US reimposes sanctions on Venezuela as hope for democracy crumbles

Estimated read time 3 min read

The Biden administration has reimposed crushing oil sanctions on Venezuela, admonishing the president Nicolás Maduro’s attempts to consolidate his rule just six months after the US eased restrictions in a bid to support now fading hopes for a democratic opening in the Opec nation.

A senior US official, discussing the decision with reporters, said any US company investing in Venezuela would have 45 days to wind down operations to avoid adding uncertainty to global energy markets. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss US policy deliberations.

In October, the US granted Maduro’s government relief from sanctions on its state-run oil, gas and mining sectors after it agreed to work with members of the opposition to hold a free and competitive presidential election this year.

Maduro went on to schedule an election for July and invited international observers to monitor voting, but his inner circle has used the ruling party’s total control over Venezuela’s institutions to undermine the agreement.

Actions include blocking his main rival, ex-lawmaker Maria Corina Machado, from registering her candidacy or that of a designated alternative. Numerous government critics have also been jailed over the past six months, including several of Machado’s aides.

Wednesday’s actions essentially return US policy to what it was prior to the agreement hammered out in the Caribbean island of Barbados, making it illegal for US companies to do business with the state-run oil producer, without a specific license from the US treasury department.

It’s unclear what impact the snapback would have on Venezuela’s long-floundering oil and gas industry – or whether it will pressure Maduro to offer a more level electoral playing field.

The initial reprieve was issued for only six months. Experts say that’s not nearly enough time to attract the major capital investments required to revive long-stagnant production in Venezuela, which sits atop the world’s largest proven oil reserves.

However, by allowing Venezuela to send oil directly, instead of going through shady middlemen who charge a hefty fee, Maduro’s government was able to boost oil revenues and raise much-needed cash during the six months of US sanctions relief.

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While signaling its growing frustration with Maduro, the Biden administration is unlikely to return to the failed “maximum pressure” campaign tried during the Trump administration, which only strengthened the leftist leader’s hand, experts said.

“It became impossible for the White House to pretend that the Maduro government in any way was complying – or even intended to comply – with the implicit deal in the partial lifting of sanctions,” said Christopher Sabatini, a research fellow at the Chatham House in London. “To have ignored that would have made the US look weak and undermined its credibility in leveraging sanctions not just on Venezuela but elsewhere.”

Opinion polls show most Venezuelans would eagerly boot Maduro from office if given half a chance. Numerous regional leaders, including the leftist presidents of Colombia and Brazil, have joined the US in criticizing the Maduro government’s failure to abide by its commitments and allow a competitive election.


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