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Maduro Fools Biden Again

The White House’s policy toward Venezuela completely misunderstands conditions on the ground.

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Credit: Cancillería del Ecuador

In late October 2023, the Venezuelan opposition and the regime agreed to what in paper seemed a reasonable pact: The U.S. would lift some sanctions against the dictatorship, while the regime conceded guarantees for greater electoral freedoms in the upcoming 2024 presidential elections. 

President Biden had already lifted some sanctions in November 2022 to the Venezuelan regime’s oil and mining industry due to its alleged commitments to a free and fair election. While this is not the first time the U.S. has agreed to lift sanctions against Maduro, the Biden administration expected that Maduro would meet his part of the agreement for the first time.

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Unsurprisingly, this did not happen. 

Fast forward to two months after the agreement. The U.S. released Alex Saab, a businessman accused of laundering money for a large Venezuela-led drug trafficking operation, to get Maduro to comply with a small part of the deal: releasing political prisoners, including a group of Americans jailed in Venezuela.

The U.S. had said they would go bring the sanctions back if Maduro did not follow suit on his part of the deal—but it seems those threats were absolutely toothless. Maduro instead has since provoked Guyana, the country’s eastern neighbor, over the disputed region of Esequibo; he is prosecuting key allies of María Corina Machado, the opposition alliance’s presidential candidate. These parallel developments illustrate the shortsightedness of American policy in the country.

Since the agreement was signed, one of the organizers of the opposition primary in October was detained in early December after the regime’s attorney general, Tarek William Saab, announced arrest warrants against 14 individuals for allegedly sabotaging a referendum on the Esequibo. The referendum had been called by Maduro to ask voters what steps to take regarding the claim over said region.

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Another significant factor is that the U.S. simply misunderstands the Venezuelan position on the Esequibo. Statements in the American media and coming from American officials suggest that the Esequibo claim is merely a tantrum thrown by Maduro to take 70% of a smaller country for oil.

Nothing is farther from the truth.

Pretty much everyone in Venezuela—rich or poor, left-wing or right-wing—believes the Esequibo is Venezuelan. Not supporting claims to it would mean the end of the career for any Venezuelan politician, whether in the government or in the opposition.

Any American map depicts a Venezuelan territory that looks like a one-legged animal. In Venezuela, the map shows two legs, the second being the Esequibo, which appears as a crossed-out area that says “zona en reclamación” (zone in reclamation). That’s the Venezuelan map taught in all Venezuelan schools; it long predates the socialist dictatorship that today rules the country.

The Esequibo region was part of the Spanish Empire under the Captaincy General of Venezuela, but it never had permanent Spanish settlers. Beginning in 1814, the United Kingdom sent settlers to the region, a practice that continued for decades, despite constant Venezuelan reclamations against the U.K. starting in 1822.

Eventually, in 1899, the countries convened to go to an arbitral tribunal, where Venezuela was represented by the U.S. Venezuela was hesitant to engage in such a tribunal, but the U.S.—which considered the British settlements a colonial pursuit and invoked the Monroe Doctrine in response—pressured Venezuela for such an agreement.

The tribunal would rule in favor of the British. Venezuela initially abided by the ruling, but almost 50 years later, proof of collusion between British and Russian judges in the arbitral tribunal was found. This led Venezuela to reassert its claims, a position that has not changed since. 

Maduro has raised the tension again by calling for the referendum in December asking the Venezuelan people what to do with the Esequibo region. Proposed measures included creating a state of Guayana Esequiba and giving Venezuelan nationality to those in the region who want it. Maduro reached an agreement on December 15 with the Guyanese government in which the parties agreed not to use force to resolve the dispute, only to announce a military deployment on the Venezuelan side of the border 12 days later.

There are differences of opinion in Venezuela with regards to what to do with the Esequibo—some justify any measure, even war, to retake it. Others want to pursue diplomatic means. Some believe it’s irrecuperable. But, virtually everyone in Venezuela believes the Esequibo is Venezuelan.

So, when Brian Nichols, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, says that the U.S. supports “the sovereign right of Guyana to develop its own natural resources” and that “efforts to infringe Guyana’s sovereignty are unacceptable,” in Venezuela, this is read as an attack on Venezuela, not on Maduro. 

In short, by trying to court Maduro with the lifting of sanctions, the U.S. is not winning Maduro, but rather emboldening him in his geopolitical pretensions; by criticizing those Venezuelan pretensions, the U.S. is also losing the opposition.

Not that the U.S. was doing much to win the hearts of the opposition. The October agreement between the government and the opposition, included an unspecified mechanism by which opposition candidates that were disallowed from running for political office could ask for the review of their bans. The most significant opposition politician banned from running is María Corina Machado, a center-right outsider who won the primary election in October.

Machado, however, originally said she would not go to the country’s supreme court to ask for her ban to be reviewed. Then, on the last day of the term to review the bans, the American diplomatic mission for Venezuela congratulated Machado on X for going to the court to review her ban—before she announced she went to the court for the review.

This, of course, made Machado look like an American puppet, drawing criticism from both her supporters and detractors and further polarizing the opposition, which had begrudgingly accepted her lead after having sidelined her for years, considering her too radical in her approach against Maduro.

Biden’s Venezuela policy has been marked by its inconsistency and its weakness. He has tried to play nice with Maduro—further stabilizing him and emboldening him without bringing him closer to the U.S. or away from Chinese and Russian influence. 

It’s clear that Biden’s goal in Venezuela is not restoring democracy, and this is not a criticism. Time and time again, the U.S. has shown its inadequacy in bringing democracy to other countries. His goal seems to be even more unrealistic: turning Venezuela into a reliable ally.

Venezuela is not, and will never be, an American ally. It is unlikely even to reliably cooperate with America’s material interests.

One example will illustrate the absurdity of the idea. Until 2019, Venezuela owed China over $54 billion, which is almost half of the total amount China has loaned to Latin American countries. To pay for it, Venezuela has mortgaged part of its mining and oil industry to China. 

This is only one facet of the story—the Venezuelan links with China, Russia, and Iran are simply too great to ignore. They’re economic, ideological, and geopolitical.

While American presidents think in terms, a Venezuelan dictator thinks of a lifetime. Maduro very well knows that Biden might be out of the White House by 2025 or, at the latest, 2029, when Maduro will only be 66. Russia, China, and Iran are simply steadier partners for him.

Moreover, if the Biden administration’s goal is simply courting Venezuela for its oil by allowing Chevron to operate in Venezuela (the focus of the lift of the 2022 sanctions, and part of the recent lift), it might receive a surprise: On December 5, Maduro proposed a law to ban oil companies to operate in Venezuela if they operate Guyanese oil concessions in the Esequibo, the territory under dispute.

This would put Chevron in a difficult situation. It recently acquired Hess Corp., which owns 30 percent of the exploitation rights of the Stabroek Block, located in waters under dispute near the coast of Guyana.

Thus, if Chevron does explore or exploit oil in the region, it may mean that they are not allowed to do so in Venezuela, after four long years of lobbying for the end of sanctions against the Venezuelan oil industry and the decades of turbulence since Hugo Chávez’s rise to power in 1999.

Time and time again, the Biden administration has said that lifting sanctions was subject to concrete steps in allowing free and fair elections in Venezuela and more political liberties in the country. Time and time again, Maduro has shown he will not concede any of that. Yet sanctions didn’t come back.

Biden is neither feared nor respected by Maduro, who knows that enough pressure will make the Biden administration yield. By keeping up such pressure, with more political prisoners or a more aggressive rhetoric against Guyana long enough, Biden will lift more sanctions until he simply has no leverage against Maduro. The dictator has fooled the president again.

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