Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro sits in the office of Miraflores, a sprawling neo-Baroque palace in northwestern Caracas, sitting on the gilded Louis XVI chair in his office Show firm confidence.
In an 85-minute interview with Bloomberg Television, he said that this country has escaped the “irrational, extreme, and cruel” oppression of the United States. Russia, China, Iran and Cuba are allies, and his domestic opposition is powerless. If Venezuela’s image is not good, it is because a well-funded campaign demonized him and his socialist government.
The bombing is foreseeable. But between his condemnation of Yankee imperialism, Maduro, who has been allowing the circulation of dollars and the flourishing of private enterprises, is publicly calling for it and directly targeting Joe Biden. Message: It’s time to reach an agreement.
Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves. After two decades of anti-capitalist transformation and four years of severe US sanctions, the country urgently needs capital and is eager to regain access to global debt and commodity markets. The country is in default, its infrastructure collapses, and millions of people live in a struggle for survival.
“If Venezuela cannot produce and sell it, cannot produce and sell its gold, cannot produce and sell its bauxite, cannot produce iron, etc., and cannot earn income in the international market, what should it do? It should pay Venezuela Is the bond holder?” Maduro, 58, said, his palms turned up to show his appeal. “The world must change. This situation must change.”
In fact, the situation has changed a lot since Donald Trump imposed sanctions on Caracas and recognized the opposition leader Juan Guaido as president. His clear goal of ousting Maduro has failed. Today, Guaido is marginalized, Venezuelans suffer more than ever before, and Maduro remains firmly in power. “I’m in this presidential palace!” He noticed.
However, there is almost nothing urgently needed to end the worst humanitarian disaster in the Western Hemisphere: compromise — from Maduro, from his opposition, from Washington.
Maduro hopes that the agreement to lift sanctions will open the floodgates for foreign investment, create jobs and reduce suffering. It can even ensure his legacy as the torchbearer of the unique left-wing nationalist brand of Venezuela, Chavezism.
“Venezuela will become a land full of opportunities,” he said. “I am inviting American investors to prevent them from falling behind.”
In the past few months, Democrats, including Chairman Gregory Meeks of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Jim McGovern, and Senator Chris Murphy, have all believed that the United States should reconsider its policy. Maduro rarely leaves Miraflores or the military base where he sleeps now, and he has been waiting for signs that the Biden administration is ready to negotiate.
“There is not a positive sign,” he said. “not any.”
Sudden change seems unlikely. With broad support from Congress, the Trump administration listed Venezuela as a violation of human rights, election manipulation, drug trafficking, corruption, and currency manipulation. The sanctions it imposed on Maduro, his wife, dozens of officials and state-owned enterprises are still in effect. Although Biden’s policy of restoring democracy through “free and fair elections” is clearly different from Trump’s policy, the United States still regards Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela.
Maduro has been making concessions. In recent weeks, he transferred six executives — five of them American citizens — from prison to house arrest, gave political opposition two of the five seats on the committee responsible for national elections, and allowed the World Food Program Department to enter the country.
The opposition, while fragmented, is talking about participating in the next round of elections in November. Norway is trying to facilitate talks between the two sides. Henrique Capriles, a key leader who lost to Maduro in the 2013 presidential vote, says it’s time for winner-take-all politics to end.
“There are people on Maduro’s side who also have noticed that the existential conflict isn’t good for their positions, because there’s no way the country is going to recover economically,” he says, taking time out from a visit to the impoverished Valles del Tuy region outside Caracas. “I imagine the government is under heavy internal pressure.”
Venezuela’s economy was already a shambles by the time Maduro took office. His predecessor, Hugo Chavez, overspent wildly and created huge inefficiencies with a byzantine program of price controls, subsidies and the nationalization of hundreds of companies.
“When Chavez came into power, there were four steps you had to take to export a container of chocolate,” Jorge Redmond, chief executive officer of family-run Chocolates El Rey, explains at his sales office in the Caracas neighborhood of La Urbina. “Today there are 90 steps, and there are 19 ministries involved.”
Once the richest country in South America, Venezuela is now among the poorest. Inflation has been running at about 2,300% a year. By some estimates, the economy has shrunk by 80% in nine years — the deepest depression in modern history.
Signs of decay are everywhere. At the foreign ministry in downtown Caracas, most of the lights are turned off and signs on the bathroom doors say, “No Water.” Employees at the central bank bring their own toilet paper.
Throughout the country, blackouts are daily occurrences. In Caracas, the subway barely works and gangs rule the barrios. Some 5.4 million Venezuelans, a fifth of the population, have fled abroad, causing strains across the continent. The border with Colombia is a lawless no-man’s land. Cuba, of all places, has provided humanitarian aid.
Sanctions on Venezuela date back to the presidency of George W. Bush. In 2017, the Trump administration barred access to U.S. financial markets, and it subsequently banned trading in Venezuelan debt and doing business with the state-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, or PDVSA.
The offensive was brutally effective, accelerating the economic collapse. Last year, Venezuelan oil production slid to 410,000 barrels a day, the lowest in more than a century. According to the government, 99% of the country’s export revenue has been wiped out.
For a long time, Maduro has been engaging in counter-channels, trying to start negotiations with the United States. He sent the Minister of Foreign Affairs to the Trump Tower in New York for a meeting, and her brother, the then Minister of Communications, went to Mexico City for a meeting.
Maduro said that he had almost one-on-one conversations with Trump himself at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2018. He recalled that the White House had called to make arrangements, but the contact was severed. Maduro blamed the foreign policy hawks in Trump’s orbit, many of whom were enslaved by Venezuelan diasporas in Florida.
“He couldn’t bear the pressure,” he said. “If we meet, history may be different.”
Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader, proved that he is the perfect survivor. After Chavez’s death in 2013, he defeated his rivals to consolidate control of the United Socialist Party, withstood attacks in 2018 and 2019, and lasted longer than Trump.
Guaido, who worked closely with the US campaign to overthrow Maduro, was forced to shift his strategy from regime change to negotiation.
“I support any effort to achieve free and fair elections,” Guaidó said in his temporary office in eastern Caracas, surrounded by unofficial Covid-19 cases in various states. “Venezuela is exhausted, not only a democratic choice, but also a dictatorship, the whole country.”
If Maduro feels the heat, he won’t show it. Several times a week, usually as long as 90 minutes, he will appear on national television to criticize the “economic blockade” and pledge allegiance to the power of the people. The populist drama brings home a carefully choreographed narrative: Venezuela’s sovereignty, dignity, and right to self-determination are being trampled on by the unethical abuse of financial power.
In the interview, Maduro insisted that if the United States continues to point his head with a well-known gun, he will not give in. Any request to change domestic policy is “game over”.
“We will become a colony, we will become a protectorate,” he said. “No country in the world — no country, let alone Venezuela — is willing to kneel down and betray its heritage.”
As every Venezuelan knows, the reality is that Maduro has been forced to make major concessions. Under the guidance of Vice President Delsi Rodríguez and her adviser, Patricio Rivera, the former Ecuadorian Minister of Economy, he lifted price controls, cut subsidies, lifted import restrictions, and allowed The bolivar floats freely against the dollar and creates incentives for private investment.
Rural areas continue to be affected, but in Caracas, the impact is huge. Customers no longer need to pay with piles of banknotes, and the supermarket aisles are far from empty, often piled high.
Maduro even passed a law that provides comprehensive protection for private investors.
The reforms are so orthodox that they may be mistaken for the stabilization plan of the International Monetary Fund and are hardly part of the Chavez Bolivar revolution. Maduro responded that they are tools of the “war economy”. Of course, dollarization has always been “a useful escape valve” for consumers and businesses, but it and other reluctant nods to capitalism are temporary.
“Sooner or later, Bolivar will once again play a strong and dominant role in the country’s economic and commercial life,” he said.
Not long ago, the United States also regarded Venezuela as a strategic ally. Exxon Mobil, ConocoPhillips, and Chevron have large stakes in the country’s oil industry, and refineries in Texas and Louisiana have been modified to process products from Orinoco Belt of heavy crude oil. Wealthy Venezuelans travel to Miami so frequently, they talk about it like their second hometown.
After Chavez was elected in 1998, everything changed. He confiscated billions of dollars in U.S. oil assets and formed alliances with socialists in Cuba, Bolivia, and Ecuador.
Maduro went further and embraced Washington’s most threatening enemy. He described the relationship with Russia as “extraordinary” and sent a birthday card to Chinese President Xi Jinping. This is a mockery of Biden: if you continue to abuse Venezuela, you will deal with another Castro, not a leader who is still hopeful about a win-win deal.
The guests in the VIP lounge of Simon Bolivar International Airport thought of Venezuela’s new friendship. Three vertically arranged clocks show the time in Caracas, Moscow and Beijing.
When asked about their meaning in the interview, Maduro replied that “the future world is in Asia.” But an idea flashed through his mind. He said that maybe New Delhi, Madrid and New York should also have clocks.
In the afternoon of the next day, there were indeed six clocks on the wall of the lounge. In this country, Maduro is still omnipotent.
Except for one thing: like many other things in Venezuela, the clock does not work.