Sitting in a gilded Louis XVI chair in his office in Miraflores, a sprawling neo-baroque palace in northwest Caracas, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro projects unflappable confidence.
The country, he says in an 85-minute interview with Bloomberg Television, has freed itself from “irrational, extremist and cruel” American oppression. Russia, China, Iran and Cuba are allies, their internal opposition is powerless. If Venezuela has a bad image, it is because of a well-financed campaign to demonize him and his socialist government.
The bombast is predictable. But amid his denunciations of Yankee imperialism, Maduro, who has been allowing dollars to circulate and private enterprise to flourish, is making a public plea and is pointing directly at Joe Biden. The message: it’s time to make a deal.
Venezuela, home to the world’s largest oil reserves, is starved for capital and desperate to regain access to global debt and commodity markets after two decades of anti-capitalist transformation and four years of crippling US sanctions. The country is bankrupt, its infrastructure is crumbling, and the lives of millions are a struggle for survival.
“If Venezuela cannot produce oil and sell it, it cannot produce and sell its gold, it cannot produce and sell its bauxite, it cannot produce iron, etc., and it cannot generate income in the international market, how? Is it supposed to pay Venezuelan bondholders? “Maduro, 58, says, palms up in appeal.” This world has to change. This situation has to change. “
In fact, much has changed since Donald Trump imposed sanctions on Caracas and recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as president. His explicit goal, to oust Maduro from office, failed. Today Guaidó is marginalized, Venezuelans are suffering more than ever and Maduro remains firm in power. “I am here in this presidential palace!” He notices.
Yet there has been little that is urgently needed to end the worst humanitarian disaster in the Western Hemisphere: the commitment, from Maduro, from his opposition, from Washington.
Maduro hopes that an agreement to ease sanctions will open the floodgates to foreign investment, create jobs and reduce misery. He could even secure his legacy as a torchbearer for Chavismo, Venezuela’s peculiar form of left-wing nationalism.
“Venezuela is going to become the land of opportunities,” he says. “I am inviting American investors not to be left behind.”
In recent months, Democrats, including Gregory Meeks, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Jim McGovern and Senator Chris Murphy, have argued that the United States should reconsider its policy. Maduro, who these days rarely leaves Miraflores or the military base where he sleeps, has been waiting for a sign that the Biden government is ready to negotiate.
“There has not been a single positive sign,” he says. “None.”
Sudden change seems unlikely. With broad support from Congress, the Trump administration cited Venezuela for human rights violations, rigged elections, drug trafficking, corruption and currency manipulation. The sanctions imposed on Maduro, his wife, dozens of officials and state companies remain in force. While Biden’s policy of restoring democracy with “free and fair elections” is strikingly different from Trump’s, the United States still regards Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela.
Maduro has been giving up a bit of ground. In recent weeks, he moved six executives, five of them U.S. citizens, from prison to house arrest, awarded the political opposition two of the five seats on the council responsible for national elections, and allowed the World Food Program to enter. to the country.
The opposition, while fragmented, is talking about participating in the next round of elections in November. Norway is trying to facilitate talks between the two sides. Henrique Capriles, a key leader who lost to Maduro in the 2013 presidential vote, says it’s time for winner-take-all politics to end.
“There are people on Maduro’s side who also have noticed that the existential conflict isn’t good for their positions, because there’s no way the country is going to recover economically,” he says, taking time out from a visit to the impoverished Valles del Tuy region outside Caracas. “I imagine the government is under heavy internal pressure.”
Venezuela’s economy was already a shambles by the time Maduro took office. His predecessor, Hugo Chavez, overspent wildly and created huge inefficiencies with a byzantine program of price controls, subsidies and the nationalization of hundreds of companies.
“When Chavez came into power, there were four steps you had to take to export a container of chocolate,” Jorge Redmond, chief executive officer of family-run Chocolates El Rey, explains at his sales office in the Caracas neighborhood of La Urbina. “Today there are 90 steps, and there are 19 ministries involved.”
Once the richest country in South America, Venezuela is now among the poorest. Inflation has been running at about 2,300% a year. By some estimates, the economy has shrunk by 80% in nine years — the deepest depression in modern history.
Signs of decay are everywhere. At the foreign ministry in downtown Caracas, most of the lights are turned off and signs on the bathroom doors say, “No Water.” Employees at the central bank bring their own toilet paper.
Throughout the country, blackouts are daily occurrences. In Caracas, the subway barely works and gangs rule the barrios. Some 5.4 million Venezuelans, a fifth of the population, have fled abroad, causing strains across the continent. The border with Colombia is a lawless no-man’s land. Cuba, of all places, has provided humanitarian aid.
Sanctions on Venezuela date back to the presidency of George W. Bush. In 2017, the Trump administration barred access to U.S. financial markets, and it subsequently banned trading in Venezuelan debt and doing business with the state-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, or PDVSA.
The offensive was brutally effective, accelerating the economic collapse. Last year, Venezuelan oil production slid to 410,000 barrels a day, the lowest in more than a century. According to the government, 99% of the country’s export revenue has been wiped out.
The entire time, Maduro was working through back channels, trying to start negotiations with the United States. He sent his chancellor to a meeting at Trump Tower in New York and his brother, then the communications minister, to one in Mexico City.
Maduro says he almost had a face-to-face with Trump himself at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2018. The White House, he recalls, had called to make arrangements, only to break contact. Maduro blames foreign policy hawks in Trump’s orbit, many of them enslaved by Venezuelan expats in Florida.
“The pressures were unbearable for him,” he says. “If we had met, the story could be different.”
Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader, has proven to be a consummate survivor. He defeated rivals to cement control of the United Sociality Party after Chávez’s death in 2013, resisted attacks in 2018 and 2019, and survived Trump.
Guaidó, who worked closely with the US campaign to topple Maduro, has been forced to shift the strategy from regime change to negotiations.
“I support any effort that creates free and fair elections,” says Guaidó in his makeshift offices in eastern Caracas, surrounded by unofficial, state-by-state counts of Covid-19 cases. “Venezuela is exhausted, not only the democratic alternative but the dictatorship, the whole country.”
If Maduro feels the heat, he doesn’t show it. Several times a week, often for 90 minutes, he appears on state television to explode the “economic blockade” and promise his servitude to popular power. The populist theater brings home a carefully crafted narrative: Venezuela’s sovereignty, dignity and right to self-determination are being trampled on by the immoral abuse of financial power.
During the interview, Maduro insists that he will not give in if the United States keeps pointing a gun at his head. Any demand for changes in national policy “is over.”
“We would become a colony, we would become a protectorate,” he says. “No country in the world, no country, least of all Venezuela, is willing to kneel down and betray its legacy.”
The reality, as every Venezuelan knows, is that Maduro has already been forced to make major concessions. Guided by Vice President Delcy Rodríguez and her advisor, Patricio Rivera, a former Ecuadorian economy minister, he eliminated price controls, reduced subsidies, eliminated restrictions on imports, allowed the bolivar to float freely against the dollar and created incentives for investment. private.
Rural areas continue to suffer, but in Caracas the impact has been dramatic. Customers no longer have to pay with stacks of bills and supermarket aisles, far from being empty, are often stacked.
Maduro even approved a law full of guarantees for private investors.
The reforms are so orthodox that they could be mistaken for an International Monetary Fund stabilization program, hardly the stuff of Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution. Maduro responds that they are tools of a “war economy.” Of course, dollarization has been a “useful safety valve” for consumers and businesses, but both it and the other movements averse to capitalism are temporary.
“Sooner rather than later, the bolivar will once again occupy a strong and preponderant role in the economic and commercial life of the country,” he says.
It was not so long ago that the United States viewed Venezuela as a strategic ally. Exxon Mobil Corp., ConocoPhillips and Chevron Corp. had significant stakes in the country’s oil industry and refineries in Texas and Louisiana were remodeled to process heavy crude from the Orinoco Belt. Wealthy Venezuelans traveled to Miami so frequently that they spoke of it as a second home.
All that changed when Chávez was elected in 1998. He expropriated billions of dollars in US oil assets and built alliances with socialists in Cuba, Bolivia and Ecuador.
Maduro has gone further, embracing Washington’s most threatening enemies. He describes the relationship with Russia as “extraordinary” and sends a birthday card to Chinese President Xi Jinping. It’s a mockery for Biden: keep mistreating Venezuela and you’ll be dealing with another Castro, not a leader who still hopes for a win-win deal.
Guests of the VIP Lounge of the Simón Bolívar International Airport were reminded of the new friends from Venezuela. Three clocks mounted in a vertical row showed the time in Caracas, Moscow, and Beijing.
Asked in the interview what they mean, Maduro responds that “the world of the future is in Asia.” But an idea crosses his mind: perhaps, he says, there should also be watches for New Delhi, Madrid and New York.
The next afternoon, in fact, there are six clocks on the living room wall. In this country, Maduro is still almighty.
Except for one thing: like so many other things in Venezuela, the clocks don’t work.