The Visit That Could Reignite Talks Between Washington and Caracas

Misión Verdad, Orinov Tribune, Jun 23, 2023 —

This week, various Venezuelan news outlets have reported on the presence of a US-government owned Phoenix Air Gulfstream III aircraft at the Simon Bolivar International Airport in Maiquetia, La Guaira state, Venezuela.

The plane was reportedly carrying Roger Carstens, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor of the US State Department and current Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs since 2020.

It was reported that this official had been in contact with several US nationals imprisoned in Venezuela, and there was talk of the possibility of a potential prisoner swap involving the return to the oil-producing country of the diplomat Alex Saab, kidnapped and prosecuted on US soil.

Although the event was covertly prepared without official announcements, it raised a fundamental question regarding the real status of the ties between the two governments at present, against the background of negotiations seeming to be at a standstill.

Progress, paralysis, and setbacks
On several occasions last year, Joe Biden’s administration sent officials to Venezuela who were received by President Nicolás Maduro, publicly implying that channels of communication and negotiation had been resumed between Washington and Caracas.

In October, Venezuelans and US prisoners were exchanged in what would be the most important agreement between the two countries in years, easing tensions to a small extent.

At the Mexico Talks in November 2022, delegations from the Chavismo sects and the United Democratic Platform (PUD) had reached a social agreement for the unfreezing of $3.2 billion to invest in issues such as healthcare and electricity supply. These resources, belonging to the Venezuelan State, would be unfrozen by the US government to be channeled through entities attached to the United Nations system.

Also, in November 2022, the US government issued License GL 41, authorizing the oil transnational Chevron to resume some operations that had been suspended in Venezuela by the same illegal sanctions. Although this license clarified important limits for Chevron’s activity, it opened possibilities that were supposed to somewhat alleviate the pressures against oil activities in Venezuela.

In January 2023, the so-called “National Assembly of 2015” (AN-15), presently recognized by Joe Biden’s administration, put an end to the “interim government” of Juan Guaidó, closing a four-year cycle of “regime change operations” based on pseudo-overlapping governments. This implied the opening of a new era in the relationship between Venezuela and the United States, removing the obstacle of recognizing the “interim government” and, by default, enabling the continuation of effective possibilities in the development of small agreements.

But the dynamism in these negotiations has since stagnated.

In particular, the US government has not followed through on its word agreed upon in the social agreement signed in Mexico of unfreezing Venezuelan assets , and there is no realistic prospect at present that this commitment will be honored.

On May 1, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) published General License No. 42 which establishes the authorization to liquidate the assets of the subsidiary of Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), CITGO Petroleum Corporation.

This document opened the door to “indemnify” the international creditors that have sued the subsidiary; if it is executed, it would mean the absolute loss of the main asset of the Venezuelan State on foreign soil.

Last January, the Colombian government, through its state-owned company Ecopetrol, requested a license from OFAC to authorize the purchase of gas from Venezuela, but this request has not been answered.

The US State Department then intensified tensions with Venezuela by granting former congresswoman and fugitive from justice Dinorah Figuera access to bank accounts with approximately 347 million bolívars, frozen in international banks.

Figuera would embezzle these resources under the spurious representation of AN-15, with which the Biden administration would give political and financial oxygen to a new form of parallel Venezuelan government.

The United States has failed to comply with agreed upon guidelines and has instead planned to sustain pressure against Venezuela, backtracking and shattering the possibilities of negotiations between the two countries.


Clearing the table?
On several occasions, both President Nicolás Maduro and the Deputy and President of the National Assembly, Jorge Rodríguez, have stated that it is not feasible to maintain the agreement with the Venezuelan opposition and the US government, considering that the opposition has not complied with what has been agreed upon, a valid reason for justifying the Venezuelan State’s hesitance.

With respect to the public sphere, the new distance between Washington and Caracas imposes the perception that players have taken their cards off the table and raised the stakes.

The five main rectors of the National Electoral Council (CNE) have recently resigned, creating an institutional impasse. According to several angles of analysis, this decision could have several explanations.

One reason for the shift from infighting toward a new CNE is the failure of negotiations. By leveraging their parliamentary majority, Chavismo aims to establish a new electoral body to exert comprehensive pressure on internal opposition groups, and, by default, the US government as well. This approach involves a display of political strength that resists external pressure and avoids the need for political dialogue. In essence, Chavismo intends to use a new CNE as a bargaining tool in future negotiations.

The timid response from certain opposition leaders to these announcements suggests that this mechanism is being employed to establish a new CNE. It is speculated that Chavismo might be complying with discreet agreements made between some opposition leaders and the US government aiming to create a new entity that ensures “free elections,” as demanded by the gringos. These agreements, however, serve the interests of both anti-Chavismo and the US government.

The level of inconsistency between the two possibilities is significant, given the inherent uncertainty surrounding the logical framework of these events.

Recently, opposition leader María Corina Machado said that the opposition’s primary elections would simultaneously legitimize the anti-Chavista leadership and alluded to taking control of dialogue with the Venezuelan government upon her possible victory.

Machado has never before validated dialogue with Chavismo, and it is highly probable that if she takes over leadership of the opposition, she will end up liquidating what is left of agreements from the Mexico Talks.

Although the recent visit of a US official to Caracas has raised the possibility of a “humanitarian exchange,” silence continues to prevail, and there are no public indications that provide any certainty of active links between Washington and Caracas.

The Colombian government, under the leadership of Gustavo Petro, hosted the International Conference on the Political Process in Venezuela in Bogota. During the conference, they achieved a minimum consensus, highlighting the importance of unblocking Venezuela through a series of “agreed steps” that align with the simultaneous lifting of all coercive measures.

However, that conference did not receive strong backing from the Biden administration and has not generated concrete results. Its scope lies mainly in the discretion of the US government to comply with previous agreements and de-escalate its “sanctions,” while Venezuelan institutions would have to, given the current circumstances, elect a new CNE and publish an electoral calendar that constitutionally could be deployed next year.

On the surface, Chavismo could win the dismantling of coercive measures in exchange for elections that it would still conduct in accordance with the Constitution, but the whole picture is ambiguous. The US government continues not to comply with the central agreements and instead seems intent on preventing Venezuela’s recovery, thus creating electoral disadvantages for Chavismo; all this while demanding “free elections.”

Time is running out, and with six months to go before the start of 2024, Chavismo could consider the possible “piecemeal” loosening of the blockade unable to justify the political damage caused by an accumulation of coercive measures forcefully deployed since 2017, almost six years ago.

In the scenario that a “humanitarian exchange” between Venezuela and the United States occurs in the short term, it is very likely that this will be an isolated event and will not be considered in comprehensive negotiations. Everything seems to be at an impasse.

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