Weekly Report - 10 March 2022 (WR-22-10)

Colombia bridles at suspected US move to rehabilitate Maduro

If Colombia’s President Iván Duque had met his US peer Joe Biden in the White House last week, the mutual backslapping of two allies who speak as one on the international stage would have ensued. But when Duque meets Biden as we go to press on 10 March, the atmosphere will be very different. The Duque administration was caught completely unawares by the US government’s decision to send a high-level delegation to Caracas on 5 March for secret talks with Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro. US officials have been circumspect in their statements about the purpose of the trip, but its timing suggests that the Biden administration is weighing up ending sanctions on Venezuelan crude to help mitigate the impact of swingeing oil sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

It is a sign of the profound disquiet caused by the impromptu visit to Caracas that President Duque, who did not speak out even when publicly rebuked over his country’s record in reducing coca cultivation by the last US government led by Donald Trump, addressed it in no uncertain terms on the eve of his White House visit. “The position of our country has not changed at all,” Duque said in an interview with the local radio station Blu Radio on 9 March. “What Maduro has done to the Venezuelan people is similar to what [Russia’s President Vladimir] Putin has done to the people of Ukraine, and that is to cause the biggest humanitarian crisis seen in recent history, in Latin America’s case, which is generating massive migrant flows to other countries”.

Short of directly criticising the US, Duque could not have been much clearer that, in his view, it would be an inherent contradiction to remove the sanctions imposed on one authoritarian government in order to allow them to be imposed on another. Francisco Santos, a member of Duque’s right-wing Centro Democrático (CD) and a former ambassador to the US (2018-2021), was less diplomatic on Twitter, calling for a robust response from the Colombian government to “this affront after four years of working together on Venezuela policy”.

Is the Biden administration planning to upend four years of combined efforts without having consulted its closest ally in the region? US officials have been coy. But after severing diplomatic relations with Venezuela and sanctioning its oil exports in 2019 to try and drive Maduro from power in the wake of sham presidential elections, and recognising opposition figurehead Juan Guaidó as the rightful president, the decision to dispatch a high-level delegation to meet Maduro in the Miraflores palace was a development of seismic geopolitical implications. It signals that, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration sees the threat posed by Putin as trumping all of its concerns about Maduro, while being deeply concerned about the impact on global oil prices of sanctions on Russian crude, which Biden imposed on 8 March. The visit could also have been an attempt to weaken Russian influence in the country; Russian government officials recently mooted deploying military assets to Venezuela [WR-22-03], and Maduro has staunchly defended Russia’s right to self-defence in the face of what he has decried as the menacing expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) in Eastern Europe.

There is a degree of bipartisan support in the US for removing sanctions on Venezuela, but many US politicians also share Duque’s concerns. US Democratic Senator Bob Menéndez, the chairman of the senate foreign relations committee, did not mince his words in a statement released on 7 March: “If the reports are true that the Biden administration is brokering the purchase of Venezuelan oil, I fear that it risks perpetuating a humanitarian crisis that has destabilized Latin America and the Caribbean for an entire generation. Nicolás Maduro is a cancer to our hemisphere, and we should not breathe new life into his reign of torture and murder…the Biden administration’s efforts to unify the entire world against a murderous tyrant in Moscow should not be undercut by propping up a dictator under investigation for crimes against humanity in Caracas.”

The ‘reports’ referred to by Menéndez first appeared in The New York Times on 5 March. There are conflicting media reports over who made the first approach, but prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is safe to say that Maduro would have been given short shrift if his government had made such a move; US officials would never have boarded a plane to Caracas in response. For Maduro, the delegation’s visit was a major coup as he grasps at any opportunity to confer legitimacy on his regime. Maduro announced on 7 March that he had met the US delegation along with Bolivarian strongman Diosdado Cabello, and the president of the national assembly, Jorge Rodríguez, describing the talks as “respectful, cordial, and very diplomatic,” and adding that he had agreed to “advance with…a positive agenda with the US government”.

Maduro sounded a different tune about Russia’s invasion, saying that “the Venezuelan high command has decided to warn people and leaders of the world to seek peace” out of concern for “a war in Europe and extension to other regions of the world”, and he called for humanitarian corridors in Ukraine to be respected. He also said he had decided “to reactivate the national dialogue process with full force”. Maduro did not clarify whether he was referring to talks with the opposition in Mexico, led by Rodríguez, which he suspended last October over the extradition to the US of Álex Saab, Maduro’s financial fixer, but he claimed they would be “more inclusive, more welcoming, broader and more dynamic”, respecting “the plurality and political diversity in Venezuela”. “If we are urging dialogue between Ukraine and Russia, we must lead by example,” Maduro said.

Maduro has jumped at the prospect of dialogue processes in the past without entertaining any intention to offer meaningful compromise. It is scarcely any wonder that he would do so again with the possible carrot of oil sanctions being lifted. For good measure, two US citizens were promptly released by Venezuelan authorities on 8 March: Gustavo Adolfo Cárdenas, one of the six executives of Citgo, the US subsidiary of the state oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (Pdvsa), detained in 2017 on corruption charges; and Jorge Alberto Fernández, a Cuban American who was arrested in the western state of Táchira in 2021 accused of spying after bringing a drone into the country.

Maduro said Pdvsa stood ready to produce “one, two, or three million barrels per day [bpd] if it were necessary to stabilise the world oil market”. This is wishful thinking. Venezuela might have the largest proven reserves of crude oil in the world but egregious mismanagement and a lack of investment and maintenance, compounded by the recent sanctions, have seen Venezuelan oil production fall to just 700,000 bpd. This is a mere fraction of the 7m bpd exported by Russia, although it could replace the 500,000bpd of Russian oil exports to the US, which had replaced Venezuela’s exports to the US after the 2019 sanctions.

All about oil?

Successive US administrations have been accused by critics, especially on the Latin American left, of subordinating their purported concern about human rights and democracy to the country’s obsession with oil. The decision by the US to send a high-level delegation to Caracas at this juncture will confirm them in their suspicions. Nicolás Maduro is also more than happy to subordinate his professed ideological convictions to the overriding obsession with power, and oil sales will help immeasurably in this regard. Venezuela, with Russia’s assistance, was selling its crude at a cut-down price to circumvent US sanctions, but the sanctions on Russia will seriously complicate this. Direct sales to the US at market price would be vastly preferable.

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