USA: Delicate thaw in the backyard?

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Shortly before the America summit, Washington announced easing of sanctions against Venezuela and Cuba. What are the reasons for US President Biden's decision, some of which has been sharply criticized in the US?

It will probably be a while before US companies start operating oil rigs in Venezuela again

Does the soft tones from Washington towards Venezuela and Cuba indicate a rethinking of the USA's Latin America policy? The US administration under President Joe Biden has announced the easing of some sanctions against Venezuela. Oil company Chevron has been given permission to hold talks with Venezuelan oil company PDVSA. According to US sources, however, it is expressly excluded for the time being that Venezuelan oil will be extracted and exported. The prospect of easing sanctions is tied to a resumption of dialogue between the opposition around Juan Guaidó and the government of Head of State Nicolás Maduro. 

Positive step?

Chevron is the last major US oil company still operating in Venezuela; the company has been involved in oil production in South America since the 1920s. Before the sanctions imposed by Biden's predecessor, Donald Trump, Chevron's daily production in Venezuela was around 200,000 barrels. How long it would take to restart exploration is uncertain as Venezuela's wells are in a dilapidated condition. Observers are currently focusing more on the political implications of the gradual lifting of sanctions.  

“This step by the United States is very positive for all actors involved and may finally open the process of democratic transition in Venezuela,” believes Ana Soliz de Stange, a political scientist at the Helmut Schmidt University of the German Armed Forces. For the United States, a rapprochement would bring several advantages: In the future, it could buy Venezuelan oil again, counteract the influence of Russia in Latin America and at the same time promote a democratic transition in Venezuela, Soliz de Stange told DW.  

Venezuela's President Maduro's good relations with Russia have long been a thorn in the side of the United States Eye

Headwinds in the US 

The decision by the Biden government to open the door to the Maduro regime in Venezuela, at least a crack, has already met with massive headwinds in the US domestic criticism.  

Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Democrat Bob Menendez promptly and independently slammed the Biden administration. Rubio accused Biden of “empowering illegitimate, corrupt regimes in our hemisphere that undermine American national security”. Menendez spoke of a failed strategy of “giving Maduro a handful of undeserved handouts just for his regime to promise to sit down at the negotiating table”. 

The domestic political pressure that Biden is exposed to in the USA should not be underestimated, says Günter Maihold, Latin America expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP): “Both sides are taking minimal risk into this story. That means everyone knows his counterpart and knows that erratic swings can occur very quickly in Venezuela and that domestic political pressure in the US could very quickly result in the cancellation of initiatives aimed at easing,” Maihold said in an interview with DW.

Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaidó

It is a cautious attempt by Washington to restart stalled talks between the opposition and the government in Venezuela, while at the same time expressing an interest in Venezuela's oil resources, which it does not want to cede to China and Russia for geostrategic reasons. p>

Dissonance at the America Summit?

Almost at the same time as the announcement that it intended to withdraw some of the punitive measures against Venezuela, the US government also decided to relax existing sanctions against Cuba. It is primarily about travel facilitation for Cubans.  

The cautious de-escalation signals towards Venezuela and Cuba come in the run-up to the America summit. The irregular meeting of all heads of state and government of the American continent will take place from June 6th to 10th in the USA for the first time. However, several presidents of Latin American countries, including Mexico's head of state Andres Manuel López Obrador, have made their participation conditional on Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba also being invited.  

“The US is under pressure to make sure their Los Angeles summit doesn't go haywire,” says Maihold. “So they're trying to create some positive vibes as well.” Many media reported that the summit had been poorly prepared. That's why Washington is now trying to “fix something,” says Maihold.

After the travel facilitation became known a long line formed in front of the US embassy in Havana

“Not a place for great power rivalries” 

In addition, the effects of the global political climate with the war in Ukraine are also noticeable on the American continent. “If I interpret the attitude in Latin America correctly, then most governments say firstly that this is not their war and secondly that they don't want to be drawn into camp thinking,” says Maihold.

Most of the countries in the region would prefer to be able to move freely between the great powers and thereby gain certain advantages. “No major ensnarement by the United States will change this attitude. Regardless of whether the countries are left-leaning or right-leaning, the only consensus is that they don't want to become the venue for great power rivalries,” said Maihold.  

Soliz de Stange is still cautiously optimistic about changes in Venezuela. The US government is proving that it can act pragmatically: “The economic sanctions have not achieved their goal of overthrowing the government of Head of State Maduro. On the contrary, they counteracted this and drove Venezuela into the arms of China and Russia,” analyzes the Bolivian political scientist. In her view, a conditional rapprochement at least opens up a chance for a democratic transition in Venezuela. The timing is good, because there is still time before the Venezuelan presidential elections in 2024 to negotiate fair conditions for the opposition with Maduro.