Survey: Venezuelans in Florida open to ‘oil-for-food’ program — if it bypasses Maduro

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Francesca Chambers, Antonio Maria Delgado
·5 min read
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Venezuelan Americans living in Florida would be open to easing U.S. sanctions against Venezuela’s oil industry if the Biden administration found a way to use the revenue from exports to buy food and medicine for needy residents in their embattled homeland.

An Atlantic Council survey released Thursday found that 51% would be in favor of an oil-for-food program somewhat like that previously tried by the United Nations with Iraq so long as Nicolás Maduro’s government is prohibited from accessing or managing the money.

“There is support among this population for consideration of different pathways,” said Jason Marczak, director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, “a different road ahead than the road that defined the previous administration.”

The survey comes as the new administration looks to define its policy toward the troubled nation, beset by soaring hyperinflation, political calamity and a humanitarian crisis. The Trump administration backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó as president and issued strict sanctions against Maduro’s regime. Thus far, Biden has indicated he plans to continue putting pressure on the strongman to step down and hold elections.

A spokesperson for the National Security Council told McClatchy Wednesday that President Joe Biden’s openness to relaxing sanctions on Venezuela would depend entirely on Maduro’s actions.

“President Biden is in no rush to lift U.S. sanctions on Venezuela but would consider easing them if President Nicolas Maduro takes confidence-building measures demonstrating that he is ready to negotiate seriously with the opposition,” the spokesperson said.

The NSC did not provide further explanation of the measures it would consider to be adequate, but it said the “overriding goal” of the U.S. “is to support a peaceful democratic transition in Venezuela” through free and fair elections and to help the nation’s people “rebuild their lives and their country.”

“We agree that there must be a negotiated solution to the crisis precipitated by Maduro, and the Biden administration will seek to rebuild multilateral pressure on the Maduro regime,” the NSC spokesperson said.

Survey: Venezuelan Americans favor hardline approach

The lion’s share of Cuban and Venezuelan Americans living in Florida continue to favor hardline policies toward Maduro. But when presented with other options, the majority said they would be willing to consider alternative policies, particularly if the shift were tied to humanitarian assistance.

According to the survey, 68% of the Venezuelans consulted and 63% of the Cubans feel that the U.S. should continue Trump’s maximum pressure policy against Maduro, with only 7% and 9%, respectively, saying it should end. About 600 Florida residents of Venezuela or Cuban heritage were consulted shortly after Biden took office.

The Venezuelan and the Cuban communities in South Florida are largely conservative and have traditionally supported all hardline efforts against the Maduro regime, which they blame for the South American country’s economic ruin. Most Venezuelans and Cubans consulted said they voted in favor of Trump in November, by 60% and 65% respectively, while Biden’s support from both groups was 30% and 26%, also respectively.

Nonetheless, two thirds also said they support increasing humanitarian aid if it goes directly to the people, even with Maduro still in power. And more than seven in 10 say the U.S. should use assets that have been confiscated from Maduro and his cronies to help pay for it.

Marczak said that the Atlantic Council wanted to demonstrate to the administration and members of Congress that there is room for discussion about the nation’s Venezuela policy.

“This heavily engaged community that is so critical for Florida politics and for elections in Florida believes that Venezuela must continue to be front and center,” Marczak said.

Biden is not known to have spoken to Guaidó directly, but U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken had a phone call with him on Tuesday. The State Department said in a statement that Blinken and Guaidó discussed the importance of free and fair elections and the humanitarian needs of the citizens of the country.

Corruption, infighting complicate alternative approach

Still, instituting an oil-for-food program could be tricky.

The Maduro regime has insisted on controlling humanitarian aid in the past, which has complicated international efforts to provide assistance to Venezuelans. More recently, political infighting has also jeopardized access to vital goods, including COVID-19 vaccines available through the World Health Organization-backed COVAX Facility.

“They see the humanitarian aid only as a mechanism of social control,” Guaidó said Wednesday, contending that Maduro’s aim is to use any assistance to increase the population’s dependence on his government.

Despite considerable international pressure on the socialist regime, Maduro seems to be consolidating his grip on power, even as U.S. sanctions contribute to a drastic fall in revenue.

Guaidó who proclaimed himself Venezuela’s legitimate president in January 2019, a position quickly accepted by the United States and eventually more than 50 other countries has seen his popularity diminish in recent months and some international allies now treat him more like an important opposition leader than the country’s head of state.

Guaidó´s term in Congress, the basis for his claim as Venezuela’s transitional leader, ended in January after the opposition boycotted a legislative election widely considered a sham. He and other lawmakers have continued holding sessions virtually, but some international actors have scaled back their support.

Oil-for-food programs have been discussed but never implemented in Venezuela. Any program would require cooperation from both Maduro and Guaidó, even if it had the support of the Biden administration, and Guaidó allies have voiced concerns in the past that a trading system would be undercut by corruption.

A somewhat similar program overseen by the U.N. in Iraq from 1996 to 2003 came under criticism after former leader Saddam Hussein and other entities were found to have abused it, raising doubts that an oil-for-food scheme could be implemented in Venezuela without Maduro taking advantage of it.

Diego Area, who leads the Atlantic Council’s work on Venezuela, said the organization will study “potential pathways” to make an oil-for-food program viable in Venezuela. But he also said that any effort is unlikely to move forward while the country’s access to the COVID-19 vaccine remains in limbo.

“I don’t think that right now there is viability for an oil-for-food program without moving first the COVID vaccine,” he said.