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Biden has to decide soon whether to sanction Venezuela. Here's what to know

A man walks past a mural featuring oil pumps and wells in Caracas, Venezuela, as the country faces the prospect of the U.S. reimposing oil sanctions.
Matias Delacroix
/
AP
A man walks past a mural featuring oil pumps and wells in Caracas, Venezuela, as the country faces the prospect of the U.S. reimposing oil sanctions.

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — As Venezuela's authoritarian regime continues to crack down on its opponents, the U.S. government must decide this week whether to reimpose sanctions on the country's vital oil industry. The deadline is Thursday.

Those sanctions were temporarily lifted last October after Venezuela signed an agreement to take steps toward holding a free and fair presidential election. Instead, analysts say that President Nicolás Maduro's regime has reneged on the deal by persecuting the political opposition.

"The list [of abuses] is so long," says Ryan Berg, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "I think you need some kind of reimposition of sanctions to show that there's accountability."

Here are four things you should know about the pending oil sanctions deadline for Venezuela.

How did we get here?

During 11 years in power, the Maduro regime has been targeted by a variety of U.S. sanctions in response to its crackdown on the country's democracy. But the strongest measures came in 2019 as part of the Trump administration's "maximum pressure" campaign that pushed for regime change in Venezuela.

It slapped sanctions on Venezuela's state-run oil company, known as PDVSA, which effectively prevented it from selling petroleum to the United States — Venezuela's biggest customer. Along with about 50 other countries, the Trump administration also formally recognized opposition politician Juan Guaidó as the country's legitimate leader.

These U.S. policies made Venezuela's long-running economic crisis much worse because the country depends on oil for 90 percent of its export income. But even though the sanctions forced Venezuela to sell its oil on the black market at steep discounts, Maduro maintained his grip on power.

What was the U.S. sanctions relief deal?

As a result, the Biden administration last year offered Maduro a deal.

The administration agreed to lift oil sanctions for six months after Maduro envoys — during a meeting with Venezuelan opposition leaders in Barbados last October — signed an agreement laying out ground rules to make this summer's presidential election more competitive. The deal included a legal process for reinstating banned presidential candidates, like opposition leader María Corina Machado.

The benefits for the regime were immediate. Last month, Venezuela's oil exports hit a four-year high. But Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas think tank in Washington, said the Biden administration moved too fast.

"We lifted the sanctions prematurely before the Maduro regime had actually done anything so we took away our own leverage," Farnsworth says.

Although the Barbados accord led to the release of 10 Americans jailed in Venezuela and several Venezuelan political prisoners, Maduro continues to oppress his opponents and has expelled a U.N. human rights mission from Venezuela.

What are the concerns about democratic backsliding?

While an election date has been set — July 28 — opposition leader Machado isn't even on the ballot. She remains disqualified from the race and several members of her campaign team have been arrested.

Polls suggest that in a free election, Machado, a former right-wing congresswoman, would trounce President Maduro. After 11 years in power, Maduro is deeply unpopular for leading Venezuela into its worst economic crisis in history.

Supporters of Venezuelan political opposition leader María Corina Machado sing their national anthem during a protest demanding free and fair elections in Venezuela's upcoming election, in Bogotá, Colombia.
Fernando Vergara / AP
/
AP
Supporters of Venezuelan political opposition leader María Corina Machado sing their national anthem during a protest demanding free and fair elections in Venezuela's upcoming election, in Bogotá, Colombia.

The Maduro government has barred Machado from holding public office for 15 years due to what legal experts call bogus charges of corruption and other alleged wrongdoing. Machado then announced Corina Yoris, a respected philosophy professor, would take her place as the opposition's main presidential candidate. But Yoris was not even allowed to register her candidacy.

In addition, the regime has blocked millions of Venezuelans from registering to vote. The opposition had insisted on updating the voter registry because nearly 8 million Venezuelans — many of whom oppose Maduro — have fled the country. Instead of making it easier for exiles to vote, the regime has made it harder, says César González, a Venezuelan lawyer and activist who lives in neighboring Colombia.

Although it's not required under Venezuelan law, González says the Maduro regime is demanding that migrants hold valid passports in order to vote. But a Venezuelan passport costs more than $300, a price that amounts to a poll tax because few migrants can afford them. They must also hold residency visas in the countries where they have resettled, but securing residency can take years.

One result is that only about 2% of the 5.5 million voting-age Venezuelans living outside the country have been able to register to vote, according to Eugenio Martínez, a Venezuelan elections expert.

Francisco Rodríguez, a Venezuelan who teaches international studies at the University of Denver, says that for all of these reasons, the July 28 presidential election is shaping up to be "the most undemocratic election since Venezuela became a democracy in 1958."

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro points upward as he is driven to the electoral council headquarters to register his candidacy for a third term, in Caracas, Venezuela, March 25.
Matias Delacroix / AP
/
AP
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro points upward as he is driven to the electoral council headquarters to register his candidacy for a third term, in Caracas, Venezuela, March 25.

What happens next?

The deadline for a decision on sanctions is Thursday, the day the administration set for the deal to expire. But Rodríguez and others contend that there's not much stomach within the U.S. government for fully reimposing these punitive measures. That's because promoting democracy is not the Biden administration's only objective for Venezuela.

It lifted sanctions, in part, to get more Venezuelan oil on the market and lower gas prices at home. In addition, a more vibrant economy in Venezuela could convince migrants — who have been leaving for the U.S. in record numbers — to stay put in Venezuela. White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby says there's still time for the regime to do the right thing.

Speaking with reporters last month, he said: "We're still willing to consider sanctions relief on the Maduro regime and on Venezuela if they meet their obligations that they made in the fall in Barbados."

Farnsworth, of the Council of the Americas, insists that the Biden administration has to respond to Maduro's latest wave of repression.

"You can't justify not doing anything in my view," he says. "The question is, do you push sanctions all the way back to the level that they were?"

Berg, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says numerous options that fall shy of a full sanctions "snap back" are under discussion, such as allowing oil deals reached with Venezuela during the past six months to remain in place while prohibiting new ones. Another option would be to ramp up sanctions against individual members of the Maduro government.

But Rodríguez, of the University of Denver, says there's simply not very much the U.S. can do to pressure Maduro into restoring democracy.

That's because, were he to allow a free and fair election, Maduro would almost certainly lose. And if he left office, he could face the prospect of prison because he faces U.S. charges of narco-terrorism, drug trafficking and corruption. In addition, the International Criminal Court is investigating the Maduro regime for alleged crimes against humanity.

In a recent TV appearance, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez said that "the real truth" is that the Maduro regime has learned to live with U.S. sanctions.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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[Copyright 2024 NPR]