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By Ronald Austin Jr.
When Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias escaped prison time for his role in the 1992 coup d’etat, he subsequently formed the Fifth Republic Movement. His political party carried the usual clarion calls for the South American left and he received 56.2% of the vote and became President in 1998. The rise of Chavez and his leftist ideology rattled Washington and what began as a tense relationship, metamorphosed into a permanent state of jingoistic exchanges and saber-rattling. The United States and Venezuela’s relations reached their nadir under the Bush Administration. Indeed, there was no love lost or respect gained when Hugo Chavez stood at the lectern at the United Nations General Assembly in 2006 and referred to the US President as the devil while making the universal sign of the cross. Subsequently, Venezuela ensconced itself with the global left and the rest is history. Upon the death of Chavez, a former bus driver took up the chair at the Miraflores Palace and continued the Chavismo movement with the same gusto, if not more intensely. Following crushing sanctions, military posturing and the de-recognition of the Maduro regime, it was safe to conclude that Venezuela and the United States were irreconcilable enemies.
Recently, the White House dispatched a high-level team to meet with President Nicholas Maduro. Even though the United States has communication lines with all regimes around the world, this journey to the Bolivarian Republic represented a quasi-détente that understandably raised eyebrows. Therefore, the following questions are justifiably begged: is there a tectonic shift in the White House’s Venezuela policy? What is the end game? And most importantly, is the Guyana/Venezuela border controversy on the surreptitious table?
IS THERE A SHIFT IN POLICY?
First, it is not thorough to conclude that Venezuela is out of the woods, the shift in policy might just be cosmetic. Executive Orders: 13884,13857,13692,13808,13827,13835 and 13850 remain tabled. These Presidential decrees give the US government broad and sweeping powers to strangle the Maduro regime. As far as my knowledge serves, these measures have not been reversed. Hence, any conclusion which suggests that the shackles are off of Maduro, would be fanciful at best. Added to this, on the receiving the news about the White House sending a team to meet Maduro, the Chairman of the US Foreign Senate Relations Committee, Bob Menendez, uttered the following sentiments: ‘If the reports are true that the Biden administration is brokering the purchase of Venezuelan oil, I fear that it risks perpetuating a humanitarian crisis that has destabilized Latin America and the Caribbean for an entire generation. Nicolás Maduro is a cancer to our hemisphere and we should not breathe new life into his reign of torture and murder. As such, I would strongly oppose any action that fills the pockets of regime oligarchs with oil profits while Maduro continues to deprive Venezuelans of basic human rights, freedoms, and even food’. As well as, Marco Rubio repeated his usual rebuke of any suggestion to bring Venezuela out of the cold. Needless to say, taking the American boots off of Maduro’s neck will be fraught with domestic political risks that Biden and his low approval ratings may not be too excited to do. Be that as it may, the US President can reverse a few low-hanging Executive Orders or introduce something new that may appear to be a concession for Maduro’s overtures. Despite the trip by the high level team, a change in policy has to be made of much more stern stuff.
WHAT IS THE END GAME?
If you look at the headlines, it is reasonable to conclude that the rapprochement between Caracas and Washington is a result of the Russia/Ukraine War which caused the US to resort to alternative sources of energy. There ought to be no major arguments with that. However, the record will reflect that the Biden Administration, since its inception, manifested a penchant that suggests that the Venezuela policy is simply not working. Alongside this, they know that amidst the entire fluster and buster from Caracas, the life of a government with a US140 billion external debt and sanctions, cannot be easy. They know that despite pounding his fists on the Presidential desk at Miraflores, the embattled leader is willing to wheel and deal. But what is the end game? Based on what is available to me, it cannot be a scenario where there is a grand thawing of relations and Maduro is invited to the White House. Drug traffickers (Sinaloa and Zeta cartel) have found a home in Venezuela and global organized crime networks have found a home in Venezuela, Western designated terrorists are there, the FARC and ELN operate within the borders of the Bolivarian Republic, a full-blown migrant crisis still exists and the former Spanish colony remains a major threat to its neighbors. Due to this circumstance, the geopolitical clock cannot be facetiously restarted. Despite this state of affairs, there is a school of thought which holds that the US and Venezuela relations are permanent and based on sustained interdependence based on energy security interests. In his study, ‘The United States and Venezuela: Social Construction of Interdependence Rivalry’, Christian Bonfili argues: ‘Venezuela has long been part of the group of countries upon which the US security architecture rests’. So, what is the interim end game? In my estimation: the Biden Administration and other US regimes that may follow, might adopt the Rafael Trujillo model for Venezuela: ‘He might be a son of bitch but he is our son of a bitch’.
IS BORDER CONTROVERSY ON THE TABLE?
Now, it is extremely difficult to know exactly what is discussed at these secretive high-level meetings. Suffice it to speculate that a myriad of issues would have been discussed and those agreements will, at some point, manifest. One agreement has already shown its face: on Tuesday, Gustavo Cardenas and Albert Fernandez were released after spending considerable time in Venezuela’s prison system. Nobody knows that is the quid pro quo, we have seen the quid but what is quo? Is it possible that Maduro wants to offer these favors to get the latitude to try something militarily and hope the Americans apply Nelson’s eye? If indeed that is the case, could it be that his dream of reconquering the Essequibo is at the forefront of his mind? Certainly, it is difficult to see this issue being brought to the negotiating table. However, if there is a wink and a nod from Washington, Maduro may proceed. Yet, I am doubtful that Maduro has the appetite or wherewithal at this moment to violate international law and seize sovereign territory. He is not Putin and Venezuela is certainly not Russia. Further, I posit that peace on the continent of South America is the highest priority of countries such as Brazil and with Guyana’s new status as an oil and gas economy, the border issue is somewhat tied to the energy security of the United States of America.