Biden Shouldn’t Ease Sanctions on the Venezuelan Regime
I wake up at 8 a.m. My wife tells me we’re out of diapers, so I go to a mini-market only a two-minute walk from our apartment, which is essential, because Maracaibo, Venezuela, is one of the hottest cities this side of the Atlantic. The Land of the Beloved Sun, we call it. But make no mistake, it’s scorching.
When I enter the mini-market, to my left there is a fridge filled with imported beers, including Bud, Heineken, and Stella Artois. To my right, Pringles, Lays, Cheerios, Cap’n Crunch, and every kind of American cereal you can imagine. At the bottom of the aisle are the much-wanted diapers for our 8-month-old son. But I get distracted on my way to the diapers. The aisle is filled with American seasoning and sauces: ten different types of barbecue sauce, Thousand Island dressing, lemon salt, and even Chick-fil-a’s Polynesian sauce.
Things I wasn’t used to seeing when I was a kid in Venezuela now fill Venezuelan markets. But, of course, at a price not many can afford. In the end, I just buy the diapers and some Pringles—I couldn’t resist.
Venezuelan government propaganda has been quite effective in making the world believe that the economic and humanitarian crises in this country are due to American sanctions, but that claim is a blatant lie. The first sanctions were targeted at individuals linked to the regime, especially to its repressive security forces and drug operations. Sectoral sanctions started only in 2017, by which point the Venezuelan economy had been approaching hyperinflation and already had 14 continuous quarters of economic recession and two years of falling oil exports, according to Anova Policy Research.
To be sure, sanctions affected the Venezuelan economy, but they also forced the government to eliminate exchange and price controls, as well as the tariffs it had imposed on certain products. Those moves are the primary reasons why the Venezuelan economy is escaping recession for the first time in almost 10 years, which is also the conclusion of the above-mentioned Anova brief.
The sanctions were never imposed on food or medicines, and considering how the Venezuelan government destroyed almost all of what was left of the food industry in Venezuela, it was only natural that businesspeople started importing a lot of American products.
This doesn’t mean that “Venezuela se arregló” (“Venezuela is fixed”—a meme and inside joke people usually tell in Venezuela whenever something slightly positive occurs in the country), because it is still a meager recovery after ten years of the worst economic and humanitarian crises the Western hemisphere has seen in the 21st century. But the recovery has given some Venezuelans a bit of much-needed breathing space.
However, economic improvement in Venezuela is not the only reason why Biden’s decision to ease sanctions on the Venezuelan dictatorship is another mistake to add to a long list of foreign-policy blunders.
To understand why, first consider the facts. According to AP, the Biden administration renewed Chevron’s ability to bypass Venezuelan sanctions, allowing the company to continue basic service operations over its wells in Venezuela. The administration will not, however, allow it to resume export operations.
AP had also previously reported that the U.S. government is set to remove Carlos Malpica-Flores, a former PDVSA official and nephew of the Venezuelan first lady, from a list of sanctioned individuals, a personal request of Maduro during the last round of negotiations in Mexico. After the report, Juan González, Biden’s top advisor for Latin America, confirmed the report, and did not rule out easing more sanctions if there were more “concrete results,” from the Maduro regime.
González also stated that if the Venezuelan regime takes no concrete actions, the U.S. might reinstitute the sanctions. However, whatever benefits we might gain from reimposing the sanctions seems less significant than the cost of being humiliated after having eased the sanctions in the first place. What is baffling is that the Biden administration’s announcement of the sanctions relief came without any concrete responses from Venezuela. No release of political prisoners, no efforts to restore the country’s institutions, and no international observation of future elections. Zero. Nothing. Nada.
In fact, quite the opposite has taken place. The Maduro regime just approved a new Supreme Tribunal with 11 justices who are repeating their terms on the court, which is unconstitutional in Venezuela. Many of the justices have served as deputies in the National Assembly for the ruling party, including the new president of the Tribunal, who was a candidate for a governorship, a member of the National Assembly, the solicitor general, and the Ambassador to Spain—all as a member of PSUV, Chávez’s and Maduro’s party.
Moreover, the National Assembly is set to approve a new NGO law that would effectively criminalize both local and international human-rights organizations. This, while there are still (at least) 240 political prisoners in Venezuela, and a regime official just started a defamation lawsuit against a Catholic priest and a human-rights activist for denouncing police executions in poor neighborhoods.
So, the Biden administration is easing sanctions on Venezuela when there is not the slightest indication that Venezuela intends to adhere to democratic norms and stop its persecution of dissidents. And they are doing it with the sole goal of making the Maduro regime return to the negotiating table in Mexico. This attempt, like the other five attempts to reach an agreement between the regime and the opposition in the last decade, has failed miserably.
Just five days after the U.S. government announced the easing of these sanctions, Maduro made his conditions for negotiations public: Norway could not be a mediator, Russia must be present in the negotiations, and Alex Saab must be a member of the Venezuelan delegation. Saab conducted nine-figure business deals with the Venezuelan government, was charged in the U.S. with money laundering, and is thought to be a key member of Venezuelan drug-trafficking operations.
Of course, both the Venezuelan opposition and the U.S. are unlikely to accept these conditions, especially the last, which makes the “efforts” to ease sanctions on Venezuela even more useless.
Easing sanctions as a gesture of goodwill will not work, either. It only shows the Biden administration is weak and foolish enough to eliminate the sanctions without extracting any concrete actions from the Venezuelan regime. Dictatorships like Venezuela do not understand collaborative negotiations where everyone can win; they think they win only when the other side loses. And the other side, in this case, is a weak Biden administration and a powerless Venezuelan opposition. The regime knows it can get a further easing of sanctions without making any significant gestures or even releasing some political prisoners.
While American intervention is obviously off the table, that does not mean the U.S. should relinquish its sphere of influence. If Russia does not allow a Western ally close to its borders in Ukraine, why should the U.S. simply live with a drug-trafficking and terrorism hub playing host to Russian and Cuban intelligence just three hours away from Miami?
The days of thinking of Latin America as the U.S.’s backyard may be behind us. That does not mean the U.S. government should make it easier for the Maduro regime to thrive, or allow it to finance and harbor armed terrorist groups and drug gangs that are helping to flood American streets with deadly and powerful narcotics, which caused over 100,000 overdose deaths in 2021 according to the CDC.
With the Russian invasion of Ukraine and rising gas prices, it seems more clear than ever that the U.S. must seek energy independence. Allowing American companies to negotiate licenses to buy and refine Venezuelan oil –which the licenses do not currently allow, despite oil companies’ pushing for it– would disincentivize companies from extracting oil locally and give the Venezuelan government more leverage against the U.S. than it already has. Moreover, it would make oil companies play a de facto role in a money-laundering operation for the continent’s largest drug cartel, allow Venezuela to continue financially supporting radical left-wing movements and armed groups across the continent. Of course, oil companies don’t have much of a problem with that.
From each and every perspective, Biden’s policy toward Venezuela is deeply misguided. It will not achieve any of the expected results and, in fact, is way more likely to backfire. Latin America appears to be undergoing a second pink wave with the rise to power of Boric in Chile, Castillo in Peru, and, quite likely, Lula da Silva in Brazil. This will lead to more governments in the region asking the U.S. to ease the pressure on Venezuela without any extracting any improvements from the Maduro regime nor benefits to America. Biden is signaling that he nevertheless is inclined to move ahead with the plan.
There are only two possibilities. Either the Biden administration’s foreign-policy team is deeply misguided and genuinely believes, foolishly, that lifting sanctions will lead to something positive. Or, strengthening Maduro has been the Biden administration’s plan all along.
In the end, what will be the results? On the American side, the U.S. government will once again be taking a step away from energy independence. On the Venezuelan side, the government is already going back to its old ways, approving tariffs on hundreds of products, which, in turn, might lead to scarcity once again while the opposition slides into irrelevance.
It is probably wise for me to buy diapers in bulk as soon as possible. And it doesn’t seem likely that I will see Pringles in the mini-market again any time soon.
Edgar Beltrán is a journalist from Venezuela and the deputy editor of El American.