Biden administration to end sanctions waiver on Venezuelan oil

The Biden administration is conceding the reality of the last six months: Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro does not intend to hold free and fair elections.

Six months after lifting U.S. sanctions on Venezuela’s key oil and gas sectors, the Treasury Department announced Wednesday it will let those temporary licenses expire — saying Maduro’s government did not uphold its end of the bargain.

That bargain was straightforward – Maduro and the united Venezuelan opposition signed an agreement in Barbados last October to hold free and fair elections, monitored by international observers, and in exchange the U.S. temporarily lifted some of its sanctions on Venezuela’s oil, gas, gold, and sovereign debt.

It was a bold move, a gamble — and a stark departure from former President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign — with Biden officials saying they hoped that engaging the strongman Maduro could help find a political solution to end the turmoil in Venezuela that has sent one-fifth of its population fleeing — more refugees than from the wars in Syria or Ukraine.

But in the months afterwards, Maduro’s government harassed and arrested opposition figures and barred the opposition’s candidate Maria Corina Machado, who overwhelmingly won the primary, from running for office.

A senior administration official briefing reporters claimed that Maduro had met some “key commitments,” but pointed to those actions as the ways his government had “fallen short” – an understatement, to say the least.

Democrats and Republicans in Congress had urged the administration to snap these sanctions back into place, as Maduro has clearly shown no appetite to hold an election in which polls consistently find he’d lose overwhelmingly.

But the administration has waffled here as it also considers domestic priorities — the price of gas and the crisis at the border. Venezuelans have contributed to the surge at the southern border that has overwhelmed Border Patrol agents and become a political albatross for Biden, while gas prices have risen 14% in the past year, according to AAA data obtained by ABC News.

In March, Venezuela’s oil exports rose to their highest level since early 2020 as customers rushed to complete purchases ahead of this move — one that the Biden administration warned of last March – one final warning that Maduro again ignored. But Venezuelan oil production has been low for years now because of “years of underinvestment and mismanagement,” per a report by the U.S. EIA last fall.

While the U.S. is snapping back the biggest piece of leverage they had – these oil and gas sanctions – after a 45-day winddown period, this is not the end. The senior administration official told reporters they will “continue to engage in a constructive and in private, pragmatic way to try to move the election back towards a better course,” adding, “We will be watching and monitoring very carefully.”

For his part, Maduro told Biden publicly this week that he was willing to negotiate: “I will never close the door to dialogue with anybody. I give the following message to the negotiators and to President Biden,” he said during a press conference — before speaking awkwardly in English: “You want, I want. You don’t want, I too don’t want.”

More important, the opposition is not giving up fighting. Machado has been barred from running, but two opposition parties were able to file their candidacies — one of whose candidates has said he would let Machado take his spot. He has a long history with the opposition, often seen as two-timing or untrustworthy, but after a meeting today, the two sides agreed to try to work together to present a candidate to run against Maduro.

There are many roadblocks ahead, including the barriers to vote for Venezuelans overseas — many of whom would likely oppose the president that they fled – and with the U.S. snapping back sanctions, Maduro may put in place even more. But the opposition maintains – they are “united to change Venezuela.”

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