Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro is testing his new international strength at the COP27 climate summit in Egypt. For the past three years a US-led diplomatic offensive has sought to bring about his downfall, and the embattled leader has been holed up inside Miraflores Palace in Caracas, where time seems suspended amid imperial halls full of images of Simón Bolívar. Despite a very precarious economic and social situation, Hugo Chávez’s successor has remained at the helm of government, defying those who underestimated him. Dozens of countries, including the United States, rejected his 2018 re-election, instead backing opposition leader Juan Guaidó. But now, favored by the global context, Maduro is starting to enjoy an international presence once more.
The mood has changed in just a matter of months. Latin America has been filling up with leftist presidents who do not have such a confrontational attitude towards Venezuela and who are willing to seek a negotiated solution to the crisis. Gustavo Petro, the president of Colombia, leads this group, soon to be joined by Lula Da Silva when he takes office in Brazil. The US has shown signs of believing in this negotiation process with Chavismo since Joe Biden took office and, above all, since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine. The oil lobby, led by Chevron, is urging Washington to ease sanctions in order to market Venezuelan oil. And there has even been an exchange of prisoners between Miraflores and the White House. The maximum pressure policy around Maduro has relaxed.
That relaxed image is also projected on the Venezuelan leader himself. On Monday he was seen chatting with French President Emmanuel Macron in the hallways of COP 27, which is being held in the Egyptian city of Sharm El-Sheikh and will conclude on November 18. The following day Maduro had a casual conversation with the Prime Minister of Portugal, Antonio Costa. And he warmly greeted US climate envoy John Kerry, who served as secretary of state under Barack Obama, shaking hands and exchanging a few words.
At an event with Colombia’s Petro, Maduro proposed to reinvigorate the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization, aware that the Colombian president is trying to create a common fund for the protection of the jungle. On this point they agree, but something fundamental separates them: Petro advocates the immediate end of fossil fuels and Maduro, on the other hand, needs oil, the main source of financing for his economy. Petro considers that his colleague is allied with the right on this matter, an ideological-cultural space in which he places countries like Saudi Arabia.
In this resort-like enclave in the Sinai desert, Maduro was even relaxed enough to engage with journalists, an unusual occurrence in a man as hermetic as he is. Maduro said that an Amazon summit will be held in 2023 to get support and funding for reforestation, although he revealed little more than that. When reporters asked him about the ELN guerrilla group, he replied: “You ask me that question in Caracas, not here.” The truth is that last week, the media covered his meeting with Petro in Venezuela and after the press conference the two leaders disappeared without taking any questions.
The rapprochement with Petro, a leader who is currently experiencing a rush of international popularity, has given Maduro various degrees of legitimacy, though not without conditions. Washington and Petro have asked him to join regional oversight bodies, such as the inter-American human rights system. Maduro has replied that he will do so shortly. His critics believe that no one will be allowed to monitor or correct the rulings handed down by the Venezuelan courts, brazenly co-opted by Chavismo according to a UN report. They say that he is just buying time. However, those who have faith in the negotiation consider that attracting Maduro to liberal and democratic positions is the beginning of a way out of the Venezuelan crisis.
Maduro has not been entirely exempt from his internal problems at the summit. In his chat with Macron, the French president talked to him about “finding this path,” in what appears to be a reference to the negotiating table in Mexico, where the Chavista government and the opposition are trying to reach an agreement to set the date of the 2024 elections and leave their verification in the hands of the international community. Maduro walked away from the talks when Álex Saab was arrested and later extradited to Miami, where a court has charged him with being the Venezuelan president’s financial fixer. Now, everything seems ready for that negotiation to be reactivated and bear fruit. This step now lies in the hands of Maduro, who has come out of his presidential palace and is standing before the world.