Venezuela-US relations soften ahead of key primary elections | ET REALITY

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When the Venezuelan government released five political prisoners on Wednesday night to cheers from the country’s opposition, it was the most emotional moment in a rapid series of policy changes in the South American country that together represent the most significant weakening of relations. between Venezuela and the United States in recent times. years.

Within days, Venezuela’s authoritarian government agreed to accept Venezuelan immigrants deported from the United States and signed an agreement with opposition leaders designed to move toward a free and fair presidential election in 2024.

In exchange, the United States agreed to lift some economic sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry, a vital source of revenue for President Nicolás Maduro’s government.

The developments come just days before more than a million Venezuelans are expected to go to the polls for a primary election to choose the opposition leader who will face Maduro next year.

The main candidate is María Corina Machado, a former center-right legislator, who has declared herself the country’s best chance yet to overthrow the socialist-inspired government that has governed since 1999.

At a recent campaign event in the eastern city of Maturín, she filled an entire avenue with supporters, who crowded in to hear her speak.

“Let’s shake up this regime!” she screamed. “We are going to bury socialism forever!”

The United States has imposed sanctions on some Venezuelan leaders for years, but the Trump administration tightened them significantly in 2019, following a widely considered fraudulent election in which Maduro claimed victory.

For years, Maduro has sought the lifting of sanctions, which have strangled his economy, while the United States and its allies in the Venezuelan opposition have wanted Maduro to allow competitive elections that could give his political opponents a legitimate chance to win. .

The two sides have been relatively stalemate, with some exceptions. Until now.

Among the factors driving this avalanche of new policies is the growing geopolitical importance of Venezuela.

The South American country is home to the world’s largest proven oil reserves, and there is growing US interest in those reserves amid concerns about a broader conflict in the Middle East and the war in Ukraine, which has threatened access to world oil supplies.

While it would take years for the deteriorating infrastructure of Venezuela’s oil industry to recover, the country’s oil reserves could be key in the future.

The Biden administration is also increasingly interested in improving the economic situation in Venezuela to try to address the arrival of large numbers of Venezuelan migrants at the US southern border.

The five political prisoners Venezuela released late Wednesday include Roland Carrenoformer advisor to opposition leader Juan Guaidó, and Juan Requesens, former deputy of the National Assembly.

Despite the importance of the recent announcements, some analysts worry that Maduro is playing games with both the opposition and the US government and could ultimately end everything he seeks: sanctions relief; an election with at least some international recognition; and a victory next year that allows him to retain power.

Maduro’s government is being investigated by the International Criminal Court for possible crimes against humanity, and the United States has set a $15 million reward for his arrest to face drug trafficking charges. Leaving office could mean long prison sentences for Maduro and his associates.

“The government doesn’t want to give up power,” said Christopher Sabatini, senior researcher for Latin America at Chatham House, a research group in London. “Especially when there is indeed a bounty on his head.”

The United States has tried to prevent that from happening by making clear that sanctions could be reinstated at any time. But some analysts say that could be difficult if companies take advantage of sanctions relief and start investing in Venezuela.

“Once these companies come back, they will do everything they can not to be eliminated,” Sabatini said. “So this is a very risky move for the United States government. “Snapback sanctions are not as easy as they seem.”

The sanctions relief announced this week allows the Venezuelan state oil company to export oil and gas to the United States for six months. For the past few years, the Venezuelan government has been exporting oil to China and other countries at a significant discount.

While the move is expected to be a boon to Venezuela’s public finances, analysts said poor infrastructure and the reluctance of some outside investors to enter the Venezuelan market present significant challenges.

“It is an open question whether the Maduro government will be able to take advantage, at least to the fullest extent possible, of this authorization,” said Mariano de Alba, senior adviser to the International Crisis Group.

Maduro came to power in 2013 after the death of Hugo Chávez, the founder of the country’s socialist-inspired revolution. Under Maduro’s government, Venezuela, once among the richest countries in Latin America, has experienced an extraordinary economic decline, leading to a humanitarian crisis that has forced more than seven million people to flee.

Many voters believe Machado, 55, has the best chance of defeating Maduro. A veteran politician nicknamed the “Iron Lady” because of her adversarial relationship with the Maduro and Chavez governments, some supporters consider her brave for remaining in the country when many other politicians have fled political persecution.

His proposals to open the free market and reduce the role of the state have earned him a loyal base across all social classes.

At the campaign event in Maturín, Ms. Machado was carried onto the stage as if she were a rock star.

The moment he took the stage, the lights went out, something common, even expected, in Venezuela, where power outages have become an everyday occurrence. Machado’s supporters didn’t miss a beat and pulled out their cell phones to shine a light on their candidate.

Some began making video calls so their relatives abroad could hear her speak.

The candidate focused her gaze on a woman in her 60s who seemed to have her daughter at stake.

“This fight is for you to return,” Machado told his daughter.

The video calls multiplied and for a few minutes the distance between those who had stayed in Venezuela and those who had left disappeared.

“This is the closing of a cycle of hate, misery, separation and sadness,” declared Machado.

While promoting his candidacy, Machado’s campaign has been plagued by violence and government surveillance.

She has been beaten by people carrying Maduro signs and had animal blood thrown at her in a demonstration at which The New York Times was present. She has been followed by military intelligence police and she circumvents police checkpoints by riding the motorcycles of her supporters.

“I understand what I’m facing,” Machado told the Times in an interview. “We are aware that there are many risks and that they can do us a lot of harm. “I’m not going to tell anyone that this is easy.”

Polls suggest he is likely to win the primary, which features 10 competitors, but the bigger question is whether he can run in the general election.

Maduro’s government has banned Machado from running for office for 15 years, alleging that she did not complete her declaration of assets and income when she was a legislator. These types of disqualifications are a common tactic used by Maduro to keep strong competitors out of the polls.

Despite an agreement this week to move toward competitive electoral conditions, Maduro’s government has shown few signs that it will allow Machado to run.

If Ms. Machado is not allowed to run in 2024, the opposition could field another candidate. But it is unclear whether Machado would step aside voluntarily, whether the opposition would rally around a single new candidate or whether they would split the vote, essentially handing the election to Maduro.

Machado’s motto during his campaign is “until the end.”

Sunday’s elections will be held without official government support. Instead, the vote is being organized by civil society, with polling stations in the homes, parks and offices of different opposition parties.

At the event in Maturín, Carlos Núñez, 66, a retired teacher, said he had sold his car and farm so his wife and children could leave Venezuela in search of a better life. He now conducts community outreach to encourage his fellow citizens to vote in the primaries.

Núñez said that if Machado wins the primary and the government prohibits him from running in the general vote, “then people should be in the streets.”

Nearby, Carmen Cardoso, 66, a retiree from the oil industry, said she believed Machado could win next year. “We know it won’t be easy,” she said, “but we, as a people, have to ensure that she comes to power.”

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