With the war in Ukraine and a ban on Russian oil sales, the Biden administration has been seeking alternative sources of crude to try to ease prices at the gas pump. But a recent overture to oil-rich Venezuela was met with an immediate backlash from both Republicans and Democrats, who condemned the White House for negotiating with the country’s authoritarian president, Nicolás Maduro. And last month, when the White House said that it would let Chevron begin talks with the Maduro government that could possibly lead to an expansion of its very limited activities in the country, there was a similar outraged response.
For all the noise generated by the outreach to Caracas, there has been virtually no discussion of why the US has an oil embargo against Venezuela in the first place or why, in the face of the failure of economic sanctions to alter political realities in the country, US politicians are so intent on keeping them in place.
The sanction against Venezuelan oil sales was enacted three years ago at the insistence of President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, who prevailed over fierce objections by the state and treasury departments.
In my recent book on Venezuela, I show how the national security council, under Bolton’s predecessor, HR McMaster, had laid out a roadmap of escalating sanctions designed to gradually increase pressure on Maduro. At the end of the roadmap they placed the ultimate sanction, that would strike at the heart of Venezuela’s economy: an oil embargo. McMaster’s team believed that the embargo was to be used only if it was clear that Maduro was about to fall and needed one last push. The embargo would be enacted, Maduro would go away, and then the US would lift the embargo. They feared that maintaining the embargo over the long term would devastate Venezuela’s already crippled economy and multiply the suffering of ordinary Venezuelans.
But Bolton favored a maximum pressure approach. In January 2019, in a long-shot bid to evict Maduro, the US (followed by dozens of other countries) recognized the opposition legislator Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela. Bolton immediately called for enacting the oil embargo, saying, “Why don’t we go for a win here?”
Kimberly Breier, at the time the assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, told me that the measure was pushed through without any serious evaluation of the consequences. That included how likely it was to work and what effect it would have on living conditions in Venezuela. (Another question was where the US would get the oil to replace Venezuela’s crude – a portion of it would come from Russia.)
“There was absolutely no evidence,” Breier told me, that the oil sanction would bring about Maduro’s removal and yet Bolton “set the expectation that somehow this was magically going to occur”.
And of course, it did not. With help from Iran and Russia, Venezuela has continued to sell its oil, to refineries in China. Maduro is more secure in power today than he was three years ago when the sanction was enacted and the Venezuelan opposition is weaker and in greater disarray.
And yet now the sanction’s mere existence is its justification. Even suggesting that it be altered is politically toxic. And that is on purpose.
Trump saw that he could weaponize Venezuela policy in the 2020 election in Florida, with its large bloc of Hispanic voters, including Cuban Americans, attuned to Venezuela’s fall into authoritarianism. In effect, he made Venezuela the new Cuba – threatening to invade, and piling on sanctions.
As foreign policy, Trump’s approach was a failure: it did not remove Maduro or improve conditions in Venezuela. But as an election strategy it was a great success; Trump easily won Florida in 2020 and Republicans gained two congressional seats there.
When Biden became president, he inherited a trap. Any change toward Venezuela could be cast as being soft on Maduro and might cost Democrats even more votes in Florida in the midterms and in 2024.
But circumstances have changed, and not only because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In Venezuela, after eight years of brutal economic contraction (caused by Maduro’s policy mistakes and corruption and exacerbated by sanctions), the economy has started growing again. And that’s a good thing – it means more work and more money for poor people to put food on the table. While Guaidó’s effort went nowhere, his failure may have opened space for new opposition voices to emerge.
The ugly, mostly unspoken, logic behind the sanctions is that, by making conditions in the country intolerable, either people would rise up against Maduro or the military would remove him in a coup. That hasn’t happened and there is no reason to think that it will. Chuo Torrealba, a prominent opposition activist in Caracas, refers to this as “the politics of pain”.
The oil embargo and other general sanctions targeting the economy are deeply unpopular in Venezuela. Many opposition politicians have come out against them, although Guaidó and some others still call for continued or even stronger sanctions. But advocating more suffering is not a winning message to send to voters in Venezuela. “To make politics with people’s pain,” Torrealba told me, “is a mistake.”
So what should Biden do? First, he must acknowledge that US policy toward Venezuela is broken and the sanctions-heavy approach, carried out on the fly and distorted by political aims, has failed. Any change carries political risks so tweaking the margins doesn’t make much sense.
Here’s a novel thought. The humanitarian crisis in Venezuela was caused, most directly, by the country’s economic collapse. The way to solve the crisis is through economic growth. Easing sanctions may be the best way to quickly improve the lives of ordinary Venezuelans. That will encourage the return of some of the 6 million refugees – who would then be on hand to vote in a presidential election due to take place in 2024. Those people voted against Maduro with their feet when they fled the country. Why not create the conditions for them to return and vote for real change? That could do far more to end Venezuela’s authoritarian nightmare than the sanctions have.
William Neuman is the author of Things Are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse: Inside the Collapse of Venezuela