations in Mexico. Almost immediately after the announcements, the President of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Jorge Rodriguez, reaffirmed the demand for the release of Alex Saab to form part of the Chavista delegation.
In addition, a few days ago, Maduro expressed his refusal to resume negotiations with Norway as facilitator, in a clear gesture towards Russia, in addition to the recent appointment of the former Venezuelan ambassador to the Eurasian country as Chancellor.
In case they are resumed, the talks in Mexico also start with new difficulties to work on the points of the memorandum defined last year, such as, for example, the reestablishment of the rule of law, since the parliament elected in 2020 already renewed the TSJ magistrates with people trusted by Maduro.
Other actions that go against the “spirit of Mexico” is a bill being discussed by the Parliament to control the funds received by NGOs from abroad, with the clear objective of strangling them financially and closing even more the civic space in the country.
In the medium term, the recent experience of the gubernatorial elections generates serious doubts about the possibility that in 2024 Chavismo will allow sufficient conditions of integrity to hold a competitive presidential election capable of threatening Maduro’s control over the executive branch and, with it, the unity of the constellation of key actors around him.
Finally, it is important to ask about the sustainability of the medium and long term vision strategy intended by this initiative of the Biden administration. Domestic political polarization and the current economic context in the U.S. open the possibility that a Republican will reach the White House in 2024, accompanied by new foreign policy guidelines for Venezuela.
Translated from Spanish by Ricardo Aceves