The Ukraine crisis has made for strange bedfellows. After years of vilifying and sanctioning Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s regime, the United States has moved quickly to reestablish relations as it seeks new sources of oil after vowing to rid itself of Russian imports.
High ranking members of the Venezuelan opposition were astonished to learn of the secret meeting in Caracas last Saturday between high-ranking US officials and Maduro acolytes. Juan Guaidó, Venezuela’s most prominent opposition leader, said this Wednesday that only a democratic nation could be “a reliable and efficient energy supplier for the world.” He has not even referred to the meeting directly, as if it did not exist.
The meeting focused on “energy security” and the situation of Americans arbitrarily detained in Venezuela, according to Washington officials. The world is facing rising oil prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and President Joe Biden’s Press Secretary Jen Psaki is already referring to “Putin’s gas price hike”. On Tuesday, the Venezuelan government released at least two American prisoners: one is a Citgo refinery executive who was arbitrarily detained in November 2017, and the other is a Cuban-American arrested in 2021 for carrying a drone, triggering terrorism accusations.
In statements following the meeting with the Americans, Maduro also opened the possibility of resuming negotiations broken off in protest against the arrest of Colombian businessman and alleged frontman Alex Saab, who is facing a trial on money-laundering charges in Miami. Although no one in the opposition wants to offer any explanation of the meeting, sources consulted by EL PAÍS insisted it “was already known” when it was made public.
The US delegation also met with Guaidó and Gerardo Blyde, who was the delegate of the Venezuelan opposition in a government dialogue established last year in Mexico. James Story, the US ambassador to Venezuela; Juan González, White House advisor for Latin America, and Roger Carstens, special envoy for hostage affairs, also met in Bogotá with representatives of the most important opposition parties, grouped in the so-called Democratic Platform, to talk to them about the plan.
Among the opposition parties, only Primero Justicia, one of the most important of the bloc, released a communiqué with some general declarations of principles circling around the circumstances of the meeting, without exploring it further. The text speaks to the commitment of the democratic camp to negotiations and political dialogue, and of the need to reactivate the agenda left paralyzed. Free and fair elections “in which the citizenry overthrows Nicolás Maduro and returns to a path of quality of life” were also mentioned. For this, it adds, “it is essential to meet the demands of the report of the European Union Electoral Observation Mission on the regional elections of 2021.″
The results of the first contact between the United States and Maduro have not been spectacular, nor anything worthy of being called a turning pointJulio Castillo, opposition political leader
A little over a week ago, an important group of opposition leaders including Stalin González and three recently elected governors had met in Bogotá with Ambassador Story. The objective of the Venezuelan politicians was to discuss the damages of international sanctions. There was talk of strengthening the conditions for both parties to sit down together in Mexico, a prospect that was approached with optimism.
“The results of the first contact between the United States and Maduro have not been spectacular, nor anything worthy of being called a turning point,” commented Julio Castillo, opposition political leader, university professor and press columnist. “It is natural that the US government feels the need to look for the Venezuelan government after the crisis with Russia and its energy and oil implications. Of course there is a change of attitude towards the interim government. None of this prevented the US government from doing what is diplomatically proper, namely giving advance notice of this initiative.”
The US Government has reiterated that it recognizes and supports Juan Guaidó, and does not appear to be considering a change on this issue, at least in the medium term. Victoria Nuland, Deputy Secretary of State, repeatedly argued this during a lengthy confrontation with in Congress with Senator Marco Rubio. She assured him that Guaidó was previously informed of the entire operation, while Rubio denied it.
“Change in behavior”
Joe Biden himself has stated that Guaidó was aware of the meeting, and that his administration continues to recognize him as the legitimate president of the country. “But here there is a change in behavior,” Castillo added. “The United States could be tempted to listen to other factors, to value other points of view, to propose an expansion of opposition representation in the dialogue with [the government] in Mexico.”
Although the need to seek an early election has been discussed in these meetings, the approach of the United States suggests that all roads lead to 2024, when the Maduro government must finish its term.