President Maduro has shown two firm convictions. The first is that he will not cede the nation’s sovereignty to the pressure of illegal sanctions. But he has also indicated that dialogue and diplomacy is the way; that Venezuela is willing and ready to re-establish relations as long as they are based on mutual respect and an equal footing, writes Valdai Club expert Carlos Ron.
The strategy of “maximum pressure” imposed by Donald Trump on Venezuela has failed to achieve its goal of changing the Venezuelan government and pulling the country back into Washington’s sphere of influence. The resilience of the Venezuelan people led by President Nicolas Maduro has not only survived the attacks by the Trump Administration, it has resulted in adjustments to Washington’s strategy and has proved that resistance, creativity, and commitment to dialogue can pay off.
On January 23, 2019, the government of the United States quickly recognize a little-known deputy of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Juan Guaido, as the Interim President of Venezuela, undermining the constitutional mandate obtained since May of 2018 by President Nicolas Maduro. Immediately afterwards, Venezuela broke diplomatic relations with the United States. The combination of strong unilateral coercive measures (or sanctions, are they are wrongly mislabelled), the recognition of a parallel government structure, and the support for overt acts of aggression that later ensued were aimed at ultimately providing the conditions for President Maduro to step down or be removed by force, opening the way for US-friendly actors that had otherwise failed to amass sufficient popular support in Presidential elections. However, none of these efforts or aggressions were enough to achieve the desired goal.
Within a short period of about three years, Venezuela saw its main sources of income blocked by illegal US sanctions: access to international financing was closed, while oil and gold trading was prohibited. An assassination attempt with drones in 2018 against President Maduro barely missed him and most government high officials. In 2019, after Guaido’s self-proclamation and the attempt in February to storm the border under the pretext of bringing humanitarian aid, cyber-attacks led to a massive, nation-wide blackout, and were followed by a coup attempt that according to John Bolton’s frustrations, failed when the Venezuelan Chief Justice and Defence Minister failed to adhere to the plan. During 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, the US Attorney General put a bounty on President Maduro’s head, as well as on the heads of other Venezuelan officials. Meanwhile, Venezuela was kept from tapping the COVAX fund with its own resources blocked in US and European accounts, while two former US Green Berets attempted a clumsy invasion of Venezuela with Colombia-trained mercenaries. Key Trump officials have wanted to give their own account of the critical decisions made during their tenure at the White House. Pentagon Chief Mark Esper has confessed to how a military intervention was discussed in the Oval Office. More recently, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo revealed how $1 billion of US taxpayer money, was committed to supporting such actions as well as financing the extremist opposition.
The impact of these 924 illegal coercive measures and the aggressions against Venezuela, according to economists Jeffrey Sachs and Mark Weisbrot, could be calculated at around 40,000 casualties in 2018 alone. In comparison to the national income of 2014, the country had lost no less than 70% of its revenue. The damage could be felt in access to food and medicine, but also in public services such as water and electricity that under the illegal sanctions had no access to spare parts or maintenance.
Venezuela employed creative resistance. Social programmes like food subsidies were put in place to compensate low income families. New legislation, such as the Anti-Blockade Law, gave the country new legal frameworks under which it could promote exports and needed investment. Meanwhile, Washington, always concerned about others’ ties to strategic allies such as China or Russia, drove Venezuela in that direction as the country relied on their solidarity to obtain vaccines and medical supplies to combat Covid-19. The result was clear: elections for a new National Assembly and for State Governments in 2020 showed that even opposition supporters rejected the strategy set out by Washington and the extremist leaders. Today, Venezuelan resistance has paid off. An economy set against the ropes grew at a rate of 15% in 2022.
President Joe Biden inherited an embarrassing mess. A parallel government, whose recognition dropped from around 50 nations in 2019 to around five by the end of 2022. No diplomatic or consular relations, amid the context of an influx of Venezuelan immigrants to the United States. But above all, a system of illegal sanctions that prevent Venezuela from playing a stabilizing role in today’s energy market when it is most needed, as the effects of the crisis in Ukraine are felt worldwide.
One would expect a radical change of direction, but instead, only a few cautious steps have taken place. In March of 2022, contacts between both governments were taken up again, with several visits taken place throughout the year as well as the handing over to US authorities of some US nationals processed for crimes in Venezuela. By the end of 2022, the Biden Administration granted Chevron a license to restart limited activities and in late January, it issued a license to Trinidad and Tobago for the development of an offshore oilfield in Venezuela. President Maduro, however, has denounced how the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) now wants to implement a colonial model where licenses are granted but companies prohibited from paying Venezuela for purchases with anything other than food. Venezuela has strongly rejected and refused to accept these colonial terms.
These new measures take place against the backdrop of a severe crisis in the extremist opposition, which led to a decision in late December to discontinue the so-called “interim government” of Juan Guaido. The US still recognizes the National Assembly elected in 2015, as Venezuela’s legitimate authority despite it having had its mandate expire in 2020. Meanwhile, the Maduro Government has kept its commitment to dialogue and worked out a deal with the opposition’s unity platform for a social response plan. The key, however, to implementing the plan and to allow for the political dialogue to render fruits is in Washington’s hand. In a letter written on January 19, Democratic representative Jim McGovern called for the Biden Administration to “expedite the unfreezing of Venezuelan assets and their transfer to the Fund.”
Despite small adjustments, the current US Administration has still fallen short of a return to diplomacy. Both the illegal sanctions and other types of aggression against Venezuela persist. Alex Saab, a Venezuelan diplomatic envoy illegally detained in Cabo Verde, continues to be illegally detained in a Florida prison despite his diplomatic immunity. Venezuela’s accounts are still frozen, its Embassy remains closed, and its most valuable US asset, Citgo, remains in the hands of the extremist opposition. But the resilience of the government in Caracas has shown that the maximum pressure campaign was a complete failure.
In a recent interview for the AQ Podcast, Juan Gonzalez, National Security Council Director for the Western Hemisphere, recognized the limitations of implementing a sanctions policy and how poorly designed it was. However, they still need to identify the greatest flaw in the policy, the assumption that Venezuela-US relations can be based on constant threats of new sanctions rather than on sincere dialogue and an understanding of each other’s interests.
President Maduro has shown two firm convictions. The first is that he will not cede the nation’s sovereignty to the pressure of illegal sanctions. He has stated in clear terms to the US that “Venezuela is to be respected and does not accept colonial models over its gas, oil industry, over its economy, and overt our country.” But he has also indicated that dialogue and diplomacy is the way; that Venezuela is willing and ready to re-establish relations as long as they are based on mutual respect and an equal footing. For a country so concerned about the level of its geopolitical influence, it should learn from its rivals that the key to strong strategic alliances lies within dialogue, diplomacy, and respect for the interests and self-determination of others.