Results for Caracas
Just two weeks after sealing a historic election pact with the opposition, the Venezuelan government announced Monday that it would suspend “all effects” of opposition primaries, thereby jeopardizing a six-month pause of US sanctions on Caracas’ oil.
The decision comes just days after strongman President Nicolás Maduro called the contests a “fraud” — but he’s really afraid of the winner, popular opposition leader María Corina Machado. The election deal was supposed to lift a ban on her and other opposition figures holding office until 2030, but state harassment evidently continues. Fortunately for the ordinary Venezuelans brave enough to go out and vote in an opposition primary, organizers say they destroyed the voter sheets, making state retribution more difficult.
So, will the US keep buying Venezuelan oil? Washington said it would swiftly shut off the taps if Caracas doesn’t follow through with its democratic commitments, but as we wrote earlier, leverage is limited. If Maduro’s options are keeping oil revenue and losing power, or accepting sanctions he’s survived for a decade to stay in control, which do you think he will choose?Risa Grais-Targow, Eurasia Group’s director for Latin America, says the US will likely find discretion to be the better part of valor under these circumstances. Before snapping back sanctions, she continues, “the US will still wait and see if Maduro takes steps toward allowing candidates to participate in the general election, even if the ruling yesterday seems to go in the other direction.”
The United States has temporarily lifted sanctions against Venezuela’s oil, natural gas, and gold sectors after Venezuela’s strongman President Nicolás Maduro agreed to a deal with the US-backed opposition on scheduling elections with international observers and allowing opposition candidates to run.
This gives the South American country a lucrative opportunity to export oil to US markets, which will put coveted US dollars directly into Caracas’ coffers. Boosting the Venezuelan economy can’t hurt Maduro, fair elections or not, and could lead to lower US gas prices, which would save Biden some political pain ahead of his reelection bid.
The six-month scheme is a major reversal for Washington, which applied “maximum pressure” against the Venezuelan regime during the Donald Trump years. That approach seems to have largely failed: Sanctions have crippled Venezuela’s economy but failed to oust Maduro, and after an initial flurry of fanfare, the US-backed, self-declared interim leader Juan Guaidó’s movement is all but dead.
The White House says it will slam the hammer back down if Caracas doesn’t follow through with its promises. But Washington also wants to see political prisoners released, and Caracas seemed to nod at that expectation by releasing five detainees after the sanctions paused.
But this is far from Maduro’s swansong. There’s no set timeline to arrange for official candidate lists and hold votes, no agreed-upon rules for how the election and campaign will be conducted, and most importantly, no real incentive for Maduro to allow a truly fair contest. He’s made it this far under sanctions, after all, so why should he dread their re-imposition?
And if he can make some money while dragging the process out, pues que chevere (well, that’s great!).
The dispute over the Essequibo region – which is larger than North Korea and inhabited mostly by indigenous communities – stretches back more than 150 years (see our explainer here for more). But Venezuela’s strongman President Nicolas Maduro has ramped up tensions recently.
In part, he’s eyeing massive oil deposits that have been discovered there. But he may also be stoking nationalist feelings ahead of what will be a highly controversial – and not necessarily “free” – presidential election next year. Even prominent opposition figures have long supported Caracas’ claims on the territory (shades of the way that many dissidents in Putin’s Russia supported the annexation of Crimea.)
That means the referendum will almost certainly result in a resounding ¡Sí! But then what?
Rattling Essequibo could flare into a wider conflict. US forces regularly do joint patrols with the Guyanese military to protect local oil fields that US firms are developing. Pentagon officials reportedly visited the capital, Georgetown, this week to reassure the Guyanese, and Brazil put its local forces on high alert.
The risks are immense. But by asking the Venezuelan people to weigh in like this, Maduro may be uncorking nationalist passions that he will struggle to control.
As if Europe’s colonial-era mapmakers haven’t already bequeathed us enough wars. Now the long-running border dispute between Venezuela and its eastern neighbor Guyana is heating up again.
Guyana says Venezuela is sending troops to the frontier, while Caracas says Venezuelan voters will get to decide unilaterally whether to annex Guyanese territory.
At issue: The western two-thirds of Guyana, known as Essequibo, is a jungle terrain inhabited by 250,000 people. The dispute began with a 19th century map that gave the region to Guyana — at the time a British colonial possession — rather than to Venezuela, which maintained earlier Spanish claims to the area. Several international efforts to resolve the dispute since then have failed, and the issue is currently before the International Court of Justice.
But Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro rejects the court’s jurisdiction. He plans instead to put the question of annexation to Venezuelan voters in a plebiscite on Dec. 3.
Why now? Because there’s oil there, lots of it, following massive discoveries by ExxonMobil over the past decade. Maduro has his eye on those reserves, which would bring Guyana’s 800,000 citizens one of the swiftest windfalls of oil wealth in history.
But he may also be playing domestic politics. He recently tried to tar the Venezuelan opposition as national traitors for supposedly advancing a US-backed plan to scuttle the vote — an assertion the opposition vociferously denied.
Los Yanquis are in the area. Any forceful attempts to seize Guyanese territory could spark a crisis that quickly draws in the United States — since 2020, Washington has run joint naval patrols with Guyana.
What We’re Watching: Russia’s Zaporizhzhia strikes, Washington-Caracas dealings, Canadian asylum challenge, Macron’s intimacy
Russian strike on Zaporizhzhia provokes anger and fear
Ukraine’s foreign minister said Thursday that seven Russian missiles hit residential buildings overnight, killing a still unknown number of people in Zaporizhzhia, a city located in a region annexed by Russia in recent days and the site of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. President Putin has ordered Russian troops to take control of the plant. International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Mariano Grossi was in Kyiv Thursday as part of talks on creating a zone of protection around it to avoid a catastrophe. Last week, at least 25 people were killed and many more were wounded by a missile strike on a humanitarian convoy in this same region. It’s a reminder that though Russia is losing ground at the moment in the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine, it can still inflict great damage, including to civilians. And it’s one more attack that raises fears for nuclear safety.
Is the US ready to deal with Venezuela?
If you're Joe Biden right now, you can either isolate Russia or Venezuela, but with energy prices soaring, it's hard to freeze out both of those oil-rich countries at once. That's particularly true now that the Saudi-dominated OPEC+ grouping has decided to cut oil production in order to raise prices even further — with friends like these! That's the context for a Wall Street Journal scoop that details a proposal under which Washington would relax sanctions against strongman Nicolás Maduro's "21st Century Socialist" regime, allowing US oil giant Chevron to do a fresh deal there. In exchange, Maduro, whose repression and economic mismanagement have generated one of the worst refugee crises since 2018, would restart talks with the opposition about holding free and fair presidential elections in 2024. Venezuela has some of the world's largest oil reserves, but its once-booming oil industry has been crippled by mismanagement and US sanctions. Output has fallen from close to 3.5 million barrels per day in the late 1990s to barely over 500,000 today. Nudging that back up again would be a boon to Biden, but critics say the fresh revenue would embolden Maduro, a dictator the UN has accused of crimes against humanity. So long as the world needs oil — and it will for a long time still — there are no easy choices.
US-Canada asylum deal under scrutiny
Canada’s Supreme Case this week is hearing a case brought by human rights groups challenging the constitutionality of the Safe Third Country Agreement — a treaty brokered in 2004 by the US and Canada that requires asylum-seekers trying to cross select parts of the countries’ 5,525-mile border be sent back to the country where they first entered. Claimants say it violates Canada’s constitutional right to “life, liberty, and security” because asylum-seekers returned to the US are often placed in indefinite detention or returned to their home countries, where they face persecution. This appeal comes after a federal court in Ottawa ruled against the claimants in 2020, saying the evidence presented was “problematic for drawing systemwide inferences concerning the situation in the United States.” Meanwhile, US-Canada illegal border crossings have increased under President Biden, with more than 23,000 asylum-seekers caught trying to cross into Canada at unofficial border crossings in the first eight months of this year, the highest number on record since 2017. Ottawa and Washington are both keen to keep the STCA in place — and to extend it to all border points — so both will be watching this case closely.
What We're Ignoring: Macron wants Europe to get frisky
French President Emmanuel Macron, a known Europhile, has always wanted the EU — and the rest of Europe too — to do more on things like defense and foreign policy. Last May, he floated the idea of a European Political Community, similar to a United States of Europe, that would bring together the EU, the UK, and other non-EU countries in the region. Macron got a step closer to realizing his dream on Thursday, when 44 leaders gathered in Prague for the inaugural meeting of the EPC, a talk shop now being billed as a grouping of democracies to counter Russia. Among the invitees were British PM Liz Truss — who needed a quick break away from home — as well as the presidents of Azerbaijan and Turkey, whose democratic credentials are, ahem, shaky. Still, Macron thinks they can all get along to build what he referred to as a "strategic intimacy." They say French is the language of love, so it probably made sense in his head, but in English it felt awkward — and unleashed a torrent of Twitter memes.
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Just four years ago, most observers would have bet good money that Nicolás Maduro’s days at the top were numbered.
In 2018, Venezuela’s strongman president had declared himself the winner after a reelection battle that was broadly considered to be rigged. Maduro’s subsequent crackdown on anti-government protesters made him one of the world’s most reviled and isolated leaders.
It’s now been 10 years since Maduro, the foreign minister at the time, was handed the top job, and his power is more entrenched than ever. How has the Venezuelan despot survived and what might this mean for the country's politics and its people?
Meet Maduro. A former bus driver from Caracas, Maduro got his political training as a young man in Cuba. Upon returning to Venezuela, he became a big shot in the union movement and in leftist politics as a member of the United Socialist Party.
An avid backer of Chavismo – the left-wing populism championed by his predecessor Hugo Chávez – Maduro was tapped to take on presidential responsibilities after Chávez's death in 2013.
Like Chávez, Maduro’s authoritarian predilections were apparent from the get-go. Amid growing popular discontent, in 2015 he declared “Operation Liberation and Protection of the People” (the irony!) to address what he called the country’s growing security concerns. Maduro deployed 80,000 security forces to round up alleged detractors, leading to scores of extrajudicial killings.
This leadership style of quashing dissent and jailing political opponents and journalists came to a head after the widely disputed 2018 election, when thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets to protest Maduro’s win, broadly dubbed a sham. The regime’s brutal response to the protests – security forces killed dozens of demonstrators and shuttered independent news organizations – further solidified Maduro’s pariah status in many parts of the world.
The sanctions weapon. The US has used sanctions as a bludgeon against Venezuela since 2006, when the Bush administration banned arms sales to the Chávez regime due to its ties to rogue states, like Cuba and Iran.
But this campaign ramped up a lot during the Maduro years. The Trump administration, in particular, adopted a merciless approach to Caracas, enforcing sanctions that cut it off from US financial markets, essentially limiting its oil sales to the black market and prohibiting purchases of Venezuelan debt.
Venezuela’s economy has since been through the wringer. From once having the highest per capita income rate in Latin America, Venezuela is now flailing. Starved of investment, hyperinflation topped an absurd 65,000% in 2018. The country’s oil output has remained sluggish over the past decade despite the fact that it has the biggest liquid gold reserves in the entire world. Consider that in 1998 Venezuela was producing around 3 million barrels of crude per day – that number slipped to 626,000 in 2020.
To be sure, years of corruption, underinvestment, and mismanagement have also pummeled the petrostate’s economy. In 1997, one independent group claimed that around $100 billion had been embezzled from the state oil company in the preceding 25 years.
Given the heft of Western sanctions, how have Venezuela and Maduro managed to stay afloat?
Who’s isolating whom? Taking a page out of Chávez’s playbook, Maduro has worked hard to cultivate ties with other heavily sanctioned states and US rivals like Iran, Russia, and China, as well as Turkey.
Reflecting its mercantile approach to geopolitics, Beijing has given Caracas billions of dollars worth of loans in recent years in exchange for oil. China has also helped Caracas deliver the goods in violation of US sanctions. Moscow has similarly doled out cash to help keep Caracas afloat.
Maduro has also deepened relations with the US’ forever enemy, Iran, with Caracas sending Tehran billions of dollars worth of gold in exchange for oil, gas, and food. The friendship is deep, with Iran reportedly set to revamp the Paraguana Refining Center, Venezuela's largest, in the near term. Crucially, the overhaul will replace US technology – originally used to build Venezuela's oil infrastructure – with … Chinese and Iranian parts.
Moreover, under Maduro, illicit economies – including trading of illegal drugs, gold, and oil – made up a whopping 21% of Venezuela's gross domestic product in 2021.
The perks of a ”pink tide.” Maduro has benefited enormously from the region’s changing politics. A “pink tide” across Latin America in recent months has seen a slew of leftist governments come to power that are more sympathetic to Maduro’s socialist, anti-imperialist agenda.
“For a long time, diplomacy in Latin America wasn't very ideological because state sovereignty was the most sacrosanct principle,” says Will Freeman, a Latin America expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Governments in the region are now taking a more ideological approach to diplomacy,” resulting in leftist leaders in Colombia, Brazil, Peru, and elsewhere wanting to deepen ties with the socialist in Caracas.
A dysfunctional opposition. It’s been a boon for Maduro that the opposition has proven to be lackluster and underwhelming. Many place the blame at the feet of former wunderkind Juan Guaidó.
After the 2018 election, Guaidó, then president of the opposition-controlled legislature, set up a shadow government backed by the West. But critics say Guaidó made no progress in moving the country toward new elections and that he failed to get the military or courts onside. Popular support has also nosedived, with just 6% of Venezuelans polled in Nov. 2022 saying that they’d vote for him.
After Guaidó’s allies voted to remove him from office in December, the former de facto leader said the move would create a “power vacuum” that would only boost Maduro.
And he might have been right: The Biden administration recently moved to ease some sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector. While this has largely been aimed at boosting production and keeping global prices down amid Russia’s war in Ukraine, it’s hard to imagine that the White House would have felt as comfortable making overtures to the Maduro regime if there was a powerful and popular opposition to deal with in Caracas.
“Venezuela is fixed.” Not quite. Feeling emboldened by Maduro’s staying power, some Venezuelans have adopted the slogan “Venezuela is fixed” — a tongue-in-cheek reference used in the country when conditions mildly improve. They point to the fact that the International Monetary Fund recently predicted that Venezuela's economy will grow by 6% this year, while the poverty rate decreased for the first time in seven years.
But the current political dynamic is more a result of “broad disillusionment and disengagement from politics,” says Freeman, adding that “Maduro has not become popular by any stretch of the imagination.”
What’s more, the humanitarian situation remains grim. Half the country lives in poverty, down from 65% in 2021, giving rise to one of the world's biggest refugee crises in recent years. Venezuela is also one of the world’s most unequal states, with the wealthiest Venezuelans 70 times richer than the poorest. It’s for this reason, Freeman says, that what we've seen is “more of an economic recovery on the surface” only. The foundation remains rotten.
What now? Maduro’s political future is as secure as ever. But there’s no quick fix for Venezuela's economy or its people. Indeed, it’ll take years of investment and billions of dollars to modernize the country's energy infrastructure in order to boost output. And while other petrostates are looking to diversify their economies, Caracas is a million steps behind.
And what about the vote next year? “The elections will be very unfree and very unfair,” Freeman says, adding that “Maduro will steal them if he needs to, though he may not need to if the opposition remains this divided.”
For now, at least, Maduro, often derided as “the bus driver” from Caracas, is likely feeling pretty good about things.
Representatives from about 20 countries, including the US, gathered in Bogotá on Tuesday as part of the Colombian government’s push to restart talks between Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro and the fractious opposition. Neither side has sent representatives, but both say they support the event.
How’d we get here? Several years ago, Maduro, who had mismanaged the economy and rigged his own re-election, was on the ropes. As popular protests swelled, millions fled his country, and fresh US sanctions choked off crucial revenues. But opposition infighting and global demand for oil — Venezuela has more of it than anyone else — kept him firmly in power.
Now, with elections approaching next year, the opposition – along with the US, EU, and most of the region – wants the powerful but unpopular Maduro to guarantee a level playing field. He, however, wants the US to ease Trump-era sanctions. Maduro has shown he can hang on pretty well under sanctions, but he may not want to risk a rerun of the 2018 protests over an overtly unfair vote.
A previous round of talks in Mexico stalled late last year, but Colombia’s left-wing President Gustavo Petro is hoping that his good relations with neighboring Caracas will enable him to broker a new deal where others have failed.
Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves but a combination of corruption, mismanagement, and tough US sanctions since the Maduro regime came to power in 2013 has meant that the petrostate has failed to benefit from its vast reserves of liquid gold.
While high oil prices under the Chavez regime in the early 2000s gave a boost to Venezuela’s middle class, US sanctions first imposed in 2006 – and significantly ramped up under the Obama and Trump administrations – have cut Caracas off from US financial systems.lifting some sanctions on the Venezuelan oil sector. So how are things faring? We look at GDP per capita and corresponding oil prices since 1999.