One day Nicolás Maduro assures his unrestricted support for Vladimir Putin in Ukraine. To the other, he moderates his support and calls for dialogue between the two countries in conflict, just after receiving in Miraflores the highest-level US delegation that has visited Venezuela since 1999. Four days later, its vice president, Delcy Rodríguez, takes photos with the Russian foreign minister, “the friend Serguei Lavrov” in Turkey, in a meeting in which, they assured, they spoke about their bilateral relations. This is how Venezuela begins a two-way game in the international arena.
The turnaround that world geopolitics has given in the last month undoubtedly opens a window of opportunity for Maduro. Chavismo surfs the wave of the crisis over the Russian invasion of Ukraine to try to improve its position, after years cornered by Washington’s economic sanctions and the accusations of human rights violations for which an investigation awaits in the Criminal Court. International.
The meeting on March 5 and 6 between representatives of the Joe Biden Administration and Nicolás Maduro surprised everyone. Both sides have acknowledged that they discussed “energy security” issues. After the meeting, Chavismo has sent some signal about requests that the United States has insistently made. He announced that he will resume the negotiations in Mexico, which were lifted after the extradition of businessman Álex Saab, accused of money laundering and designated as a figurehead for high-ranking government officials, an issue that has not been mentioned again, especially since It was learned that the Colombian had been collaborating with the DEA since 2018. He also released two arbitrarily detained Americans, in response to a negotiation that the special envoy for hostages Roger Carsten had been pushing for months.
But a further objective of this approach has to do directly with the energy context, in which Russia, one of the world’s main oil producers, has been vetoed by the United States and the United Kingdom. The North American nation was the best client —safe buyer and good payer— that Venezuela had in the sale of oil until the embargo was imposed in 2019.
In that convulsive year in which Juan Guaidó challenged Chavismo and achieved international recognition as interim president, Maduro made moves to shield himself. One of them was moving PDVSA’s headquarters in Europe from Lisbon to Moscow. A year later, Washington responded by applying sanctions to Rosneft – Putin’s oil mainstay, a state company with Russian private capital – for ignoring the veto it had placed on transactions with PDVSA. The Russians were quick to withdraw their investments in Venezuela and leave, but they continued to assume an important role in the commercial architecture of the sale of sanctioned Venezuelan oil.
“The solutions that Russia offered with the commercialization of crude oil, some other investment and money laundering are no longer on the table,” says the internationalist Andrei Serbin, who specializes in defense issues. “But Venezuela went from being the most isolated partner of Russia to the least isolated at this time,” adds the analyst, for whom the renewed link with the United States does not mean a total separation of the Russians, but an instrumentalization of the relationship.
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The United States has tried to lower the volume on one of the issues discussed with Maduro: the possibility of Venezuela becoming its crude supplier again and taking over the market supplied by Russia, barely 1% of its consumption and 3% of its imports. Another of the topics discussed has been the reopening of flights between the two countries, which would help the South American country to come out of its isolation.
This return to commercial relations could occur from the lifting of sanctions or the issuance of special licenses to companies such as Chevron to resume operations in four oil fields in the South American country; also to the Indian oil company Reliance, which has invested heavily in lobbying to obtain permits to continue buying merey crude from PDVSA. This is an option that Washington could consider given the current meltdown in the world energy market and what this may mean for US domestic policy due to the rise in fuel prices.
“Since Biden took office there has been an aversion to taking an active or relevant position on what they call the Venezuela file,” says lawyer Mariano de Alba, a specialist in International Law. “There is no easy and quick decision on Venezuela and in Congress there are important figures in both parties who see this happening with bad eyes. Meeting with Maduro has a political cost. The discontent is not going to change, but Biden has to take the risk and give the impression that he is doing things so that gasoline does not rise to exorbitant prices ahead of the mid-term elections.”
Maduro also has a serious internal problem to solve. He must achieve a notable economic improvement between now and 2024 to ensure that he is a Chavismo candidate in the presidential elections on that date, for which he needs not only the votes of Venezuelans but also the support within his coalition, where there are those who question the strength of his leadership to ensure his permanence in power.
The regional elections of November 21, 2021, but above all the repetition of those in the State of Barinas, the stronghold of the Chávez, have been a lead in the wing for Maduro. Despite all the effort and the waste of resources, they lost that important position, “so that in Chavismo there is a lot of fear of what may happen in 2024,” says De Alba.
“Maduro’s big bet was to increase ties with Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, but the results have not come as fast as expected. Now his most important ally is in a rather complicated and long-term situation, ”says the also senior adviser to the International Crisis Group. “Maduro does not intend to betray Putin, but rather to explore what profits he can get from this rapprochement with the United States, making the fewest possible concessions, increasing revenues and ending the burying of the interim government of Juan Guaidó to reach a better position in 2024″.
Even so, de Alba warns that this relationship that Venezuela and the United States are just beginning is fragile and will also depend on the progress that may be made in Mexico. “It’s going to be a tense relationship, because there are many enemies of the process.” Everything remains to be seen in the turbulent world geopolitical scenario.
The White House has had to clarify this week that the rapprochement does not imply recognition of Maduro as president and ratifying its support for Juan Guaidó. During the Venezuelan delegation’s trip to Turkey, Foreign Minister Félix Plascencia stated that if the United States wants to resume relations, they must “accept that the only and legitimate Government of Venezuela is the one led by President Nicolás Maduro.”
Maduro has to build a narrative about the middle ground and maneuver around the fissures that this step may generate after years of anti-American rhetoric. Within the power factions of Chavismo, the impact has had different tenors. Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino, a regular traveler to Moscow, has joined the thesis of the dialogue and has condemned the application of sanctions to Russia. Diosdado Cabello, head of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, initially contradicted Maduro on the return to negotiations and in recent days has pointed out that “Venezuela has the oil that the United States needs, but they have to pay for it.” From the National Assembly, in favor of Maduro, Chavista deputies launched projections that, if the sanctions are lifted, by the middle of the year PDVSA could sell crude oil to the United States and Europe.
In the times of Hugo Chávez, the Russia-Venezuela relationship began to be forged. The first investments focused on the construction of houses and the sale of weapons and military supplies. An eternal promise of this alliance has been the construction in Venezuela of the first rifle factory kalashnikov of Latin America, offered in 2001 and that the Russian government assured last year that it could be inaugurated in 2022. Chávez also tried to provide Russia with Venezuelan flowers such as orchids, callas and gerberas. This business germinated at a table in Moscow adorned with lilies where the two leaders were gathered, but quickly withered. “Where do those flowers come from?” Chávez asked Putin, Nicolás Maduro recounted years ago, when the Bolivarian leader had just died and his successor was rearming his alliances.
Both Serbin and the political scientist Jonathan Benavides, a specialist in Russian geopolitics, agree that this alliance has been overestimated and the added value that the Kremlin gave Maduro is no longer so clear. “The Russian presence in Venezuela is focused on instances of technical support for military equipment, training and operational support in anti-aircraft defense systems and the use of drones. But there are no Russian military bases in Venezuela,” says Serbin.
For Benavides, the Russian presence in Venezuela has been more of a discourse to fuel tensions with the West. “It is the credible threat that they are touching the backyard of the United States, just as they have gotten into Russia’s,” says the university professor. “It is a strategic alliance to annoy the United States.” But he adds that in terms of trade, Russia supplies 80% of the wheat that Venezuela consumes. The war could mean a shortage of the item in a country that already has a food crisis, within the global food emergency that they have predicted the conflict in Ukraine will bring.
“There are issues that had to be discussed with Russia,” Benavides comments on the meeting between Delcy Rodríguez and Serguei Lavrov. The most important is the movement of money from the sale of Venezuelan oil that is in Russian banks sanctioned by the United States. Also other issues such as the future of the state-owned Conviasa office in Moscow, which had announced the increase in frequencies to the Russian capital, and the PDVSA headquarters. The political analyst also points to a second thesis to explain this meeting just after the one they had with Washington. “It is possible to speculate that Venezuela is being used as a channel of communication between the two powers and it is valid to do so because in all wars you can be in armed conflict in the street and in the offices you are looking for channels of contact.”