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Russia's invasion has prompted Biden to offer reconciliation to Venezuela's president

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Trump administration pushed hard for regime change in oil-rich Venezuela, but Venezuela's authoritarian leader, Nicolas Maduro, has not gone anywhere. In fact, the recent oil squeeze caused by Russia's invasion of Ukraine has prompted the Biden administration to extend an olive branch to the Maduro regime. John Otis has more.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Three years ago, President Trump imposed crippling oil sanctions on Venezuela following Maduro's crackdown on democracy and his fraud-marred reelection in 2018. The U.S. and about 50 other countries recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela's rightful president. In a 2019 speech, Trump predicted that Maduro's days were numbered.

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DONALD TRUMP: And the Venezuelan people have spoken. They are turning the page on dictatorship, and there will be no going back.

OTIS: But Maduro remains ensconced in the presidential palace in Caracas. He has skirted U.S. oil sanctions by selling petroleum to China and other allies. Meanwhile, just a half dozen countries still recognize opposition leader Guaido as Venezuela's legitimate leader. Phil Gunson is based in Caracas for the International Crisis Group.

PHIL GUNSON: The Trump-era policy of maximum pressure, diplomatic isolation, sanctions and all the rest of it has clearly failed.

OTIS: As a result, the Biden administration is cautiously reaching out to Venezuela. Another reason for this policy pivot is the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the U.S. ban on Russian oil imports. Now the U.S. is scrambling to secure new oil supplies, including from Venezuela. Washington is also worried about immigration. U.S. sanctions have deepened an economic crisis in Venezuela that has prompted more than 7 million people to flee the country. And many of these refugees head for the U.S.

MICHAEL PENFOLD: Conditions have changed, and this is what's driving the U.S. effort to timidly start changing its foreign policy towards Venezuela.

OTIS: That's Michael Penfold, a professor at IESA, a Venezuelan business school. He points out that Biden envoys have met with Maduro in Caracas, where they arranged a prisoner swap and discussed conditions for rolling back U.S. sanctions. That would help Venezuela rebuild its shattered oil industry, says Francisco Rodriguez, a Venezuelan economist at the University of Denver.

FRANCISCO RODRIGUEZ: If there were a full lifting of sanctions, then oil production could recover quite rapidly. That has been the experience of other sanctioned economies.

OTIS: He says Iraq, Iran and Libya all bounced back quickly once oil sanctions against those countries were lifted. But for any of this to happen, the U.S. wants Maduro to restart negotiations in Mexico with Venezuela's political opposition. Its main goal is to secure democratic reforms and a free and fair presidential election in 2024.

CARLOS VECCHIO: We would like to see the release of political prisoners. We would like to see a date for the election. We would like to see free media and protection against human right violations.

OTIS: That's Carlos Vecchio, the Venezuelan opposition's envoy to Washington. He has no illusions about negotiating with Maduro, who has walked away from previous talks without making concessions. So why would this time be any different? For one thing, Maduro is strapped for cash. Gunson of the International Crisis Group says Maduro can't increase oil exports and rebuild his ruined economy as long as U.S. sanctions remain in place.

GUNSON: He controls the rules. So if it goes very badly, then he can simply use repression and fraud to stay in power. But I think he would far rather win a relatively clean election. And he can't do that unless the economy is fixed or at least looks as if it's moving in the right direction.

OTIS: It's unclear how long the thaw between Washington and Caracas will last. But Vecchio, the Venezuelan envoy, has some advice for U.S. officials.

VECCHIO: We need to have free and fair presidential election as soon as possible. If we don't see concrete steps toward that direction, the U.S. should reverse any incentive granted to Maduro and increase the level of pressure.

OTIS: Talks between the Maduro government and the opposition are expected to begin this month. For NPR News, I'm John Otis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.