As the United States gauges the global fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, U.S. officials quietly met with Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro in what marked a dramatic shift in longstanding U.S. policy. Despite cautious readouts from both sides, Venezuela’s subsequent release of two American prisoners indicates the meeting may have opened the door for future cooperation in addressing one of the world’s worst political, economic and humanitarian crises. USIP’s Ana Caridad and Keith Mines look at what we know about the trip, the possible diplomatic paths forward, where Venezuela’s opposition movement fits in, and how Venezuela’s deep ties to Russia might affect U.S.-Venezuelan engagement.
What do we know about the meetings between U.S. and Venezuelan officials, and why were they held now?
Keith Mines: From all indications, the trip to Venezuela by senior U.S. officials on March 5 was part of a global diplomatic push to stress to partners and adversaries alike how important the defense of Ukraine’s territorial integrity is to the United States — as well as to explore ways to increase global oil production.
In the Western Hemisphere, Venezuela stands out as a country where both of these issues are prominent. It has the world’s largest oil reserves and is arguably Russia’s closest strategic partner in the region. Venezuela also offered very early official statements in favor of Russia’s actions and against the NATO alliance’s defensive response.
The visit was also the first to Venezuela by senior U.S. officials since the late 1990s. The meetings were reportedly cordial and involved several senior Venezuelan officials in addition to Nicolás Maduro. While both sides spoke with caution after the meeting, Venezuela’s release of two U.S. prisoners afterward indicated that Maduro would like to see the talks continue and is interested in exploring what the United States can offer.
Another aspect of note from the talks: This was the first time the two sides have so willingly acknowledged that the other side has something they want and are open to finding a formula to align their core interests in a productive framework. Until now, both have played “hard to get”
Venezuela has stood by its significant ties to Russia despite the latter’s invasion of Ukraine. How does this continued relationship affect Biden’s pursuit of new approaches and goals in Venezuela?
Keith Mines: The U.S.-Venezuela relationship is extraordinarily complex, involving not only oil, ties to Russia and prisoners, but also the U.S. imprisonment of Venezuelan ally Alex Saab; the use of Venezuelan territory by armed groups fighting against key U.S. ally Colombia; the destabilization of the region with the exodus of 6 million Venezuelans from their homeland; Venezuela’s ties to China, Iran and Turkey; as well as accusations of drug trafficking. And that’s just for starters.
The relationship is highly charged domestically in both countries. Relations, until now, have been marked by passive aggressiveness and denial. The two sides needle each other at every opportunity and deny the relative power of the other side to impact their core interests, even as those core interests go unfulfilled.
Meanwhile, whatever expectations some might have had about the possibility of rapidly increasing Venezuelan oil production, the oil sector there is so degraded that it would take up to $12 billion in investments and several years to yield notable new production, although there are marginal improvements and increased production that could be made now with relief from some sanctions. And regarding Russia, Venezuela will likely decide to hedge its bets and not antagonize one of its few consistent friends in the world. But beyond a marginal increase in oil production and less strident attacks on NATO and Ukraine, the breakthrough in relations may have opened the door to progress on other seemingly intractable issues.
As a result of last week’s meetings, Nicolás Maduro has announced that the government is willing to return to the negotiating table in Mexico. Would a more active role by the United States in support of the negotiations advance its broader interests?
Ana Caridad: In this quickly changing geopolitical context, the international climate could be more favorable to a negotiated settlement in Venezuela than at any time in the recent past. Following the visit, Maduro announced that his government would return to the negotiations in Mexico, which have been suspended since October. Progress in those negotiations, however, will need to be part of a complex formula that will require intense flexibility, focus and creativity on both sides.
One of the largest impediments to date has been the unwillingness of any U.S. administration to directly engage Maduro and a reluctance to put U.S. sanctions in play in favor of negotiated progress. While there are significant domestic political constraints, the changing geopolitical context may have shifted the calculus of both of these.
The United States should take the recent concessions as an indicator of Maduro’s willingness to engage productively and test that offer by pushing for a clear roadmap and step-by-step process that will lead to the re-institutionalization of the country and restoration of constitutional order. This would then pave the way to free, fair and credible elections. Embedded in the roadmap would be a formula for the gradual lifting of financial and economic sanctions as a clear commitment to achieving a sustainable resolution of the crises. Moreover, sanctions relief should be coupled with more coordinated initiatives across the U.S. government to streamline the policy process and help ensure a more rapid response to changing dynamics on the ground.
How can the democratic opposition in Venezuela leverage these openings to achieve quick wins, such as humanitarian assistance, that may help alleviate the crisis in the country?
Ana Caridad: The democratic opposition in Venezuela should push for further concessions to address the country’s humanitarian emergency. Venezuela’s sociopolitical and economic situations have fueled a devastating humanitarian crisis, with severe shortages of basic goods such as food, drinking water, gasoline and medical supplies. According to a September 2021 survey, 77 percent of Venezuela’s 28 million residents live in extreme poverty, the highest rate in Latin America.
The change in the Biden administration’s position toward Venezuela could allow the democratic opposition to achieve quick wins that would benefit the population, enhancing its credibility in the process. A critical first step would be prioritizing the implementation of the partial agreement reached with the Maduro government in September to create a mechanism for human rights and social needs.
The parallel table, comprised of three members from each side, would address urgent needs in the areas of health and nutrition. Progress in the implementation of this partial agreement would not only contribute to increased popular support toward a negotiated solution, but also build important momentum to move along thornier issues on the negotiation agenda.
Moreover, being able to deliver assistance to the Venezuelan people would help shore up support for the democratic opposition. The opposition movement saw a brief burst of enthusiasm with the results of regional and local elections last November, but support for Juan Guaidó, who the United States recognizes as the country’s legitimate leader, has dropped from about 60 percent three years ago to under 15 percent in February, according to the Venezuela-based polling firm Datanalisis.
As democratic forces regroup and build a broader coalition in opposition to the government, they will need to rebuild their relationship with the Venezuelan people. The best way to do this would be to demonstrate a commitment and capacity to respond to their most pressing needs.