MS Risk Blog

The Changing Relationship Between the U.S. and Venezuela

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In early March, Venezuela released two U.S. citizens who had been jailed for corruption and terrorism offenses. One is named Gustavo Cárdenas, who is one of a group of six imprisoned oil executives known as the “Citgo 6,” jailed in 2020. The other is Jorge Alberto Fernández, who was arrested last year in Venezuela and accused of terrorism.

Their release appears to signal shifting relations between the Biden administration and President Nicolás Maduro’s. It is seen as a gesture of goodwill by the Venezuelan government, since the U.S. citizens’ release followed shortly after the first visit by the U.S. government to Caracas in many years. Maduro gave comment to state media that the meeting in the capital lasted two hours, without specifying the topics discussed or who the U.S. delegates were. He said that talks would continue, without offering a date. Sources told Reuters that the U.S. delegation was led by Juan Gonzalez, the White House’s top adviser on Latin America, U.S. Ambassador James Story, as well as Roger Carstens, the United States’ presidential special envoy for hostage affairs. The White House said that the purpose of the trip was to discuss a number of issues, including “energy security” and the cases of nine U.S. citizens who are in prison in Venezuela. U.S. diplomats have been working to find energy supplies worldwide that can help compensate for disruption to Russian oil and gas exports caused by sanctions and war in Ukraine.

The visit represents a significant potential shift in U.S. policy toward Venezuela. The U.S. broke off diplomatic relations with Caracas back in 2019. It is one of over 50 countries that backed Juan Guaidó when he declared himself President, since the U.S. considers the May 2018 presidential elections which declared Maduro as the winner to have been fraudulent. The Trump Administration imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s state oil company (Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A., or PdVSA), central bank, and government in 2019 in efforts to force Maduro from power. Now, the Biden administration is allegedly willing to lift these sanctions in order to shore up alternative energy supplies for the U.S. It appears strategy toward Venezuela is changing. Officials have signalled that the Biden administration will continue to recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful leader, but, in a recent interview with America’s Quarterly, White House advisor Gonzalez said the administration is focused on negotiations, rather than on toppling Maduro. He explained, “whereas the previous administration’s theory of change was based on regime collapse, ours is … that only a negotiation will lead to concrete and sustainable change in Venezuela toward democratic order.”

This begs the question, what does this mean for Maduro, Guaidó, for the government and people of Venezuela? Analysts suggest that this thawing of relations with the U.S. is bolstering Maduro. It seems that U.S. efforts to force him from power will lose momentum, and if sanctions are indeed lifted, leverage required to oust Maduro would be lost. Maduro’s government has already been increasing its hold on power in recent months. Though the opposition has seen some success in 2022 with a win in the gubernatorial election for Barinas state in January, this victory is seen as largely symbolic, since Maduro’s side still controls the majority of governorships in the country. The Socialist party has extended its dominance overall in local government, and also now controls Venezuela’s National Assembly. The National Assembly was the last institution in the country that had been in opposition hands. Meanwhile, according to Venezuela polling firm Datanalisis, Guaidó’s popularity has dropped from about 60% three years ago to under 15% by February this year. His movement also faces internal divisions. With the Venezuelan economy showing some signs of improvement and the opposition losing momentum, analysts suggest that Maduro has little incentive to make concessions in talks with the opposition. It appears increasingly likely that Maduro will retain power in the medium term.