U.S. to ease sanctions on Venezuelan oil for freer election next year

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — The Biden administration and the Venezuelan government of President Nicolás Maduro have agreed to a deal in which the U.S. would ease sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry and the authoritarian state would allow a competitive, internationally monitored presidential election next year, according to two people familiar with the breakthrough talks.

The sanctions relief is to be announced after Maduro’s government and Venezuela’s U.S.-backed opposition sign an agreement to include commitments by the socialist government to allow a freer vote in 2024, the people said. They’re expected to do that during a meeting in Barbados on Tuesday with U.S. officials in attendance.

Maduro, who claimed victory in a 2018 election widely viewed as fraudulent, would agree to a process for lifting bans on opposition candidates running, one of the people said, though it is not clear how quickly that process would take place. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the talks.

The deal, which follows multiple attempts at negotiation between the Maduro government and opposition, would be the most significant progress in Venezuela’s political stalemate in years. It also suggests a willingness on behalf of the Biden administration to provide incentives to Maduro in the hopes of ensuring free and fair presidential elections in 2024.

The talks are part of a dramatic shift in U.S. foreign policy in Venezuela, after a years-long effort to put maximum pressure on the Maduro government failed to bring solutions to the country’s crisis.

A senior administration official said the deal did not include plans to unfreeze Venezuelan assets currently held in the United States. The official declined to comment on the administration’s talks with Maduro’s government. The U.S. is likely to put a time limit on any sanctions relief so that it could be reversed if Maduro didn’t comply with his end of deal.

After this report was published, a U.S. official said the United States and Venezuela had not committed to anything between them. “The administration has been clear — we support a Venezuelan-led negotiation and are prepared to provide sanctions relief in response to concrete actions toward competitive elections.” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under rules imposed by the administration. The “key conversations are between the opposition and Maduro,” the official said.

Under the deal, the two people said, Maduro would commit to accepting international electoral observations and opening up media access for the elections. It was not clear if the deal would also involve the release of political prisoners in Venezuela.

The Norwegian embassy in Mexico confirmed the Barbados meeting in a tweet Monday morning. The Norwegian government, which is facilitating the talks, said the Venezuelan government and the Unitary Platform — a coalition of Venezuelan opposition leaders — will be returning to negotiations “with the goal of reaching a political agreement.”

The delegations were expected to arrive in Barbados on Monday.

She’s the front-runner in the race to oust Maduro. He’s out to block her.

If the deal is signed, the U.S. government is prepared to announce the lifting of certain oil sanctions against Venezuela, the two people said. The sanctions relief could include a general license for Venezuela’s state-owned oil agency to resume business with the United States and other countries.

State Department Spokesman Matthew Miller said the United States “welcomes the announcement by Maduro representatives and the Unitary Platform to resume Venezuelan-led negotiations in Barbados.”

“Along with likeminded partners and other friends of Venezuela, the United States will continue its efforts to unite the international community in support of the Venezuelan-led negotiation process,” Miller said in a statement.

U.S. officials have said they would consider easing sanctions if Maduro laid the groundwork for free and fair presidential elections.

The agreement comes days before Venezuela’s opposition parties plan to hold a primary vote to chose a single candidate to back against Maduro. The front-runner in the unofficial primary, María Corina Machado, is one of several opposition leaders the Maduro government has barred from running for office. The disqualification was sharply condemned by the U.S. government.

The United States has imposed sanctions against the Venezuelan government or Venezuelan individuals for more than 15 years, but significantly tightened them in early 2019 after declaring Maduro’s 2018 victory illegitimate.

The Trump administration sanctioned Venezuela’s state oil company, the central bank and key government officials. Then it imposed a wider economic embargo. It froze the property and interests of the Maduro government in the United States and prohibited Americans from doing business with the government.

Many people have fled Venezuela. These migrants are returning.

The deal emerged from direct talks between Biden administration officials and Maduro government representatives that began last year during the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The administration sought to drive a wedge between Venezuela and its close ally Russia, while also addressing soaring gas prices sent higher by the war in Ukraine.

“That changed the calculus, not just in terms of energy, which is an important element, but the fact that it’s 2023, not 1993,” said Caleb McCarry, the Bush administration’s Cuba Transition Coordinator and a senior professional staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. McCarry helped negotiate the release of an American citizen from Venezuelan custody in 2018.

“We’re living in a different world,” McCarry said, “and this is exactly the kind of diplomacy that is needed to advance American interests abroad.”

Last year, the Biden administration began easing restrictions on Chevron, the main U.S. oil company with assets in Venezuela, in a gesture intended to support talks between the Maduro government and the opposition.

The U.S. also announced this month it would resume direct deportation flights to Venezuela, another sign of thawing relations between the two countries. The strained relationship had limited the United States’ ability to return undocumented Venezuelan migrants.

U.S. sanctions cost Venezuela billions of dollars in oil revenue each year. In 2016, the last year before financial sanctions, oil accounted for 95 percent of all exports.

U.S. officials and other observers have noted that Maduro had already run his oil industry and economy into the ground before the sanctions took effect. But studies show the sanctions have exacerbated poverty in the country. More than 7 million Venezuelans — quarter of the population — have fled, and the country continues to hemorrhage migrants, many heading to the United States.

The deal to be signed Tuesday would be only a partial agreement. Many details will need to be resolved in the coming weeks and months, analysts say, to ensure that next year’s elections are in fact, free and fair.

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“This is not going to be a magical overnight solution,” said Geoff Ramsey, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who watches Venezuela. “There’s going to be a continued need for Washington to support the opposition negotiators moving forward…now the hard part begins.”

But he added: “This is the one thing that could change the game moving forward.”

McCarry said the sanctions relief, if successful, would set an important precedent for U.S. foreign policy in other countries.

“We spend an awful lot of time responding to crises with sanctions,” he said. “This demonstrates that you can leverage sanctions relief to achieve political, diplomatic and economic ends.”

“In the current global context, that’s a very important signal for the United States to send.”

Herrero reported from Caracas, Venezuela. DeYoung reported from Washington.

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