With the US facing a host of problems and the presidency in transition, regime change in Venezuela has become much less of a priority for the White House. No wonder, then, that Caracas has seized the moment to resume oil sales.
Venezuela is reportedly exporting oil again. Despite crushing US sanctions having been imposed on the Latin American nation with a view to forcing regime change, Caracas has started shipping crude to China – a nation that also has little appetite for Washington’s stipulations – for the first time in a year.
The timing of the move is probably not a coincidence. Donald Trump is on the way out and, while he is still volatile, Venezuela is probably low down in his priorities.
Almost two years after the White House declared opposition leader Juan Guaido the “interim president” of the country and vowed to squeeze Nicolas Maduro out of power, nothing has happened, and all the evidence points towards Trump virtually giving up. While the country has suffered economically, the regime has survived intact. Now, with Joe Biden on the horizon, Caracas might be banking on Washington’s policy softening, or a straightforward continuation of the status quo at the least. In this case, why not try and sell oil? Venezuela is seizing its moment to breathe again.
The coup that never was
In 2018, the Trump administration abruptly declared a policy of regime change for Venezuela. As with all Trumpian policies, its strategy was premised on the logic of ‘maximum pressure’ – squeezing the target as hard as possible to force them to concede to demands, which for hostile countries meant crippling sanctions.
These included blacklisting the country’s national oil company and strongarming others not to buy from it, measures against the country’s financial sector, sanctioning hundreds of officials, and placing a huge bounty on Nicolas Maduro. The threat of military action was never raised, however.
Despite the growing pressure, the balance of power did not change in Venezuela; Maduro stayed put, and Guaido lost momentum and, eventually, interest from Washington.
A key turning point was the departure of ultra-war hawk John Bolton, who had personally promoted the policy, as national security advisor. By 2020, as the White House focused on the election, the Covid-19 pandemic and outright confrontation with China, the Venezuela coup policy had been virtually forgotten, even though sanctions remain in place. As Trump prepares reluctantly to leave office, it doesn’t appear to be an issue of urgency.
Maduro has nothing to lose
Looking at the situation in Washington, Maduro has calculated the worst is over. He’s not on Trump’s radar any longer, and with the country on the brink over sanctions, there’s nothing left for him to lose if he starts to push against them. If anything, it is China who will get sanctioned for buying the Venezuelan oil, then Caracas itself. This two-month window to transition is a reprieve – political breathing space, if you like – and the thinking is that Biden can’t be any worse than Trump.
Regime change policies in Latin America are undoubtedly a bipartisan initiative in the US, but the Republicans pursue them with a special level of fanaticism. The Cuban exile lobby, with leading figures such as Florida’s Republican Senator Marco Rubio, strongly advocate for these policies, but the Democrats are typically less zealous about it.
Biden was part of the Barack Obama administration, after all, which normalized ties with Cuba, a move resented by Republicans. While that White House had its taste for regime change too, it was far from Trump’s unhinged ‘sledgehammer’ approach to everything.
So, while Biden will not drop the policy of demanding democratic political change, the current strategy of attempting to force Maduro out in favour of an incompetent opposition in Guaido is likely to be dialled down, which will be a blessing for ordinary Venezuelans as it has only intensified their suffering on top of an abundance of economic problems.
Still, will it be high on Biden’s priority list? Almost certainly not: he is inheriting a confrontation with China, a Covid-19 disaster left by Trump, a depleted economy, and broken relations with allies – and all these are larger, more pressing problems which will sap his time and political capital. There will be little to invest in hammering Venezuela further.
So, Caracas is taking a chance. It is selling oil as it has calculated there is an opportunity to do so, and in turn, others are more willing to take a risk on it. 2020 has been horrific for Venezuela for multiple reasons, yet on a political level priorities and the news cycle have long moved on.
For the US, regime change was not an urgent strategic goal, but rather a tool to preserve unbridled American dominance in the Americas. A depleted and weakened country is no threat to the US, so before Biden starts to work his way down his very long list of problems, now just might be the time to get some relief.