Keys to understand the bold turn of the US with Venezuela – USA – International

The last time a high-ranking US official visited Venezuela was in the late 1990s, when Hugo Chavez was still in power. That is why he was surprised, to put it mildly, by the unexpected trip to Caracas last weekend by Juan González, President Joe Biden’s National Security Adviser for the Western Hemisphere, to meet with the Nicolás Maduro regime. A regime, needless to say, that they do not recognize and with whom they broke diplomatic relations since 2019.

(Lea: Maduro returns to the international scene due to the war in Ukraine)

Perhaps most striking was the way the White House initially tried to justify it. Although the purpose of the trip, they said, was to obtain the release of two detained Americans – something that was achieved – and to reactivate negotiations with the opposition, dead since last year, also sought to ensure US “energy security”.

Given that Washington was about to announce its decision to suspend the import of Russian oil as punishment for its invasion of Ukraine –which it did this Tuesday–, it was interpreted as an almost cynical move: for the sake of stabilizing crude oil prices, which were already fired, the US was willing to buy back Venezuelan oil to fill that gap.

(What’s more: Álex Saab, the exchangeable of the meetings between the US and Nicolás Maduro?)

The news, as expected, fell like a bomb. Politicians from both parties, especially in the state of Florida, came out to harshly criticize her. “It cannot be that the punishment of one tyrant ends up strengthening another,” said Senator Bob Menéndez, who is very close to Biden. And with an additional ingredient, because everything happened on the eve of the meeting between the US president and Iván Duque, a leader who bet his entire presidency on an international campaign of isolation against Maduro as a strategy to restore democratic order in that country. .

With the passing of days and in the face of adverse reaction, Washington recalibrated the message. From energy security he went on to speak of a possible “relief of pressure” against the regime as long as concrete and irreversible steps are taken on the road to the restoration of democracy. He also framed González’s trip as a humanitarian mission for the release of detainees.

According to multiple sources, already at the meeting between the two presidents, Biden assured Duque that he had no plans to revive oil imports and that he considered Maduro a dictator. And then, in a joint statement, they declared that the Venezuelan crisis was a regional challenge and their commitment to support “the reestablishment of democracy, as a necessity to put an end to its political, economic and humanitarian crisis.”

(How are Chavismo and the opposition after meeting with the US?)

the mark of war

So that there is no doubt about the importance that he attaches to Colombia, Biden announced his intention to declare the country an Extra-NATO Principal Ally, a designation that only 17 other countries in the world have and that the Duke himself described as proof that bilateral relations have reached their highest level of closeness in all of history.

(Biden and Duque: what is coming for Colombia as an extra NATO ally)

Despite the nuances and the change in tone, the feeling remained that Washington has begun a turn in its approach to Venezuela that is very marked by the Russian war in Ukraine.

However, despite the nuances and the change in tone, the feeling remained that Washington has begun a turn in its approach to Venezuela that is very marked by the Russian war in Ukraine and its geostrategic impact.

“The impact of Ukraine and the possible collapse of international oil prices – says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue – undoubtedly influenced this. But it is something that came from before. Maduro is already strong, he has power. That is obvious and the opposition is very fractured. And the strategy of waiting for the regime to fall (as a result of sanctions and isolation) has already passed, it has already failed. The other option is a negotiation and the Biden administration was already in that, since they supported the dialogues in Mexico. Ukraine translates into a necessity for the US, but also an opportunity to develop a new agenda that leads to an agreement“, says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue.

Shifter is clear that, although uncomfortable, the turn will not affect the heart of US-Colombian bilateral relations, which is “deep, strong and historic.” But it does force us to rethink approaches.

For the US, moreover, the issue is more complex and does not stop at the borders between the two countries. Even if the Ukrainian conflict ends tomorrow, Washington has understood that it has entered a new period of hostility with Russia that is already turning into a whole cold war that will have its Latin American chapter in which Venezuela –given its proximity to Russia– could become an even greater destabilizing factor.

(End to oil sanctions?: the possible agreement between the US and Venezuela)

And, in that sense, it is in their national interest to try to weaken the ties between Caracas and Moscow. He knows that Maduro is in a rather awkward position. On the one hand, standing by Vladimir Putin’s side in his aggression against Ukraine carries a high political cost. On the other hand, he faces a new reality now that the West has blocked the Russian financial system that he used to collect profits from the sale of crude oil and were the way to evade the sanctions that the US imposed on him three years ago.

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Maduro’s response was very telling. He not only freed two Americans but promised to revive negotiations with the opposition. For Shifter, it is premature to think that this will lead to a reestablishment of relations or a breakdown of the nexus with Moscow. And everything will depend on how these dialogues progress. But as a high-ranking source in the Biden administration told EL TIEMPO: “The Ukraine thing opened a new window for us that we are taking advantage of.”

Oil, election issue

The Ukraine thing opened a new window for us that we are taking advantage of

Still, Washington’s approach is also transactional. In the long term, their goal is to cut off dependence on Russian hydrocarbons, not only from the US but from Europe. And to achieve this, you have to look for alternative sources that are not abundant. To unblock the flow of oil from Iran, it must first sign a new nuclear deal that is yet to be seen. And the Saudis, another important source in the international market, have their own interests and have so far resisted increasing production.

Although a majority of analysts agree that Venezuela’s current capacity, which produces less than 500,000 barrels per day, would have a negligible effect on the international market, they also know that it has enormous oil reserves and that its production could double or triple with a certain amount of energy. quickly if the sanctions are lifted and the investment returns.

For Biden, moreover, the oil issue is a domestic and electoral issue. The value of a gallon of gasoline is already through the roof (US$ 4.25 average dollars), it will continue to grow and will trigger galloping inflation even more. And although Americans – according to the polls – seem to understand that part of the problem has been created by Putin, in the long run they think with their wallets and could punish the Democratic Party in the elections later this year and the presidential ones in 2024 if there is not a change in trajectory.

Of course, the administration knows that the rapprochement with Maduro will cost it in Florida, where hundreds of thousands of expatriate Venezuelans and Cubans live, but also that the high costs of gasoline will weigh more on it at the national level, where the dispute with the regime little it is understood.

The turn, that is also clear, will cause friction not only with Republicans but with Duque and other leaders of the region. The Colombian president was emphatic this week that he has no intention of changing his speech against Maduro, whom he considers responsible for crimes against humanity.

(Will Russia’s attack on Ukraine change the Colombia-Venezuela relationship?)

“With only months remaining in his presidency and for his and his party’s reasons, it would be surprising if Duque abandoned his hard line to align himself with Biden’s more conciliatory tone. Any softening would be used by Gustavo Petro, who leads the polls, to say that he was always wrong in his approach to Venezuela,” says Shifter.

But it is a calculation that the administration, surely, is also billing. “No one knows who will win the elections. The only thing certain is that Duque leaves power in five months and someone else from the center or left will probably arrive who will have a vision more in tune with that of Biden, who seems to be betting on pragmatism and diplomacy“, maintains a diplomatic source in Washington.
That is what remains to be seen.

SERGIO GÓMEZ MASERI
Correspondent of THE TIME
Washington

History of a checkered relationship with Caracas

Relations between Colombia and Venezuela have been for years in a continuous state of diplomatic confrontation and strong crossings of declarations from one side to the other. The culmination of the ties between Bogotá and Caracas occurred in February 2019, when the leader of the Chavista regime, Nicolás Maduro, decided to break all kinds of ties with the Colombian government.

Perhaps one of the most remembered events occurred in 2015, when Maduro closed the border and ordered the expulsion of some 20,000 Colombians, which caused a serious migration crisis.

Then, in 2018, Maduro was elected in a disputed election. Months later, in January 2019, the international community, including Colombia, rejected the elections and, together with 50 other countries, recognized Juan Guaidó as interim president.

In this time of scuffles between Caracas and Bogotá, the border crossings between the two countries have also been affected.

According to data from the Venezuelan Observatory of the Universidad del Rosario, from 2015 to August 2021, more than 40 percent of the days during that period the border remained closed.

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