Venezuelan opposition visits Washington looking to discuss U.S. sanctions

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Venezuelan opposition leaders meeting with Biden administration officials this week sought to find out whether the Latin American nation can get relief from U.S. sanctions in exchange for free elections safeguards during upcoming talks with Nicolás Maduro’s regime organized by Norway, sources familiar with the situation said.

U.S. sanctions against state-run oil company PDVSA and high-ranking members of the regime are about the only weapons left in the arsenal of Venezuela’s weakened opposition, led by former Congress President Juan Guaidó, as the Maduro regime continues to solidify its grip on the country, the sources said, speaking under the condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the negotiations.

Opposition leaders held meetings this week with key legislators, as well as the State Department, Treasury and White House officials, to iron out details of a new road map to deal with the Venezuelan crisis.

Biden’s team has been relatively quiet on its view of upcoming negotiations, but has said that Maduro would have to make significant concessions before the administration considers easing sanctions.

In addition to discussing items such as help in obtaining humanitarian aid, COVID-19 vaccines and carving a path to free and fair elections, opposition leaders were particularly interested in finding out if they can dangle easing sanctions to persuade the regime into making concessions during the negotiations — something Guaidó already said he would request of the Americans when he first announced in May that he would seek a pact with Maduro in order to save the nation.

“Suspending the sanctions is of foremost importance to the regime, and probably is the main reason they would decide to attend a negotiating table,” said a high-ranking opposition official. “And It is one of the issues the delegation came here to discuss. Now the Biden administration’s position is that even though they are willing to consider the possibility, this would only happen if there are real guarantees on the part of the regime that it would move’‘ towards a democractic transition.

The talks with Maduro are a highly unpopular proposal in Venezuela, because the regime has traditionally used them successfully to gain time and dispel growing opposition.

But opposition leaders said they are needed at this point, given Venezuela’s economic collapse and the coronavirus pandemic.

“People are dying,” said another Venezuelan opposition leader exiled in Miami. “Everyone is right when they say that unless the regime is removed from power we will never solve this. But we need to come to terms with Maduro right now to obtain the COVID-19 vaccines and the humanitarian aid we need to try to keep more people from dying.”

The Guaidó delegation met on Wednesday with some of its most vocal supporters on Capitol Hill, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, as well as Florida Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott.

A source with knowledge of the discussions told McClatchy that sanctions relief was not part of the agenda at the meeting with Menendez and Rubio, who both expressed cautious support as the Guaidó team gears up to formally engage the Maduro regime in negotiations.

“As the situation in Venezuela continues to deteriorate, we must remain vigilant,” Rubio said in a statement after the meeting. “Maduro has a long track record of manipulating negotiations to his advantage, gaining international legitimacy, and dividing the opposition.”

While the group did not discuss a timeline for the start of talks, the clock is ticking for Guaidó, whose term as interim president comes to a close at the end of the year.

A second source familiar with the discussions said the Guaidó delegation sought firm, public support from its congressional allies, as well as from the Biden administration, ahead of the expected negotiations, given how little leverage Guaidó has entering the anticipated talks.

“It’s no understatement to think that the Guaidó team needs the leverage that the U.S. brings to the table,” the source said.

The team met with State Department officials — including Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, No. 2 in the department — on Thursday.

Sherman “emphasized the urgent need for time-bound, comprehensive Venezuelan-led negotiations to restore democracy, human rights, and the rule of the law in Venezuela through free and fair local, parliamentary, and presidential elections,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

“The Deputy Secretary also reaffirmed the United States will continue to coordinate with international partners and with Venezuelans to support efforts to address the humanitarian needs of the Venezuelan people.”

Venezuela, in the throes of an economic contraction worse than the U.S. Great Depression, badly needs humanitarian aid. Between 2013, when Maduro took office, and 2019, the economy shrank by more than 63%, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Years of economic mismanagement and corruption, along with a drastic fall in oil prices, fueled skyrocketing hyperinflation that rendered many salaries nearly worthless.

More than 5.5 million Venezuelans have fled their country in recent years to escape what has been characterized as one of the worst humanitarian crises in the region, and after an initial slowdown in 2020, migrants are now on the move again, with hundreds leaving each day across the porous border with Colombia.

The desperation is such that a little more than half of the Venezuelan Americans living in Florida would be open to an easing of sanctions if the Biden administration found a way to get the money directly to the people rather than Maduro’s regime.

An Atlantic Council survey released in May found that 51 percent agreed that the U.S. government should “eliminate economic sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector” if oil revenues were used to import food and medicine and Maduro’s government was prohibited from accessing or managing the money.