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US reimposes oil sanctions on Venezuela as hopes for free elections fade

US reimposes oil sanctions on Venezuela as hopes for free elections fade


When the government of President Nicols Maduro of Venezuela and his country's opposition signed an agreement in October to work toward free and fair elections this year, the agreement was seen as a glimmer of hope after years of authoritarian regime and economic free fall.

The United States, as a gesture of goodwill, temporarily lifted some of the economic sanctions that have crippled the country's crucial oil industry.

But six months later, Maduro's government has taken several steps that dimmed the chances of legitimate elections, and a frustrated Biden administration announced Wednesday that it was letting sanctions relief expire.

The reinstatement of sanctions could have significant consequences on the future of Venezuelan democracy, its economy and migration in the region.

Maduro and his representatives did not fully respect the spirit or letter of the agreement, said a senior administration official who spoke with a group of reporters on background to discuss an issue sensitive diplomacy.

Another senior official discussing the reinstatement of sanctions cited the disqualification of candidates and parties on technical grounds, and what we see as a continuing trend of harassment and repression against opposition figures and civil society.

The sanctions relief will expire at midnight on Wednesday, but the official said there would be a 45-day wind-down period for transactions related to oil and gas sector operations so that the expiration does not cause uncertainty in the global energy sector. sector.

The Venezuelan government did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But in a televised speech on Monday, Mr. Maduro, anticipating that sanctions would be reinstated, said: “We are not a gringo colony. Venezuela will continue its economic march.

The United States has imposed sanctions on some Venezuelan leaders for years, but the Trump administration significantly strengthened them in 2019, after the United States accused Mr. Maduro of fraud in the last presidential election.

The move was intended to force Maduro's government from power, but Mr. Maduro managed to maintain his grip, even as sanctions led to economic misery for many Venezuelans.

Imports of Venezuelan oil to the United States, its largest customer, have been effectively banned. Oil is Venezuela's main source of export revenue, and the sanctions have dealt a devastating economic blow that has contributed to a mass exodus of Venezuelans.

Sanctions relief allowed Venezuela to freely sell its crude for a period of six months.

Mr. Maduro, in power for 11 years, has long called for sanctions to be lifted, while the United States and its Venezuelan opposition allies have demanded that Mr. Maduro allow competitive elections that could give his party a legitimate chance. political opponents. to win.

Although the agreement signed last year in Barbados was a significant step forward, many were skeptical that Mr. Maduro would ever allow elections to be held with a real possibility of losing.

Just days after the deal was signed, a former Venezuelan lawmaker, Mara Corina Machado, won the primary election with more than 90 percent of the vote. Her victory and high turnout showed, experts say, that she had a strong chance of defeating Mr. Maduro in a free and fair election.

Since then, the Maduro government has erected new barriers to prevent the possibility of a competitive vote.

The country's highest court disqualified Machado in January for what judges said were financial irregularities that occurred when she was a national lawmaker. These types of disqualifications are a common tactic used by Mr. Maduro to keep powerful competitors off the ballot.

Then the government, using technical electoral maneuvers, prevented an opposition coalition from fielding another preferred candidate. The opposition was eventually allowed to field another candidate, Edmundo Gonzlez, a former diplomat, but it is unclear whether his name will appear on the ballot in the July 28 election.

An opposition party was allowed to officially register another candidate: Manuel Rosales, the governor of the populous state of Zulia, whose candidacy is widely seen as rubber-stamped by Mr. Maduro, according to political analysts.

An unclassified US intelligence report released in February said Mr Maduro was likely to win the election and remain in power because of his control over state institutions that influence the electoral process and his willingness to exercise his power. power.

While the Maduro administration had placed allies on Venezuela's electoral board, the intelligence report said it was also trying to avoid blatant electoral fraud.

Six of Ms. Machado's campaign aides have been arrested and six others have been in hiding since arrest warrants were issued for them. Men on motorcycles attacked supporters at his events. Many Venezuelans living abroad have been unable to register to vote due to costly and cumbersome formalities.

Now that sanctions have been reinstated, experts say the Venezuelan government is unlikely to reconsider its undemocratic actions.

The Maduro government no longer has any reason to make more concessions or even maintain some of the concessions it has made so far, said Mariano de Alba, senior adviser to the International Crisis Group, a think tank. We could therefore be heading towards a more uneven playing field on the electoral side.

The move could also affect migration in the region.

Exhausted by years of economic struggle and lack of freedoms, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have attempted to reach the U.S. border over the past two years, creating a political and humanitarian crisis for the Biden administration.

Around the time of the Barbados Agreement, Venezuela also agreed to accept Venezuelan migrants expelled from the United States, a move intended to show that President Biden was aggressively tackling record border crossings and deter other Venezuelans who might consider traveling.

But these deportation flights stopped in February without explanation. Now that sanctions have been reinstated, they are unlikely to resume.

Sanctions relief has also had a small but notable effect on Venezuela's economy over the past six months, experts say. Oil exports recently hit a four-year high and inflation hit its lowest level in a decade.

But the resumption of sanctions could reverse these gains. Experts say a struggling economy and the strong possibility that Mr. Maduro will win another illegitimate election could lead to a new surge in migration.

While the Biden administration said it would reinstate sanctions, another U.S. official said the government could still allow individual companies, on a case-by-case basis, to do business with Venezuela's oil and gas sector.

Allowing such limited activities to continue with Venezuela gives the United States some leverage in discussions with the Maduro government, experts said.




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