US to ease sanctions on Venezuelan oil exports on promise of freer presidential election

By Marco Cacciati October 17, 2023

The United States and the Venezuelan government have struck an accord whereby the Biden administration will ease sanctions on Venezuela's oil sector in exchange for President Nicolás Maduro's commitment to hosting a fair, internationally monitored election next year, The Washington Post reports, citing sources familiar with the discussions.

The announcement of sanctions relief is contingent on Maduro's government and the US-backed Venezuelan opposition concluding an agreement that encompasses commitments by the socialist administration to ensure a more open electoral process in 2024. The signing ceremony is due to take place at a meeting in Barbados on October 17, with the participation of US officials.

Maduro, who declared victory in the controversial 2018 election widely criticised for its lack of transparency, would acquiesce to a process for lifting bans on opposition candidates. The exact timeline for this procedure remains uncertain, according to the sources, who also disclosed that the negotiations were facilitated by Norway.

A senior Biden administration official clarified that the agreement does not encompass plans to unfreeze Venezuelan assets currently held in the US. Furthermore, Washington is expected to impose a time limit on any sanctions relief to enable potential reversals if Maduro's compliance falters.

Maduro would commit to accepting international oversight of the electoral process and facilitating broader media access during the elections. The fate of political prisoners in Venezuela, however, remains unaddressed by this deal, according to The Washington Post.

Should the deal be formalised, the US government stands ready to announce the easing of select sanctions related to Venezuela's oil sector. This could encompass a general licence permitting state-owned oil behemoth PDVSA to resume business dealings with the US and other Western nations.

In recent months, the Biden administration has often indicated its willingness to loosen the grip of sanctions imposed on Venezuela in 2019 by former president Donald Trump. However, the main – non-negotiable – condition clearly put forth by Washington would require the Bolivarian government to organise free and fair presidential elections in 2024.

Rumours of bilateral talks began to surface in November 2022, when Washington granted a sanction waiver to the American oil giant Chevron, permitting expanded operations in Venezuela and crude exports from its joint ventures to US refiners. Similarly, last August, US authorities allowed European oil companies Eni (Italy) and Repsol (Spain) to strike ‘oil-for-debt’ deal with Venezuela’s PDVSA.

The latest groundbreaking agreement has emerged just days before Venezuela's opposition parties plan to conduct a primary vote to select a single candidate to challenge Maduro. In this unofficial primary, the frontrunner, María Corina Machado, is among several opposition leaders whom the Maduro government has prohibited from running for office, a move that has elicited strong condemnation from the US government.

In a parallel development pointing to a thaw in relations, the US announced earlier in October the resumption of direct deportation flights to Venezuela. The strained relationship and Washington’s lack of recognition of Maduro as a legitimate leader had previously hindered the US' ability to repatriate Venezuelan illegal migrants.

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