Venezuela opposition envoy urges Biden to ease oil sanctions

The new representative of Venezuela’s opposition in the United States is urging the Biden administration to relax crippling oil sanctions on Nicolas Maduro’s government or risk seeing the socialist-run country turn into another Cuba with Washington scapegoated for increasing authoritarianism and economic hardships.

Fernando Blasi’s comments represent a sharp break from the opposition’s “maximum pressure campaign” of the past four years when it was relying on the US to muscle Maduro out of power.

The failure of that hardline approach led the opposition in January to remove the beleaguered former lawmaker Juan Guaidó from his role as “interim president”, a title he claimed as head of the National Assembly elected in 2015 – widely considered Venezuela’s last democratic vote. The opposition has replaced that arrangement with a more horizontal style of leadership of mostly exiled politicians.

“If we continue down this path, Venezuela is destined to be another Cuba,” Blasi said. “It will become an issue for politicians in Florida to win elections … That would be an extremely sad destiny for a country.”

Blasi, 51, discussed the future of US sanctions in recent meetings with mainly Democratic members of Congress, including Gregory Meeks, the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

While designated in January as the National Assembly’s envoy in the US, he cautioned he does not speak for the opposition Unity Platform as a whole. He acknowledged many of his allies in the opposition coalition bristle at the idea of rewarding Maduro without upfront commitments to level the playing field ahead of next year’s presidential election.

The Biden administration has signalled it is prepared to provide sanctions relief in exchange for concrete steps by Maduro such as promising not to ban whatever candidate emerges from opposition primaries later this year.

But other than issuing a licence to US multinational Chevron so it could resume limited oil production in Venezuela on a six-month trial basis, it has largely left in place a punishing array of sanctions inherited from the Trump administration, which made forcing regime change in the OPEC nation one of its top foreign policy priorities.

‘Time is running out’

Blasi said the pace of sanctions relief is moving too slowly. Negotiations in Mexico, where the government and opposition were supposed to hammer out conditions for next year’s election, have not taken place for months although informal talks have continued in Caracas.

He said any easing of sanctions would provide much-needed relief to regular Venezuelans battered by high inflation and shortages. If Maduro fails to honour his commitments, concessions can be quickly reversed, he said.

“Time is running out,” Blasi said. “We have to begin now with a coherent plan whereby we give something and the government reciprocates … to try and generate the best possible scenario for 2024.”

The Biden administration said with the licence to Chevron it had shown itself willing to provide targeted, time-limited sanctions relief.

The State Department said in an email “the policy of the United States is to calibrate sanctions on the basis of humanitarian need and positive democratic outcomes and always in close coordination with the Unity Platform”.

Dinorah Figuera, who replaced Guaidó as the face of the 2015 National Assembly, took distance from her envoy’s comments, saying they do not represent the opposition as a whole.

“Pluralism is a value and consensus a necessity to move forward,” she said on Twitter.

Unlike many exiled activists in the opposition, who fled possible arrest in Venezuela following anti-government protests, Blasi left his homeland before Maduro took power in 2013, escaping what he said was an attempt by security forces to extort his medical services company. He settled in Miami where he built a real estate financing company.

He owes his newfound prominence to his affiliation with the New Era party, a political movement centred around his hometown of Maracaibo, the oil hub in western Venezuela governed by Manuel Rosales, who in recent days has also sided with Maduro in calling for an end to the sanctions. New Era is one of four political parties that dominate the sprawling anti-Maduro coalition.

When Guaido was recognised in the US as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, Blasi was accredited as Venezuela’s economic counsellor at its US embassy.

Reflecting the opposition’s new down-to-earth approach, Blasi said he will not be looking to take the title of Venezuela’s ambassador in Washington as was the case the past four years. The budget for diplomatic missions approved last month by opposition lawmakers elected to the National Assembly in 2015 was $646,800 – compared with an average of $5.8m over the past three years.

Still, to operate legally in the US, Blasi and a small team are seeking diplomatic cover. They will also need some sort of official recognition to access the $144m Venezuela’s central bank has parked at the US Federal Reserve and which the opposition relies on to finance the so-called Freedom Fund to speed up a political transition.

As part of his outreach in the US, Blasi wants to improve relations with Democrats and ensure continued bipartisan support for the opposition. He said the Trump administration’s unique embrace of Venezuelans’ fight for freedom led many in the opposition to rally behind hardline Republican politicians in Florida and sideline the views of Democrats.

“I don’t want to do what happened in the past and sympathise with one political party to boycott the efforts of the other,” he said.

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