Tremors in Venezuela’s leadership: USA tightens sanctions, Maduro makes noise

Tremors in Venezuela’s leadership
USA tightens sanctions, Maduro makes noise

By Roland Peters, New York

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President Maduro and his leadership circle are responsible for Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis, the fleeing population, and the exploitation. Instead of confrontation, the US government is trying dialogue – also because of its huge oil reserves. It collapses on Maduro.

The United States’ tactics didn’t work. “When did we become a colony of the USA, another star (on their flag)? Can someone tell me?” Nicolás Maduro asked in his usual provocative way. Venezuela’s president responded promptly to Washington’s decision announced on Wednesday to reinstate the sanctions against the South American country’s oil and gas sector that had been relaxed for six months. At the headquarters of the state-owned company PDVSA, surrounded by oil workers, he called the move “blackmail.” State television broadcast the speech live across the country.

Maduro did not keep the agreements made, said high-ranking US government officials about the reasons for the change of course. Because of the easing, oil exports in March were higher than they have been in four years. Venezuela’s national budget depends on revenue from the fossil energy sector. The majority of the Venezuelan population lives in poverty after many years of mismanagement. Caracas now hopes to be able to at least complete the expansion projects negotiated in recent months between PDVSA, the US group Chevron and the Spanish Repsol before the punitive measures take full effect again at the end of May.

In the future, US companies will no longer be allowed to work with Venezuela’s state-owned oil and gas company PDVSA, which will be banned from investing in Venezuela and selling crude oil on the world market for US dollars. Barter transactions are only permitted if the US authorities grant a special license upon application. This means that the time for softer tones between the two countries is over for the time being. But what actually happened?

Opposition eliminated

After the large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, the two countries had cautiously approached each other. The United States relaxed the sanctions that have been in effect since 2019 in October after lengthy negotiations. In return, Maduro promised to facilitate free and fair presidential elections. They are scheduled for July 28th, on the birthday of ex-President Hugo Chávez. The country’s institutions are controlled by those loyal to the government. The Venezuelan opposition had been working toward July in rare unity, hoping that Washington’s goodwill would help them win the election.

Now the ray of hope for a possible change of government has dimmed again. “We have been closely monitoring the situation,” the US government said. As promised, Caracas announced the elections early and also created the conditions for international observers. But that wasn’t enough. Candidates and parties were excluded due to formalities. Caracas intimidated, harassed or arrested political opponents and jailed opposition supporters and activists.

Could Maduro be dangerous: María Machado (right).

Could Maduro be dangerous: María Machado (right).

(Photo: REUTERS)

Shortly after the agreement last year, the opposition agreed on the joint candidate María Machado. In a survey in the country’s most important cities at the beginning of the year, Maduro had around 20 percent approval, while the conservative Machado had an overwhelming 74 percent. Machado doesn’t skimp on pithy words. She said, among other things, that she was “at war with Chavismo.” He excluded her from the election, as well as her replacement candidate. According to the US government, this was the decisive point for the reintroduced sanctions. “They have increased the oppression,” Machado complained: “They have done everything they said they wouldn’t do.” Government loyalists, however, said that Venezuela had complied with the agreement with the USA.

In addition to the reinstated US sanctions and possible effects on the national budget and the population, a gigantic corruption scandal is currently preoccupying the Venezuelan leadership. Former oil minister Tareck El Aissami, described by the US as a “narco kingpin,” has apparently fallen out of favor with Maduro. At the beginning of April, security forces arrested the former PDVSA chief and two other well-known Chavistas. The step is like a tremor. El Aissami was already a minister under Chávez and belonged to Maduro’s inner circle.

Tareck El Aissami (left) was head of PDVSA until March 2023. Tareck El Aissami (left) was head of PDVSA until March 2023.

Tareck El Aissami (left) was head of PDVSA until March 2023.

(Photo: AP)

El Aissami is accused of using a high-level front man to defraud PDVSA of around $21 billion. The entire Venezuelan national budget was $11.5 billion last year. This year it should be $20.5 billion due to larger oil exports. Inflation also decreased. This suggested upswing could now collapse again due to the sanctions imposed.

Maduro is clinging to power

Chávez’s former foreign minister, Maduro, has now been in power for eleven years. Under US President Donald Trump, the State Department pursued a course of maximum pressure to force a change of government. Previously, the 2018 Venezuelan presidential election led to international diplomatic unrest. The USA and other countries, including Germany and the EU, declared Maduro’s proclaimed election victory invalid. Instead, they recognized Parliament President Juan Guaidó as interim president, who then led a shadow government with diplomatic missions abroad.

However, a joint attempt by Guaidó to overthrow the government with the opposition and parts of the military failed. The generals continued to support Maduro. When Guiadó’s mandate ended at the beginning of 2020, his parallel government also collapsed again. The U.S. Attorney’s Office then charged more than a dozen members of Venezuela’s leadership with “narco-terrorism” and offered a $15 million reward for Maduro’s arrest.

After the major Russian attack on Ukraine in early 2022, the Democratic US government tried to change course: dialogue. Washington negotiated with Caracas; also in order not to block all routes to the gigantic Venezuelan oil reserves in view of the world market turbulence. In addition, Venezuelans are no longer just fleeing within South America, but also in large numbers to the USA. Almost 8 million people have left the country in the past ten years.

But the agreements have obviously not changed the fact that Maduro and his leadership do not want to give up power; no matter what the cost. Just like the punitive measures that have now been reinstated. After all, for Maduro it’s all about everything: if he loses an election, he might have to answer in court for his time in power. The bounty offered by the USA still applies.

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