In a period of less than 24 hours, the United States temporarily lifted economic sanctions on Venezuela’s oil and mining industries. This resulted in holding off threats from the Maduro government, which were previously being made against the opposition primary elections. They are set to be held on Sunday, October 22.
Two agreements were signed between the Venezuelan opposition bloc — the Unitary Platform — and the government of Nicolás Maduro, whose delegates met in Barbados. Immediate benefits were seen, as there now appears to be consensus about the 2024 general elections. However, there are still many doubts as to whether this pact can lead to political change in the country. It could also simply be one of the stalling tactics that are commonly deployed by the Chavista regime. Some see that there’s value in this narrow window of opportunity, although they acknowledge that it can be closed in the blink of an eye.
The documents signed in Barbados on October 17 are the product of a year-long negotiation process between Caracas and Washington. They have produced a 180-degree turn in the approach of the United States towards the South American country. The Unitary Platform and Maduro’s delegation ultimately produced two framework papers. One is about the upcoming electoral processes and political rights — the Partial Agreement on the Promotion of Political Rights and Electoral Guarantees for All — while the other is titled the Partial Agreement for the Protection of the Vital Interests of the Nation.
The first contains elements that can favor the opposition, as it focuses on electoral factors, which have been denied to them in the past. However, the agreement doesn’t explicitly address the political disqualification of candidates seeking public office. The second agreement, meanwhile — consisting of just four points — includes the rejection of the concessions for oil exploitation granted to Guyana in Venezuelan territory, as well as a commitment to safeguard Venezuelan assets abroad (which, until now, the Maduro government hasn’t been able to access).
In two years, the United States went from isolating and sanctioning Venezuela — with Trump’s administration even threatening that “all cards were on the table” — to undertaking a more pragmatic approach, aimed at settling for minimal results in the short-term.
Can this approach bring about any political change in the country? Like many issues in Venezuela, the answer is: “it depends.” Some see this negotiation stage as simply an opportunity for Maduro to bide time, so that he can then receive resources — both from unfrozen assets and crude oil sales — to inject into public spending, while continuing to fragment the opposition. According to this thesis, it’s expected that the regime won’t fulfill the promises made in Barbados. Indeed, it would be a surprise if Maduro’s government acted in accordance with democratic values.
For Carmen Beatriz Fernández — a professor of Political Communications at the University of Navarra, in Spain — a positive aspect of these agreements is that the Maduro government will not carry out the threats about stopping the opposition primary elections from proceeding. She also emphasizes that the radical change in Washington’s strategy — focused on its own energy and geopolitical interests — is a big turning point. The United States wants to prevent Venezuela from continuing to be a factor of instability on the continent and curb the high flow of Venezuela migrants coming north, as they flee a humanitarian and economic crisis. In fact, just hours before the lifting of sanctions, the first deportation flight from Texas landed in Maiquetía, Venezuela’s principal airport.
Others highlight that, at least, dialogue has been reactivated. They feel optimistic that the Maduro government has committed itself to respect the Constitution of Venezuela and human rights. Griselda Colina — a former official with the country’s National Electoral Council — maintains that the Barbados agreements mark the return of the actors to a formal negotiation space.
From the opposition’s perspective, the electoral issue is sufficiently outlined. This is because a period has been set for the presidential elections (the second half of 2024) and the agreement includes — among other milestones — the updating of the electoral registry and the inclusion of international observers. However, opposition leaders highlight that everything is very fragile and that, to achieve the agreed-upon points, intense pressure and monitoring are required.
I tend to believe that Maduro — to remain in the presidential chair — has resorted to politics and negotiations. Yet, he is also prone to heavy-handedness, the violation of human rights and the support of armed force against civilians. Despite internal differences among the Chavistas — who have been in power uninterruptedly since 1999, when Hugo Chávez took office — Maduro has managed to ensure that there’s unity in the face of the threat of being removed from power.
Maduro has eliminated most of his political rivals from play, many of whom were previously untouchable. These include holdovers from the Chávez administration (1999-2013), such as oil czar Rafael Ramírez. From Maduro’s own generation of rulers, he removed his trusted ally and economic operator — Tarek El Aissami — in an unprecedented raid on the corrupt state-owned oil company, PDVSA. While he has done all of this unflinchingly, he has paid a high price: the vast majority of the Venezuelan population disapproves of his government — as all surveys show — and many within his regime are displeased with his desire to remain in government longer than Chávez himself.
Doubts regarding the Barbados agreements are reasonable. However, the fact that Maduro and his administration have had to negotiate with the United States — the historical enemy of Chavismo — reveals that he requires financing to extend his time in power. This monetary need has opened up the slightest opportunity to promote change. On the other hand, the Venezuelan government may also suffer a further blow among public opinion if it backtracks on other parts of the deal with Washington and the opposition, such as the release of political prisoners.
It’s still too early to see what the scope of this entire negotiation stage may be. The US Department of Treasury has given Maduro a period of six months to comply with the commitments that he has made. Of course, there’s still a risk — as Carmen Beatriz Fernández warns — that, from now on, the international community will turn a blind eye to what happens in Venezuela, especially after the conclusion of these negotiations.
I am inclined to predict — without being entirely optimistic — that having a route towards an electoral process laid out can offer a peaceful channel for the need for change that has been expressed across Venezuelan society. This may be a small chance for consensus, but just six months ago, it was unthinkable.
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