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Source: The Telegraph

Dec 22, 2023

Biden’s Venezuela ‘rapprochement’ is an Iran-sized delusion

Negotiating with autocrats like Maduro is tricky business – and the President isn't up for the task


The Biden administration granted clemency to Nicolás Maduro crony and Colombian businessman Alex Saab this Wednesday. In exchange for 10 imprisoned Americans and an agreement to release 20 Venezuelan political prisoners, the White House released the money-launderer-in-chief who Maduro now conveniently labels a “diplomat.” The swap was then painted as a democracy-advancing success by the White House.

Superficially, the exchange does not sound that bad – 10 Americans for just a single guy. Not so long ago, the Biden administration released the Russian “Merchant of Death” and received the pot-smoking sportswoman Britney Griner. In comparison, this latest deal may appear far more strategically favourable. But it is not. 

The release of Saab has to be one of Maduro’s most symbolic foreign policy wins of the year – and possibly the biggest one since he became president in 2013. Only Biden’s 2022 deal, which released two nephews of Maduro’s wife in exchange for seven Americans, comes close. The Venezuelan president celebrated accordingly, posting pictures of Saab’s arrival and depicting it as a win against fascism. 

In the last few months, the Biden administration has been negotiating a ‘path to democracy’ deal with Maduro. Energy sanctions were relieved and Maduro has responded with breadcrumbs, refusing to remove a ban on holding office imposed on the opposition’s presidential candidate, Maria Corina Machado. If this were not enough, Maduro has elevated his rhetorical warfare vis-à-vis the United States, vowing to retake the Esequibo, a territory controlled by Guyana where the US corporation Exxon has invested tens of billions of dollars. 

Aside from releasing some prisoners, appointing new yet hand-picked faces to the electoral authority, and other slight steps forward, the Maduro regime has done nothing to stop itself moving forward with an undemocratic election – and one might even argue it has gone on the offensive, as with the Esequibo cause. Nonetheless, the Biden administration’s policy of ill-assumed good faith remains unchanged.

Following the swap, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Juan Gonzalez said that “What [the US] needed was the releasing of American prisoners and the compromise of liberating Venezuelan prisoners. They have kept their promises and even gone further.” The comments shocked many in the Venezuelan opposition. After all, the sanction relief was presented as temporary and conditional on Maduro following through with the “path to democracy” deal, which included much more than releasing prisoners. 

The changes Maduro has pursued have occurred only in exchange for hundreds of millions of dollars in sanction relief and the releasing of Venezuelan VIPs. The US has received some vacuous promises and its prisoners, but Maduro has been the clear winner in this bargain. He has received tremendous amounts of legitimacy and lots of money, as well as ensured the safe return of imprisoned family members and one of his closest allies. When looked at closely, one realises that these negotiations are misguided in ways that are reminiscent of the Obama-era Iran rapprochement. 

Diego Arria, the former governor of Caracas and UN Security Council president, shared his dissatisfaction with the Biden administration online, saying that “The United States should’ve asked that all political prisoners be released because Saab is worth more to Maduro than 300 political prisoners. [Saab] is the intermediary – the accomplice – of most importance that the regime has had.”

“I can’t imagine that this is an act of ingenuity from part of the American government,” the former governor added. “For me, there is a background that deeply alarms me, there is an accommodation, without any doubts, from the US government with the narco-tyranny of Maduro.” The US‘s appeasement, he concludes, is “the worst news for [Venezuela’s] plight for liberty.”

Adding to concern, the most recent swaps appear to incentivise hostage-taking. After all, the Biden administration has been granting clemency to properly prosecuted high-level criminals in exchange for the release of many individuals which have been arbitrarily detained.

Negotiating is not inherently negative, but one at least has to know with whom one is negotiating. When autocrats engage with the US, and then turn around and wipe their behinds with the promises and agreements made, the US loses. Biden’s Venezuela policy would make more sense if he stopped painting it as “promoting democracy.” If the objective is just getting the prisoners and trying to buddy up to Maduro, then he should be articulating that.

Venezuela is not getting any closer to democracy and the White House’s cheering at breadcrumbs only makes the US seem weak. 

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