New ‘Great Game’: Can Venezuela negotiate an end to U.S. deadly sanctions?
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks after the signing of an accord with Russia, at the Presidential Palace in Caracas, Venezuela, Feb. 16, 2022. Venezuelan and Russian officials met for high-level discussions in the South American country. The U.S. has tried to bring about regime change and topple the socialist government of Venezuela headed by Maduro. Matias Delacroix | AP

How the tables have turned! A high-level U.S. delegation visited Venezuela on March 5, hoping to repair economic ties with Caracas. Venezuela, one of the world’s poorest countries partly due to U.S.-Western sanctions is, for once, in the driving seat, capable of alleviating an impending U.S. energy crisis if dialogue with Washington continues to move forward.

Technically, Venezuela is not a poor country. In 1998, it was one of the leading OPEC members, producing 3.5 million barrels of oil a day (bpd). Though Caracas largely failed to take advantage of its former oil boom by diversifying its oil-dependent economy, it was the combination of lower oil prices and U.S.-led sanctions that pushed the once relatively thriving South American country down to its knees.

In December 2018, former Pres. Donald Trump imposed severe sanctions on Venezuela, cutting off oil imports from the country. Though Caracas provided the U.S. with about 200,000 bpd, the U.S. managed to quickly replace Venezuelan oil as crude oil prices reached as low as $40 per barrel.

Indeed, the timing of Trump’s move was meant to ravage, if not entirely destroy, the Venezuelan economy in order to exact political concessions, or worse. The decision to further choke off Venezuela in December of that year was perfectly timed as the global oil crisis had reached its zenith in November.

Venezuela was already struggling with U.S.-led sanctions, regional isolation, political instability, hyperinflation, and, subsequently, extreme poverty. The U.S. government’s move, then, was meant to be the final push that surely, as many Republicans and some Democrats concluded, would end the reign of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

Venezuela has long accused the U.S. of pursuing regime change in Caracas, based on allegations that the socialist Maduro government had won the 2018 elections through fraud. And, just like that, it was determined that Juan Guaidó, then Venezuela’s opposition leader and president of the National Assembly, should be installed as the country’s new president.

Since then, U.S. foreign policy in South America centered largely on isolating Venezuela and, by extension, weakening the socialist governments in Cuba and elsewhere. In 2017, for example, the U.S. had evacuated its embassy in the Cuban capital, Havana, claiming that its staff was being targeted by “sonic attacks” – a supposed high-frequency microwave radiation. Though such claims were never substantiated, they allowed Washington to walk back the positive diplomatic gestures towards Cuba that were carried out by the Barack Obama administration, starting in 2016.

For years, Venezuela’s inflation continued to worsen, reaching 686.4 percent last year, according to statistics provided by Bloomberg. As a result, the majority of Venezuelans continue to live below the extreme poverty line.

The government in Caracas, however, somehow survived for reasons that differ, depending on the political position of the analysts. In Venezuela, much credence is being given to the country’s socialist values, the resilience of the people, and to the Bolivarian movement. The anti-Maduro forces in the U.S., centered mostly in Florida, blame Maduro’s survival on Washington’s lack of resolve. A third factor, which is often overlooked, is Russia.

In 2019, Russia sent hundreds of military specialists, technicians, and soldiers to Caracas under various official explanations. The presence of the Russian military helped ease fears that pro-Washington forces in Venezuela were preparing a military coup. Equally important, Russia’s strong trade ties, loans, and more were instrumental in helping Venezuela escape complete bankruptcy and circumvent some of the U.S. sanctions.

Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union decades ago, Russia remained largely committed to the USSR’s geopolitical legacy. Moscow’s strong relations with socialist nations in South America are a testament to such a fact. The U.S., on the other hand, has done little to redefine its troubled relationships with South America as if little has changed since the time of the hegemonic Monroe Doctrine of 1823.

Now, it seems that the U.S. is about to pay for its past miscalculations. Unsurprisingly, the pro-Russia bloc in Latin America is expressing strong solidarity with Moscow following the latter’s intervention in Ukraine and the subsequent U.S. and Western sanctions. Wary of the developing energy crisis and the danger of having Russian allies within a largely U.S.-dominated region, Washington is attempting, though clumsily, to reverse some of its previous missteps. On March 3, Washington decided to reopen its Havana embassy, and two days later, a U.S. delegation arrived in Venezuela.

Now that Russia’s moves in Eastern Europe have reignited the “Great Game” of a previous era, Venezuela, Cuba, and others, though thousands of miles away, are finding themselves at the heart of the budding new Great Game. Though some in Washington are willing to reconsider their long-standing policy against the socialist bloc of South America, the U.S. mission is rife with obstacles. Oddly, the biggest stumbling block on the U.S. path towards South America is neither Caracas, Havana, or even Moscow, but the powerful and influential lobbies and pressure groups in Washington and Florida.

A Republican Senator, Rick Scott from Illinois, was quoted in Politico as saying, “the only thing the Biden admin should be discussing with Maduro is the time of his resignation.” While Scott’s views are shared by many top U.S. officials, internal U.S. politics this time around may have little impact on their country’s foreign policy. For once, the Venezuelan government has the stage.


Ramzy Baroud
Ramzy Baroud

Dr. Ramzy Baroud has been writing about Palestine, the Middle East, and global issues for over 20 years. He is an internationally syndicated columnist, an editor, an author of several books, and the founder of The Palestine Chronicle. His books include 'The Second Palestinian Intifada', 'My Father Was a Freedom Fighter' and 'The Last Earth.' His latest book is 'These Chains Will Be Broken'. Baroud has a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter. He is currently a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA), Istanbul Zaim University.