Secret talks, oil and sanctions: Inside a US-Venezuela breakthrough
Bloomberg December 4, 2023
The day had finally arrived: Venezuela’s leaders and the opposition would come together to map out a plan toward free elections.
Also on the table was the potential rollback of harsh sanctions that had further cemented the country’s economic crisis. After years of failed negotiations and conflict, it would be a historic win.
The U.S.-backed opposition group, accompanied by U.S. officials including Chief of Mission of the Venezuelan Affairs Unit Francisco Palmieri, had flown from Caracas to Barbados on Oct. 16 to finalize the latest efforts for a deal. Beads of sweat dripped down the delegates’ foreheads as they waited in the humid facilities at the Bridgetown hotel.
President Nicolás Maduro’s representatives kept them waiting until the last minute.
Back in Caracas, the Venezuelan government was still fine-tuning details of a step-by-step plan they had carefully choreographed weeks before with President Joe Biden’s administration. The government finally showed up Oct. 17 — a day after they had originally planned but in time for the signing ceremony.
A final four hours of negotiations followed, with Maduro’s government making a last-minute demand that could have derailed the process. When Venezuela’s government and the Unitary Platform signed the agreement that afternoon, it was a turning point for two political factions that had been clashing for over two decades.
Fair election, to be clear, is a loose term in this case. Given the way Maduro and his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, molded the voting system over the past quarter century to ensure their re-election time and again, long-time Venezuelan observers find it highly unlikely that Maduro would allow his opponent to defeat him next year. The election agreement, they say, is more of a first — and tepid — step to moving the country back towards the democracy it once was.
A previous round of negotiations between Maduro’s administration and the opposition party, mediated by Norway and hosted in Mexico, had come to a standstill. But circumstances were different now: Biden, facing increased pressure to lower gas prices heading into an election year, could benefit by rolling back sanctions on Venezuelan oil and gas. That, in turn, would pump money back into Venezuela’s stagnant economy.
And so, a parallel negotiation process took off this year between the U.S. and Venezuela. With the aid of OPEC member Qatar, the U.S. bypassed the opposition and engaged in direct meetings with Maduro’s government.
“While the opposition and regime are talking, it’s no secret that the more meaningful negotiations are taking place between Washington and Caracas,” said Geoff Ramsey, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center. “These kinds of parallel track negotiations aren’t unique in international mediation efforts, but they usually work best if the two processes are aligned.”
The fragile agreement may have at least partially passed its first test on Nov. 30, when the Venezuelan government met a deadline imposed by the Biden administration to take concrete steps toward a fairer vote in 2024, by announcing the procedure for disqualified opposition leaders like María Corina Machado, who overwhelmingly won the opposition’s presidential primaries, to try to restore their ability to run for public office. The U.S. had warned that it would reinstate sanctions if Maduro didn’t comply.
The U.S. State Department did not respond to a request for comment, but released a statement on Friday saying that the roadmap to reinstate candidates was a step forward, though it remains concerned “by the lack of progress on the release of wrongfully detained U.S. nationals and Venezuelan political prisoners.” The department “will have more to say in the coming days on next steps given the state of play.”
This account of the U.S.-backed talks between the Venezuelan government and opposition is based on interviews with numerous people with knowledge of the matter who asked not to be identified because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly.
Inside the talks
The U.S. and Venezuelan governments maintained back-channel communications even after relations between the two broke down in 2019, when the U.S. recognized then-National Assembly President Juan Guaidó as the country’s rightful leader.
It was two senior U.S. officials who visited Venezuela in March 2022 who resumed formal talks. Their goal was to shore up other energy sources after financial sanctions placed on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine crimped global supplies. The rapprochement bore fruit, securing prisoner swaps and easing some oil restrictions, but the two governments could not build the needed trust to continue and discussions gradually faded.
Then, a breakthrough came in mid-2023, when the Biden administration continued to face criticism over gas prices and how the massive migration from Venezuela was straining shelters and aid services in major U.S. cities.
U.S. National Security Council Senior Director Juan González and Venezuela’s head of the National Assembly and Maduro’s ally Jorge Rodríguez held a secret meeting in Doha, Qatar, that June. At that point, the so-called Mexico talks had been inactive for more than six months with no visible path for resumption.
Following the Doha meeting, U.S. officials invited a delegation of opposition representatives for a routine meeting in Washington, D.C. Unlike previous encounters, which focused on improving negotiation techniques, this one dug deep into the opposition’s wish-list, which included lifting political disqualifications and allowing international electoral observation, as well as potential concessions they might be willing to make if negotiations got tough.
Now that the U.S. had the opposition’s input, they held another secret meeting with Venezuela officials in Milan, Italy. More officials became involved in the talks, including U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols and Venezuela’s Miranda Governor Héctor Rodriguez.
For weeks, the parties were stuck on two main issues: international observation for the 2024 presidential election and allowing barred candidates to participate. At that point, Maduro’s government had banned three of the opposition’s dozen presidential candidates from running for public office. That included front-runner Machado. Eventually, they agreed to invite credible observers, such as the Carter Center and a delegation from the European Union, and to create a process for the disqualified candidates to be able to run.
The two sides came to agreement in late September, when Jorge Rodríguez made a stop in Doha on his way to a parliamentary conference in Russia. The precise details of the deal remain unknown, but each side has been gradually granting some concessions.
Within hours and without any official announcement, Venezuela discretely freed about eight military officers considered to be political prisoners. Their releases have not been reported until now. A few days later, the U.S. said that it would resume direct repatriations of Venezuelans who crossed their border unlawfully and did not establish a legal basis to remain.
At that point, it was time to formally bring the Venezuelan opposition to the table. The opposition’s representatives, who were anxious about being sidelined by the U.S., ultimately agreed to support the deal to not be cast aside completely.
So the Norway-mediated talks were revived — but Maduro’s government said they wouldn’t return to Mexico this time because the terms of a humanitarian-agreement struck there in November 2022 hadn’t been met. That deal had aimed to transfer around $3 billion of Venezuelan frozen funds overseas to a trust administered by the U.N., to finance the country’s failing utilities and health care and education systems. But money hasn’t been dispensed to Venezuela’s government because of bureaucratic hurdles and a lack of funding.
After considering various locations, including in Europe, they settled on Barbados, which was just an hour-and-a-half flight away.
Days of intense work began in Caracas in early October. The parties’ representatives held up to two meetings per day, usually extending to late night. It was all meant to happen before the Oct. 22 opposition’s primaries, which former lawmaker Machado was expected to — and ultimately did — win.
Maduro ratified her ban in June, accusing her of being linked to several “corruption plots” and of complying in the economic blockade and sanctions against Venezuela.
Some actors from both sides of the political spectrum feared that if they didn’t wrap up talks before her potential win, she would leverage her victory to take control of the negotiation process. Machado had already openly criticized and become estranged of the U.S.-recognized opposition.
The negotiations in Barbados dragged on until the last minute.
U.S. officials were unable to guarantee that sanctions would be lifted the same day that the agreement was signed, as originally promised. So the Maduro government said it wouldn’t release a group of political prisoners that same day either.
The Venezuelan government also had another sticking point: the presence of Lester Toledo, a member of the opposition’s delegation, at the signing ceremony. Toledo is a close ally of Leopoldo López, who escaped imprisonment under Maduro’s watch, and is the founder of Guaidó’s political party. That delayed the process for hours, and Toledo was ultimately excluded from the event.
The parties signed the agreement at 4 p.m. ET, but to little fanfare. The ceremony was overshadowed by Venezuelan soccer team Vinotinto’s win against Chile’s team for the 2026 FIFA World Cup qualification.
The next day the U.S. suspended sanctions on Venezuelan oil, gas and gold production and lifted some restrictions on bond trading. Maduro then released the first five political prisoners, including former lawmaker Juan Requesens and journalist Roland Carreño. There are still plans to release 20 more.
“So far it seems like there is steady communication between the Unitary Platform and the Biden Administration,” Ramsey said “But it’s important to ensure that the Venezuela regime has a clear sense of what it’s committing to doing and that this is reinforced by both the White House and the Venezuela opposition.”
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