War in Ukraine puts Nicolas Maduro back on the world stage
In this edition, the war in Ukraine and an international scramble for energy alternatives has helped Nicolás Maduro prosper.
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For much of the decade that Nicolás Maduro has been the president of Venezuela, he has been an international pariah. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been a major reason why once hostile governments are now warming to the Venezuelan despot. Rising oil prices, inflation, the cost-of-living crisis and a global scramble for energy has made Maduro attractive again to the West.
As recently as June 2022, Maduro allied Venezuela with Iran as part of the so-called “Axis of Resistance” against the United States and Israel. Pummeled in part by U.S. sanctions, Venezuela’s economy under Maduro’s watch has effectively collapsed. Since 2013, over seven million Venezulans, especially the educated middle class, have fled.
Nearly three years ago, the U.S. charged Maduro, among others, with “narco-terrorism” for “causing tons of cocaine to enter and devastate American communities.” There was a $15 million reward for information leading to his arrest. And after the opposition in Venezuela declared Maduro’s reelection in 2018 to be void, dozens of countries recognized Juan Guaidó as acting president. But the interim Guaidó government was dissolved by January 2023, having garnered little popular support.
As a result, even Maduro’s most vocal opponents in the West are acknowledging that they have little choice other than to accept his leadership. In November, the Biden administration eased some sanctions. “The conflict in Ukraine comes after a couple of years in which Maduro enjoyed a consolidation of his domestic political position,” said Theodore Kahn, a senior analyst in Bogotá, Colombia with the international consultancy Control Risks. “Now he’s gaining strength internationally.”
WHY IT MATTERS
Last week, the president of the Russian oil company Rosneft traveled to Caracas, announcing a plan “to increase crude oil production and advance new business opportunities.” In June 2022, Washington allowed Eni (Italy) and Repsol (Spain) to export Venezuelan crude to Europe. And in November, Chevron was reissued a license to operate in Venezuela. The International Monetary Fund expects the Venezuelan economy to grow by 6.5% this year.
Russia’s aggression in Ukraine amplified the demand for alternative sources of fossil fuels. Sitting on the world’s largest oil reserves has given Maduro enough leverage to proclaim his closeness to Vladimir Putin while courting favor with Western leaders who once shunned Venezuela.
On the day following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Maduro sided with Putin, placing blame on NATO and the U.S. for provoking Moscow. Less than a month later, the Venezuelan government released two imprisoned Americans, one of whom was an oil executive. Maduro then made a televised appearance in which he expressed his willingness to negotiate with Juan Guaidó.
It was canny politics. Long-ostracized Venezuela began to ease its way back from the brink of economic catastrophe.
“There is more money, more movement on the streets. New shops are open,” said Kelvin, a young Venezuelan refugee who had returned to Venezuela from Colombia. “Before that,” he said, “you could barely find anywhere to buy a bus ticket.” Kahn, the risk analyst in Bogotá, said Maduro “is already pointing to these slightly improved economic indicators to make the case that the people’s best option is to stick with him.”
Ahead of next year’s presidential elections in Venezuela, analysts like Kahn say that Maduro will use the growing economy and security guarantees from the West as they lift sanctions to consolidate his power. Some, however, continue to argue that Maduro remains vulnerable. Russia’s own need to sell its oil, particularly in Asian markets, complicates its relationship with Venezuela. And the limited economic recovery in Venezuela has only helped the rich, making what was once a middle-class society vastly unequal.
Kelvin, his wife Diana and their toddler son, for instance, soon went back to Colombia. We met them at a center that hosts Venezuelan migrants arriving by foot. He and his wife know that making a life for their small family in Venezuela remains nearly impossible. At the center, a Venezuelan man with a pair of shredded, worn out Crocs on his feet said that nothing had really changed for the nation’s people. “Maduro steals from the country and steals for himself,” he said, refusing to give us his name. “This is how it’s been for years. Why would it be any different now?” Kelvin and Diana have since made their way onward — from Colombia to Peru.
If people in Venezuela remain mired in economic chaos, a fragmented opposition means Maduro is unlikely to lose even in a fair, transparent election process. Western leaders are coming to the same conclusion. Last June, on the sidelines of a G7 meeting in Germany, the French president Emmanuel Macron was caught on camera telling Joe Biden that the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia were at capacity in terms of oil and gas production.
French officials later said it was necessary, given the war in Ukraine, to explore all energy options, including those provided by Venezuela and Iran. When Macron went to the COP27 climate summit in Egypt in November, Maduro was there too. France, at the time, recognized Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s acting president. It didn’t stop Macron greeting Maduro, by most accounts, with a cordial handshake and chat. So, said a smiling Maduro, “when are you visiting us?”
Catherine Ellis contributed reporting from South America.
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