AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis
Venezuela state oil company PDVSA announced earlier this week that it plans to dramatically expand crude oil production by the end of this year – news met with consternation by the country’s embattled opposition leaders and made possible by President Joe Biden’s capitulation to strongman Nicolas Maduro.
With the cost of gas skyrocketing last summer as a result of Democrats’ war on American energy production and a pivotal midterm election approaching, the Biden administration desperately needed something to begin to bring oil prices back under control. One of the answers they arrived at was the easing of Trump-era sanctions on Venezuela’s authoritarian regime, a move that critics described as effectively trading Venezuelan freedom and democracy for cheaper oil.
That news sent signals to the market that more oil was on its way, and prices dipped just in time for last November’s elections. In January, the Biden Treasury Department granted Chevron permission to begin producing and exporting oil from Venezuela, providing much-needed relief to the battered Maduro economy.
According to a Reuters report, Chevron loaded nearly 150,000 barrels of Venezuelan oil per day in April, and plans to increase production even further before the end of the year. PDVSA has said it hopes to produce more than 1.3 million barrels per day by the end of 2023.
While this news is welcome relief for a Maduro regime that has been hampered by the fallout from U.S.-led sanctions, it has sparked feelings of betrayal among Venezuela’s opposition leaders hoping to restore freedom and democracy to the South American country.
Biden’s move to lift sanctions is just the latest example of the White House’s overtures to Maduro. Last October, Biden released two of Maduro’s nephews-in-law from detainment in American prisons in a move that angered opposition leaders.
In January, Biden also ceased recognizing Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president. Amid severe pressure and threats of violence from the Maduro regime, some within the Venezuelan opposition had begun to undermine Guaido’s leadership, only strengthening Maduro’s grip over the country.
Instead of lending a helping hand, Biden sided with Guaido’s critics, in effect bolstering Maduro’s claim to legitimacy. “We don’t agree [with ousting Guaido]. It would be an unfortunate decision which implies recognition of Maduro,” said Leopoldo López, a leader of the opposition party alliance.
Biden also provided the green light for funds for ostensibly humanitarian aid purposes to be funneled through the U.S. financial system. Opposition leaders have again warned that this move will only strengthen the Maduro regime, and that there is no reliable way to ensure the funds are being used for legitimate humanitarian purposes.
All of this is a stark reversal of Biden’s statement during his address at the 2020 Democratic National Convention that “the days of cozying up to dictators are over” – echoing false media reports that President Trump had appeased strongmen like Maduro.
Indeed, it is worth recalling just how different Biden’s approach has been from the policy pursued by the Trump administration. Despite the media’s false claims that Trump was a friend to dictators, Trump brought every bit of America’s economic and diplomatic might to bear on Maduro.
In 2018, when Maduro falsified elections and prevented Guaido from assuming the presidency, Trump responded by leading an enormous effort of more than 60 countries who recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.
Trump also imposed withering sanctions on the country for its humanitarian abuses. According to Foro Penal, an independent organization which documents human rights abuses in Latin America, Maduro’s regime has wrongfully detained more than 12,000 people since 2013. The group has reported horrific torture practices in Venezuelan prisons, including electric shock, hanging people upside down, food and water deprivation, and imprisonment in windowless refrigerators.
A United Nations report also found that the Maduro regime conducted more than 7,000 extrajudicial killings between the presidential elections in 2018 and July of 2019. Opposition leaders had their assets seized and were under constant threat of violence.
Although a hostile global media was reluctant to report it, Trump’s support of Guaido and sanctions on Maduro provided a vital lifeline to the opposition right when they needed it most. As Maduro attempted to consolidate his control of the country, Guaido was able to set up an interim government with a full network of cabinet ministers and ambassadors – serving as a constant reminder of the regime’s illegitimacy. This was an unprecedented achievement in the history of freedom movements.
Indeed, the existence of a visible opposition is often all that preserves any hope of overcoming tyranny. Through threats and intimidation, dictators hope to either recruit or eliminate dissenters in the hopes that the international community will eventually accept them as legitimate – exactly what is occurring now in Venezuela.
The opposition movement’s previous united support for Guaido ensured that the Venezuelan people and the world had a figure to rally around – forcing Maduro to somewhat restrain himself and think carefully about his moves. Because the opposition movement was built-in to Venezuela’s institutions, Maduro could only dismantle it through martial law, a prospect he could ill afford.
President Trump clearly understood all of these dynamics, and led the effort to erode the foundations of Maduro’s power. Now, in service of his own selfish interests, Biden appears to be doing the exact opposite.
Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian, and researcher.