The sense that neither sanctions on the government of Nicolás Maduro nor international support for the interim government of Juan Guaidó have brought about change for the people of Venezuela may be forcing the U.S. to reassess existing policies.
What Are the Prospects for US-Venezuela Relations in 2023?
Small recent changes in U.S.-Venezuela relations could signal a greater degree of rapprochement in 2023, although experts have reservations that the Biden administration’s goal of free and fair presidential elections in Venezuela in 2024 can be achieved.
US oil firm Chevron this month took over operations at a Venezuelan oil facility after the Treasury Department granted a limited license for it to import small quantities of Venezuelan crude into the US.
President Nicolas Maduro’s government, whose presidency is disputed by his country’s opposition and not recognized by Washington, agreed with opposition leaders to set up a humanitarian fund.
According to the agreement, the United Nations will oversee the use of Venezuelan funds frozen abroad by U.S. sanctions to pay for humanitarian aid in Venezuela estimated at US$3 billion or more.
Beginning of changes?
The licenses and the release of funds for humanitarian aid represent only small fractures in the wall that has been erected between the U.S. and Venezuela in recent decades. There are major obstacles to any meaningful rapprochement and changes in the political landscape within Venezuela and in South America complicate the situation.
Still, growing admission that neither sanctions nor international support for interim government headed by opposition leader Juan Guaidó have brought about change for the people of Venezuela may be forcing a reassessment of existing policies.
Another factor of importance is that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine dislocated global energy markets and made Venezuela’s large crude oil reserves a hugely attractive resource for the U.S. and allies in Europe.
“Although administration officials insist that U.S. policy toward Venezuela has not changed, we have seen obvious changes,” Diego Area of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Center for Latin America told Voice of America.
“I believe that in 2023 will see a greater rapprochement between the United States and Venezuela,” he said.
History of Conflict
U.S.-Venezuela relations have been strained since at least 1999 when former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez took power and implemented leftist reforms. Under Chavez and Maduro, who supplanted Chavez when he died in 2013, opposition to the United States was a key element of their foreign policy.
The relationship worsened in January 2019, when Maduro disputed the results of a presidential election and refused to cede power. The United States and dozens of countries did not recognize him as Venezuela’s legitimate president and supported Guaidó.
The President of Venezuela Nicolás Maduro celebrated legislative elections in 2020, denounced as fraudulent by the United States and other countries. The Administration in Washington continues to recognize the parliament elected in 2015 and the figure of Juan Guaidó as president.
Sanctions imposed by the US and other countries have frozen Venezuelan assets abroad and restricted the Maduro government’s ability to sell oil on international markets. On the other hand the Venezuelan economy has contracted drastically and millions of Venezuelans have fallen into poverty or left the country.
Maduro, however, has maintained power and there is reason to believe that his position in the region today is stronger than it was a few years ago. Changes in leadership in several South American countries have also helped Maduro, particularly in Colombia and Brazil, where right or center-right governments have now leaned to the left.
“That makes things difficult for the U.S. because Maduro’s goal in 2023 is recognition,” Ryan Berg director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VOA.
Guaidó has been weakened
As Guaidó has failed to gain international recognition as Venezuela’s legitimate leader and access to some of the frozen funds to bring meaningful change to the country, there are signs that support from other opposition figures is waning.
A Biden administration official told McClatchy News Service in October that “the United States continues to recognize Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim government,” but added “if the Venezuelan opposition decides to stop supporting the interim government, that’s their decision”.
The Biden administration excluded Venezuela from this year’s Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles.
Limits of what is possible
Taken together it all looks like a recipe for a possible change in Washington on the relationship with Venezuela but it’s not clear what that change would look like.
Patrick Duddy who served as U.S. ambassador to Venezuela from 2007 to 2010 told VOA: “there seems to be a lot of frustration the political efforts have not been successful”.
For Duddy perhaps it’s time to recognize that the goal of using sanctions to pressure Maduro to permit elections that he may lose is not necessarily realistic.
“Among other factors, as the United Nations has highlighted the grave human rights situation (in Venezuela) and even suggested that elements of the government have likely committed crimes against humanity, they would be very reluctant to cede the protections afforded to them by being part of the government,” he added.
A process, not a moment
Area of the Atlantic Council doubts that “any election that challenges Maduro’s power is viable in Venezuela”.
What he sees is that there may be a way to persuade the Maduro regime to relax some controls so that a broader representation emerges that does not directly threaten the government.
“The implicit goal is to rebuild the capacity of civil society organizations, promote greater alignment among opposition parties and strengthen their capacities and those of traditional democratic political parties in preparation for the future” he explained.
Berg, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the Biden administration has accepted the fact that any Venezuelan turn toward democracy will be gradual, so much the better.
Although Maduro is unlikely to accept major changes, Berg says it might be possible to convince him to make small reforms that would improve the lives of Venezuelans.
“I think the (Biden) administration sees this as a transition in the truest sense of the term … and not as a sudden flash and all of a sudden, there’s democracy. It’s going to take time and it’s going to be a process,” he added.