US in Talks With Venezuela Over Sanctions Relief in Return for Fair Elections

(Bloomberg) -- The Biden administration is in talks with Venezuela to explore a temporary lifting of crippling sanctions in exchange for allowing fair elections next year.

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The preliminary discussions involve senior officials from both nations, including Venezuela’s head of congress Jorge Rodríguez, according to people familiar with the process, who asked not to be identified.

Washington has floated the idea of sanctions relief to persuade the regime of President Nicolás Maduro to hold a competitive presidential vote in 2024, and free political prisoners. Sanctions have aggravated Venezuela’s economic and humanitarian crisis by hindering oil sales, though failed in their original objective of ousting Maduro.

Maduro, who has used prior elections to incite violence, misappropriate state funds and coerce voters, will have to make big concessions in order to reach a deal with the US to lift some or all sanctions, even if temporarily. The socialist leader has yet to set a date for the vote or invite foreign observers.

Most of the restrictions were were put in place by the 2017-2021 administration of US President Donald Trump, who took a hardline approach to the socialist government.

“Maduro is highly resistant to holding competitive elections,” said Eurasia Group analyst Risa Grais-Targow.

Widely expected to run for a third term next year, Maduro “may be willing to entertain minor concessions, but anything that would lead to a truly fair vote is just too risky, given the costs of losing power,” Grais-Targow said.

In prior elections, Maduro’s government has taken advantage of its near total control of the nation’s media for campaign air time. On election day, it sets up check points near polling stations that reward government supporters with handouts, like bags of food, and serve as a not-so-subtle reminder that it’s watching who casts ballots. In more recent instances, the government has resorted to barring opposition candidates such as María Corina Machado.

Read more: Venezuela Lawmaker Mocked by Chavez Seeks to Oust His Successor

“Should Venezuela take concrete actions toward restoring democracy, leading to free and fair elections, we are prepared to provide corresponding sanctions relief,” said Adrienne Watson, a spokeswoman for the White House’s National Security Council, in a written response to questions.

Any deal would come at a critical time, since Venezuela is soon to announce a new electoral board set to oversee the election.

The ongoing talks are separate from official conversations between the Venezuelan government and opposition, which are stalled since November and mediated by Norway.

Press officials for Venezuela’s presidency and Jorge Rodríguez did not respond to requests for comments.

Read more: Top Venezuelan Electoral Officials Step Down Ahead of Vote

The Biden administration also has practical and humanitarian reasons to want to see the economic and political crises in Venezuela resolved. More than 7 million of the nation’s citizens have abandoned the country in the past decade, with many making the dangerous trek thousands of miles north through Central America and Mexico, to the US border.

More than 50,000 have traveled to the US since October under the parole process, according to the US Department of Homeland Security.

Venezuelan immigrants are an important voting bloc in Florida, a state that’s often been pivotal in deciding the presidential winner in elections of recent decades. Trump won the state in 2020, appealing to those voters by railing against socialism. The state’s governor Ron DeSantis and the mayor of Miami are both seeking the Republican nomination.

Crude futures dropped due to an improved outlook in US relations with Venezuela and Iran, which could imply more supply in the global market. West Texas Intermediate saw its lowest closing price in over a month, falling below $79.

Read more: Oil Falls as Venezuela, Iran Thaw Undercuts Supply Concerns

--With assistance from Daniel Flatley, Nicolle Yapur and Courtney McBride.

(Updates with oil impact in last paragraph.)

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