US: Surprising Resumption of Dialogue with Venezuela

A high-level American delegation held talks over the weekend of March 5-6 in Caracas with Venezuelan authorities, a first since diplomatic relations between the two countries broke down in 2019. Washington’s about-face is part of the efforts by the White House to make sure the U.S. has enough oil and can isolate Moscow from its allies.

After several years of tension with Venezuela, is the United States ready to turn the page? The visit to Caracas over the weekend of March 5-6 by high-level American diplomats, including Juan Gonzales, Joe Biden’s senior adviser on Latin American affairs, was surprising, since the two countries have looked at each other with silent disdain since 2019. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could be a game-changer.

On Monday, March 7, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro confirmed what the American press had already reported — that a meeting with a high-level American delegation had in fact taken place the previous weekend in Caracas. The leader of the South American country described the meeting as “respectful, cordial and very diplomatic.”

“The two flags of the U.S. and Venezuela were there, they looked really pretty, the two of them united as they should be, and we spoke for almost two hours,” Hugo Chavez’ successor said in a televised speech.

An Unprecedented Tone from Maduro

A surprise visit and a totally unprecedented tone from Maduro, at least since 2018, when a large part of the international community — with the United States and European Union leading the way — decided not to recognize his reelection, an election that the opposition boycotted. In April 2019, Washington issued new sanctions specifically targeting oil, Venezuela’s national resource.

For many observers, the roots of this diplomatic about-face are found far from the American continent — in Europe. Ever since Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, the United States and Venezuela have had a common interest: the lifting of American sanctions.

If the American embargo on oil hurts Caracas’ wallet, forcing it to sell its oil cheaply wherever it can, it is also depriving the world market of a resource in high demand, just as the economic recovery and the war in Ukraine are causing prices to soar. The price of gas in the United States is approaching record highs (set in 2008), which is not good for Biden a few months away from the midterm elections.

What is more, while the American government is getting ready to ban the import of Russian oil, Venezuelan barrels could be quite useful. Certainly, Venezuela, for lack of investment, has seen its production fall — from 3 million barrels a day under Hugo Chavez (1999-2013) to 700,000 today. But its production could easily go back up. “We could see it doubling within 12 months,” said a businessman familiar with the matter.

In a sign that the two parties could find middle ground, Maduro announced immediately that he would be talking with the opposition again, talks that Caracas suspended five years ago. Resuming talks, as long as real progress comes from it, is one prerequisite to lifting American sanctions.

Weakening Moscow in Latin America

More broadly, by resuming talks with Caracas, Washington is trying to isolate Moscow.

Russia has in fact benefited these last few years from the diplomatic crisis between the United States and Venezuela. “At the beginning of 2021, Moscow and Caracas signed 12 treaties concerning the economy, energy, health care, the military,” the businessman went on to say. “The joint military operations are even starting to inconvenience their neighbor, Colombia, who has reported Russian military intervention at its border.”

But the invasion of Ukraine seems to have cast a chill over Latin America. The strong support of countries in the region for the U.N. resolution condemning the Russian offensive is proof. While Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia supported Moscow in 2014 when it annexed Crimea, they abstained this year. (Venezuela was unable to participate in the vote because of its inability to pay its dues.) And large countries like Argentina and Brazil, which abstained in 2014, voted to approve the resolution.

Politically, this rapprochement is nonetheless delicate for the American president. “Biden Admin secret meeting with #Maduro was a huge PR boost for #MaduroRegime and a demoralizing betrayal of those who have risked everything to oppose Maduro & weren’t even told this was happening,” Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, wrote on Twitter.

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