Maduro and Washington Send Signals of Tentative Detente
(Bloomberg) -- After years of intensifying hostility, the U.S.-Venezuela relationship is under quiet review, with Caracas taking conciliatory steps, top American figures serving as go-betweens and the Biden administration reviewing its sanctions policy.
None of the steps were taken in coordination with Washington and a lot would have to happen before the two sides could sit down for talks. But U.S. figures with good access to the administration are speaking with Maduro and his inner circle. They include House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks, former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and World Food Programme Director David Beasley.
The administration’s public posture remains the one pursued by Donald Trump -- rejection of Maduro and support for Juan Guaido, leader of the opposition, as the legitimate president of the country.
A Biden administration official said, however, that the U.S. is undertaking a review of its policy to Venezuela, examining the sanctions to make sure they are in line with its objectives and waiting to see concrete steps from Maduro.
The official said the Maduro regime should be talking with its opposition to set up free and fair elections. Regarding the contacts with Americans, the official added that they are watching them very closely.
On Tuesday, Guaido seemed to respond to the administration’s desire and called for an electoral accord between all sectors of the opposition and Maduro’s government. He proposed sanctions relief as an incentive for the regime’s participation. The accord must have international support and focus on holding new presidential and legislative elections, he said on his social media.
“These are important steps,” Cynthia Arnson, head of Latin American Program at the Wilson Center in Washington, said of Maduro’s recent changes. “It’s crystal clear they’re trying to get sanctions relief and that the Biden administration is uncomfortable with the severity of the sanctions policy. But there’s deep distrust in the concept of negotiations and people are not willing to get burned again in the absence of real evidence of concessions on the ground politically.”
Meeks, a New York Democrat, has urged the administration to welcome Maduro’s moves.
“The Biden administration should send clear signals to Caracas that acknowledge these positive gestures and incentivize further progress toward democracy,” he said in a statement last week. “I am committed to exploring multilateral solutions.”
Richardson’s office said he has been in “regular contact” with Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodriguez and National Assembly President Jorge Rodriguez on the arrested Citgo executives as well as two American former Green Berets currently held in Caracas.
Venezuela’s presidency didn’t respond to a request for comment.
While the Biden administration still supports Guaido, his failure to oust Maduro more than two years since being declared interim president has prompted communication between the U.S and Maduro.
On one side, Maduro seeks relief from sanctions seven years into the nation’s worst economic crisis. On the other, the U.S. is hoping to keep destabilizing forces -- including those of Venezuela’s allies, Russia and Iran -- from spreading in the region, as well as protect the interest of U.S. bondholders and high-stakes American companies on the ground, such as Chevron Corp.
“While the U.S. supports a comprehensive, negotiated solution to the crisis in Venezuela that addresses all aspects of the conditions necessary for free and fair elections, it’s up to Venezuelans to decide whether the new National Electoral Council contributes to this end,” Julie Chung, assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs at the State Department, said in response to questions.
Negotiations should include the release of political prisoners, credible electoral observers and a public electoral calendar, she added.
Another Biden official said the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela is central to its concerns.
Maduro’s mismanagement and cronyism have led Venezuela, with the world’s largest known oil reserves and once a relatively wealthy nation, down a path of dysfunction, disintegration and hunger. Millions have left. Maduro’s re-election in 2018 was viewed as rigged and illegitimate.
The Trump administration froze the Maduro government’s assets in the U.S., banned travel to any Venezuelan citizen determined to have assisted or acted on Maduro’s behalf and imposed a de facto ban on U.S. imports of Venezuelan oil, the nation’s largest source of revenue.
The moves put Venezuela on the same footing as North Korea and Iran, threatening nearly any company or person who deals with the country with exile from the international financial system.
Last week, Venezuela appointed two opposition members to its five-member electoral board for the first time in 18 years. It was a step in the right direction but still not the creation of a genuinely democratic body, said Caracas-based political scientist Ana Milagros Parra.
“Maduro needs legitimacy, to access to the international financial system and renegotiate the nation’s debt,” Parra said. “He needs to negotiate without putting his permanence in power at risk.”
While Maduro showed rare leniency by agreeing to a bipartisan deal in February to organize the purchase and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines alongside the opposition, he has so far sidelined the body. He sent a $120 million payment to the World Health Organization-backed Covax initiative in April without disclosing its origins, saying he won’t “be turned into a beggar.”
“Maduro’s government moved a token inside a game board that they control,” Parra said. “The opposition must decide whether to remain stagnant with Guaido’s strategy or to design an action plan. The difference between Trump and Biden’s narratives are huge.”
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