$3 billion in frozen Venezuelan assets will soon be released

The United Nations will manage the process, which could advance talks in Mexico to resolve the country’s political and social crisis

El presidente Nicolás Maduro en una conferencia en el Palacio de Miraflores el 16 de agosto de 2023.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro during a press conference in Miraflores Palace; August 16, 2023.Carlos Becerra (Bloomberg)

Sources familiar with the negotiations informed EL PAÍS that $3 billion worth of frozen Venezuelan assets will be released in the coming weeks. The United Nations (UN) will manage these assets, which will be used for public works and health projects. The release of the funds was agreed upon in November 2022 during ongoing talks in Mexico between Venezuela’s ruling party and opposition leaders. The United Nations expressed concerns about possible legal claims from the government’s creditors, but in May, the United States assured that it would protect the assets from such claims. “The money will soon be available,” our sources said.

President Nicolás Maduro’s regime prioritized the release of these assets because the promised economic recovery proved to be a mirage for most of Venezuela. By allocating the unfrozen funds to schools, hospitals and public services, the regime aims to polish its image prior to the 2024 elections. This move could also advance the talks in Mexico so that a specific date for the elections is set. Venezuelan opposition parties are expected to unite behind a single candidate.

The primary obstacle to accessing the assets was Venezuela’s substantial foreign debt, amounting to billions of dollars in commercial loans and arbitration awards. Some creditors are targeting frozen assets held abroad to recover debts owed by the government and PDVSA, the state-owned oil company. The Bank of England currently holds 31 tons of Venezuela’s gold, and the United States also holds substantial assets belonging to the Central Bank of Venezuela. UN Secretary General António Guterres expressed concern about a potential legal logjam that would prevent the release of these assets, but the United States said it would offer them special diplomatic protection. Officials from the U.S. State and Treasury Departments are involved in the asset release. “Guterres is ready. It’s time to get that money,” said people involved in the negotiation. The United Nations will manage the funds in New York and ensure they are allocated as agreed.

Jorge Rodríguez, Venezuela’s lead negotiator in Mexico, said the funds are “legitimate resources of the State of Venezuela” and that recovering them “expresses our people’s right to utilize and benefit from their own assets and resources that were illegally frozen.” The release of the funds is not subject to any concessions by the Venezuelan government, however opposition leaders and mediators from Norway hope that it will advance efforts to resolve the country’s political and social crisis.

The international community, led by Presidents Emmanuel Macron (France) and Gustavo Petro (Colombia), has expressed deep concern over the sluggish pace of the process. It was anticipated that by now, Maduro would have announced a definitive date for the 2024 presidential elections, allowing the participation of opposition politicians currently barred from running. Additionally, the presence of international election observers (much like the EU did in the 2021 regional elections) would be imperative to ensure the fairness and impartiality of the electoral process. These measures would enable the opposition to effectively challenge Maduro’s hold on power.

In an effort to unite against the current administration, the opposition is strategically fielding a sole candidate in the upcoming elections. Barring any unforeseen circumstances (which are entirely possible), a primary will take place on October 22 to nominate a strong candidate with the pledged support of all opposition parties. The primary will be organized by the opposition without the participation of Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE). María Corina Machado appears to be the frontrunner, despite being barred from running for public office for the past 15 years. Polls indicate that Machado performs exceptionally well in direct faceoffs with Nicolás Maduro.

The CNE has recently appointed a new director, Elvis Amoroso, a long-time member of the ruling party and personal friend of First Lady Cilia Flores. He has also been responsible for disqualifying several well-known candidates from running for office. Three of the five CNE directors have close ties to the government, and the other two belong to the opposition. The CNE’s main responsibility is to organize elections, which both the United States and Europe hope will be conducted fairly. President Maduro has declared that these elections will only be truly free when sanctions are lifted. Venezuela is currently restricted from selling oil, establishing trade deals, purchasing spare parts, hiring services from American, Canadian and European companies, and accessing international credit and frozen funds.

In the past year, there have been some cautious efforts to defrost the U.S.-Venezuelan relationship. Washington has proposed Venezuela as an alternative energy supplier due to Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. U.S. officials met with Maduro in Caracas and agreed to a prisoner exchange that freed nephews of First Lady Cilia Flores detained in the U.S. for drug trafficking. In May, Rodríguez and Juan González, an adviser to President Joe Biden, secretly met in Qatar to discuss another prisoner exchange.

The two countries are profoundly distrustful of each other. U.S. officials believe that Venezuela consistently finds excuses not to democratize its institutions and electoral processes. They claim to have offered concessions to Maduro, like the license it granted Chevron to revive its oil output and expand operations in Venezuela, but that such gestures are never reciprocated. Meanwhile, Maduro blames Washington for strangling the country with economic sanctions and attempts to overthrow the government by supporting the likes of Juan Guaidó, the self-declared interim president of Venezuela.

Now, there is a new opportunity for all parties to come together and bridge their differences with the release of frozen assets. The United States has the final say on releasing the funds, and still holds out hope for a negotiated agreement. It is now up to Maduro and Rodríguez to take the next step by setting a date for the elections. The international community can then work toward a fair electoral process without the frozen asset roadblock in the way.

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