President Joe Biden surprised many by announcingalmost simultaneously, a series of changes in US policy towards Venezuela and Cuba, that without a doubt break the trajectory of these last five years, whose approach had been one of strong hand and maximum pressure against both regimes.
(Read: With fewer sanctions, the US paves the way for Venezuela’s crude)
In the case of Venezuela, the Democratic administration granted a permit to the US oil company Chevron to pIt will now enter into negotiations with the state company PDVSA that could conclude in the resumption of the exploration and export of Venezuelan crude, today vetoed by the sanctions regime that was imposed under the government of Donald Trump.
That decision, however, It would depend on concrete and irreversible advances in the dialogues between the opposition and the regime of Nicolás Maduro with a view to “overcoming the political, economic and humanitarian crisis that the country is experiencing” and that could restart this month in Mexico.
Likewise, he lifted the economic sanctions against Carlos Erick Malpica, former secretary of the Treasury of Venezuela and nephew of Maduro’s wife, Cilla Flores.
According to Biden officials, the measures were consulted with the opposition and only grant temporary authorization for talks between Chevron and PDVSA to resume.
“From our perspective, all sanctions against the regime remain in place. This is only a minimum opening that seeks to facilitate dialogue between the parties and whose validity is limited and depends on the progress that is made,” a government source explained to this newspaper.
In relation to Cuba, Biden announced the reestablishment of commercial flights to the island, which until now only reached Havana; the elimination of the limit of one thousand dollars per quarter that can be sent to Cuba in remittances and the reestablishment of a family reunification program that had been suspended since the Trump era.
The changes around Cuba were also described as “small adjustments” aimed at improving the economic conditions of citizens, without benefiting the dictatorship.
Of course, not everyone saw it that way. The Republicans and some Democratic sectors (particularly those of Cuban-American origin) harshly criticized the moves.
“USA The US should only consider easing the sanctions when concrete steps are taken in those dialogues,” assured Democratic Senator Bob Menéndez, an ally of Biden in the Upper House and who questioned the gesture towards Cuba.
Giving Maduro an undeserved gift just to get him to agree to negotiate is a failed policy.
Despite the obvious cost in domestic politics, many wonder why Biden went down the easing path, right in this moment. The reasons, according to various analysts, are of various shades.
First of all, says Mark Fierstein, an external analyst at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CSIS) and a senior adviser at the Albright Stonebridge Group, these are changes that respond to the Democratic president’s ideological vision and campaign promises he made to the base. of his party, which was pushing for a turnaround from the years of Donald Trump’s presidency.
It must be remembered, from the outset, that between 2008 and 2016, Biden was part of a government, that of Barack Obama, which reestablished diplomatic relations with Cuba and was convinced that 50 years of embargo, rather than weaken the regime, ended contributing to the impoverishment of its inhabitants.
In the case of Venezuela, the five years of maximum pressure exerted by the international community did not cause the fall of the regime either, but they did worsen the humanitarian crisis.
Likewise, in the region, support for this sanctions strategy was losing ground with the arrival of leftist leaders in several countries.
“Biden had promised to get rid of some of the most harmful initiatives imposed by Trump. Among them the reestablishment of flights because he sees that it is the best way to help the population. The person who runs a hotel, a restaurant or is a merchant, needs tourists to come to the island,” the analyst notes.
Venezuela, he says, is much more modest and rather a way of contributing to the resumption of negotiations in Mexico with the opposition, but tied to progress at the table.
In both cases, Fierstein says, they were adjustments that had been in the works for months and were finally announced this week. In fact, they were in the pipeline from the first day of government.
If they had not prospered, it was because it involved a political cost that Biden had not been willing to pay. Especially, due to the little room for maneuver that he has in a Congress where his majorities are minimal.
Added to that was the violent crackdown on protesters in Cuba last year, which further limited his options because any concession would have been interpreted as a serious sign of weakness.
But the context and internal realities have been changing since then. And with it also the calculation. Russia’s war in the Ukraine has undoubtedly overshadowed everything else. Internally, rising fuel prices and rising inflation have Biden up against the wall.
And although Venezuelan oil is still a long way from reaching the US market, the small change announced sends the message that, in the future, it could be part of the solution.
🔴 ‘It is a triumph of the diplomatic siege’: the decision of the Joe Biden government to ease some of its sanctions on Venezuela was celebrated by President Duque, who considered that this is due to the policy promoted by him.
— THE TIME (@THETIEMPO) May 18, 2022
Also, and they insisted on this, administration officials, it is seen as an opportunity to break the Moscow-Caracas nexus now that Maduro is in dire need of new partners in view of the severe sanctions that the West has imposed on the Kremlin.
Likewise, the president manages a time bomb on the southern border, where record numbers of migrants are arriving, including Cubans and Venezuelans. And any measure that helps defuse it ends up being beneficial to Biden.
Above all, because it conforms to the idea, defended by his administration, that any response to the migration crisis involves a solution to the underlying problem, which is economic.
“One of the reasons why they have decided to move now is that the White House must have calculated that the political damage of having to admit a thousand Cubans a day to the US It is higher than the political damage that a rapprochement with Cuba can cause in Florida.”, says Adam Isacson, hemispheric security expert at Wola.
But most analysts also agree that behind this week’s decisions is the Summit of the Americas, to be held in June in Los Angeles.
Several countries in the region, including Mexico, Bolivia, Honduras and other Caribbean nations, have threatened not to attend if – as expected – Biden excludes Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua from the meeting. Which would be embarrassing for the president.
In that sense, the relaxation of sanctions is seen as a wink that seeks to improve the environment ahead of the Summit. At least that’s what Michael Shifter, a member emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue, and Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, think.
According to Shifter, the move is a reflection, in turn, of the complexity of the universe where Biden gravitates. “The decision to exclude these dictators from the Summit responds to a hard-line position that aligns with domestic political considerations.
“I think that by Monday or Tuesday, I will be able to inform the people,” says President López Obrador about whether Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua will be invited to the Summit of the Americas.
About Joe Biden, “he respects us,” says the president.
– Joaquín López-Dóriga (@lopezdoriga) May 20, 2022
But the relaxation of sanctions seems to be a step in another direction, more towards interaction and rapprochement. The administration may hope that this gesture will convince those who today hesitate to attend, but simultaneously provokes criticism from politicians in Miami and even from Democratic leaders who, it seems, were not even consulted, ”says Shifter.
For Arnson, however, Biden was aware that any change regarding Cuba or Venezuela was going to unleash the fury of the Republicans, even if they were minimal. And given that Florida, where these decisions impact the most, seems at the moment out of reach for Democrats in electoral terms, he perhaps concluded that there was more to be won on other fronts.
Of course, it is a three-way move, or more, with unpredictable consequences. But, as a senior diplomat told this newspaper, the status quo was no longer tolerable and, with the Summit on the horizon, this is seen as the best time to bet.
SERGIO GOMEZ MASERI
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