U.S. weighs engagement with Venezuela, a Russian foothold in America’s backyard

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Confronting a conflagration in Eastern Europe after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration has redoubled efforts to put out fires elsewhere — seeking to accelerate a nuclear deal with Iran and ease strained relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

But Washington’s most receptive rapprochement is unfolding in fits and starts closer to home, in a country the Kremlin has sought to turn into its most distant satellite: authoritarian Venezuela.

Senior U.S. officials this month held their highest-level meeting with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in years. Many people who were present at the meeting described it as cordial and productive in building personal relationships. These people claim that the lines of communication between Caracas, Washington and Caracas remain open despite the White House’s attempts to minimize the encounter after backlash from Maduro critics (especially the powerful Democratic senator for New Jersey Robert Menendez). The two men spoke under the pretext of anonymity in order to share sensitive information.

There had been discussion of a follow-up meeting, but the administration appears to be weighing the pros and cons of further direct talks.

Even considering such a dialogue was previously unthinkable. Trump had already courted North Korea’s brutal leader Kim Jong Un. It launched an “maximum pressure campaign” against Maduro, a figure highly reviled in Venezuela and Cuban diasporas. Trump’s hard line was a gift to Florida Republicans, who made substantial gains in exile-heavy Miami-Dade County and won Florida, if not the 2020 election. The already troubled oil sector of OPEC nations was devastated by the U.S. ban against Venezuelan crude. The United States closed its Caracas embassy. The United States stopped direct flights from Venezuela to the United States. Maduro was indicted by the U.S. Justice Department on charges of narcotrafficking.

The Trump administration backed opposition figure Juan Guaido as the country’s rightful leader and predicted Maduro’s imminent fall. It didn’t work. Guaido’s support would collapse at home. Maduro’s opposition has descended into violence. Some analysts give Guaido’s interim government until the end of this year, when it will collapse. Maduro’s hold on power has only grown — as well as Russia’s presence in Venezuela.

A possible change in policy under Biden was not realized, because observers saw the administration as either extremely cautious or fatally indecisive — keen to avoid alienating Menendez and a critical niche of Florida voters.

Enter Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, the surge in global oil prices and the unmasking of Russian President Vladimir Putin as an existential threat. This month’s visit by a U.S. delegation included Juan Gonzalez (National Security Council Director for the Western Hemisphere), and U.S. Ambassador James Story. James Story, Ambassador to Venezuela, obtained the release of two American citizens. The release of a third American, a former Marine who Venezuelan officials claim is an American covert operative, was close but not possible.

In Washington, the narrative of the visit has largely centered on oil — the potential of easing the U.S. ban, and creative deals that would allow Western companies, including California-based Chevron, back in. Venezuela’s oil sector is in serious trouble. It has poor infrastructure and would require months of investments to fix. Deals could impact the psychological health of markets. But even the most generous estimates suggest Caracas could only ramp up to about 15 percent of Saudi Arabia’s current output in the medium-term. The bottom line is that Venezuela will not be an important factor in the American pump’s gas price drop.

But the American rapprochement is also about geopolitics, and countering the already-deep Russian-Venezuelan alliance.

That alliance is based on oil deals. Washington should be concerned about the military cooperation. Between 2006 and 2013, when Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez died of cancer, Venezuela bought nearly $4 billion in Russian military equipment. In late 2018, two nuclear-capable, long-range Russian Tu-160 bombers arrived under sunny skies at Maiquetia International Airport outside Caracas, met by senior Venezuelan military officers who saluted and shook hands with the pilots. Later, the Russians participated in joint exercises. One year later, Moscow sent dozens of Russian soldiers and tonnes of equipment to Venezuela.

The administration has publicly laughed off post-invasion suggestions by Moscow of ramped up military cooperation with Caracas. The Russian military is now so stretched in Ukraine that a replay of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis in Venezuela appears far-fetched. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the United States cannot keep Moscow second guessing its network of alliances in Latin America. Maduro’s government wasn’t bothered by Russia’s invasion in Ukraine and feared that Washington might use “not-in my-backyard” to attack Caracas. Moscow was alarmed enough to call Maduro’s number after the U.S. delegation’s March visit. Delcy Rodriguez was invited to a meeting with Maduro’s No. 2 in Turkey, where they will review their strategic alliance.

Two people who know the thinking of the Venezuelan government say that they are interested in continuing direct negotiations. Critics say that the administration failed to manage its attempt at opening. It did not brief the key stakeholders on Venezuela’s policy, and then suddenly retreated when it was faced with backlash.

Menendez, whose key vote the administration will want on any nuclear deal with Iran, was livid over being blindsided. Guaido was also caught unaware and sent a letter to President Biden.

The problem may be partly one of sequencing and forum. Menendez co-sponsored the 2019 Verdad Act that enshrined the search for a “negotiated solution to Venezuela’s crisis” into U.S. law. Although he may be open to the lifting of U.S. sanctions, if Maduro takes concrete steps to restore democracy, he will likely seek to move through the currently inactive dialogue with Maduro. Other critics share his concern about Maduro’s potential oil deals and the possibility that Maduro will be rewarded for supporting Putin in Ukraine.

Restarting the Mexico talks was a key request by the U.S. delegation that visited Caracas. However, the opposition is so fragmented that any progress would be slow without U.S.-led talks. Maduro has meanwhile launched a U.S.-supported isolation campaign and is already receiving a more accommodating stance from Europe. It may only be a matter time until Maduro breaks it. Leftist presidential candidates are leading the Brazil and Colombia polls signaling a more gentle stance towards Caracas. The question is for the government whether they are willing to shut down a door that was just opened and whether this gives Putin the opportunity to reach a nation that lies three hours away from the Florida coast.

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