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Democracy Is Not a Commodity

The United States shouldn’t bargain away Venezuela’s future for oil.

By , the deputy foreign minister of Venezuela’s interim government under Juan Guaidó.
A motorcycle passes in front of an oil-themed mural in Caracas, Venezuela
A motorcycle passes in front of an oil-themed mural in Caracas, Venezuela
A motorcycle passes in front of an oil-themed mural in Caracas, Venezuela, on May 9. Javier Campos/NurPhoto via Getty Images

As the West imposed wide-ranging sanctions on Russia in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, reports emerged that the United States might concurrently lift sanctions on the regime of another brutal dictator: Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. A surprise visit by a U.S. delegation to Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, in March prompted immediate speculation that Washington was poised to ease sanctions on Venezuelan oil exports despite Maduro’s ongoing human rights violations, political oppression, and corruption. 

While the White House subsequently quashed rumors of such a deal, Maduro and his allies seized the opportunity to sideline democratic forces and cast his dictatorship as the only path to stability in Venezuela. Tensions between Maduro and the opposition had been escalating for years but came to a head in 2019 when Venezuela’s parliament, known as the National Assembly, declined to recognize the results of the 2018 presidential election—which were widely considered to have been unfree and unfair—and declared National Assembly President Juan Guaidó interim president.

International recognition of the interim government, in which I serve as deputy foreign minister, varies, and many countries maintain relations with both Guaidó and Maduro. The United States, for its part, recognizes Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful president. But after years spent decimating Venezuela’s political institutions, arresting and imprisoning political opponents, and tanking Venezuela’s economy, Maduro seems to have now calculated that Washington might abandon its commitment to Venezuela’s democratic forces and drop the sanctions that it had imposed on Venezuela’s state-owned oil industry. It is imperative the United States makes clear that this is not on the table and instead condition sanctions relief on democratic reforms.

As the West imposed wide-ranging sanctions on Russia in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, reports emerged that the United States might concurrently lift sanctions on the regime of another brutal dictator: Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. A surprise visit by a U.S. delegation to Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, in March prompted immediate speculation that Washington was poised to ease sanctions on Venezuelan oil exports despite Maduro’s ongoing human rights violations, political oppression, and corruption. 

While the White House subsequently quashed rumors of such a deal, Maduro and his allies seized the opportunity to sideline democratic forces and cast his dictatorship as the only path to stability in Venezuela. Tensions between Maduro and the opposition had been escalating for years but came to a head in 2019 when Venezuela’s parliament, known as the National Assembly, declined to recognize the results of the 2018 presidential election—which were widely considered to have been unfree and unfair—and declared National Assembly President Juan Guaidó interim president.

International recognition of the interim government, in which I serve as deputy foreign minister, varies, and many countries maintain relations with both Guaidó and Maduro. The United States, for its part, recognizes Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful president. But after years spent decimating Venezuela’s political institutions, arresting and imprisoning political opponents, and tanking Venezuela’s economy, Maduro seems to have now calculated that Washington might abandon its commitment to Venezuela’s democratic forces and drop the sanctions that it had imposed on Venezuela’s state-owned oil industry. It is imperative the United States makes clear that this is not on the table and instead condition sanctions relief on democratic reforms.

As a long-standing defender of Venezuelan democracy, I strongly believe that ignoring Maduro’s dictatorship in the hopes of lowering domestic U.S. energy prices is not only ethically problematic but counterproductive and ineffective. Venezuelan oil won’t reduce U.S. fuel prices in the short or medium term nor will it serve Venezuelans’ long-term goals of securing a free and democratic country. Standing in solidarity with Ukrainian patriots does not require abandoning Venezuelan democrats. On the contrary, now is the moment for the United States and its allies to showcase its commitment to defending human rights, justice, and dignity—and to make clear that democracy is not a commodity that can be bargained away.

Standing in solidarity with Ukrainian patriots does not require abandoning Venezuelan democrats.

There are many reasons why the oil-for-dictatorship dilemma should be a nonstarter for the United States. First, Venezuelan crude oil production is at historic lows. After years of mismanagement and corruption under Maduro, the national oil industry is in tatters. In the best of circumstances, experts say Venezuela could, in the short to medium term, only raise production from 800,000 barrels to under 1 million barrels per day. Most of Venezuela’s oil is currently shipped to China. Even if Venezuela were to divert a portion of that oil to the United States, this would not compensate for the nearly 700,000 barrels per day that the country was previously importing from Russia. More importantly, it would not have an impact on the price of crude oil in the world market, which in turn determines costs in the United States.

Most importantly, striking a deal that looks past Maduro’s crimes will prove to be counterproductive in securing a stable, democratic Venezuela. Partnering with a brutal dictator who is allied with Putin will backfire. As is evidenced by the conduct of Putin’s troops in Ukraine, dictators become emboldened when the international community fails to set and enforce red lines. Surely, Maduro will also double down on repression if his human rights violations, corruption, and violence are met with impunity.

There are already indications that Maduro is headed down this path. Last fall, Maduro abandoned the Norway-mediated Mexico City political negotiations aimed at reaching a comprehensive solution to the Venezuelan crisis—talks the United States and the Venezuelan interim government firmly support. He instead embarked on a so-called national dialogue, a series of state-sponsored consultations with local stakeholders ostensibly aimed at consolidating peace and economic recovery. In reality, the national dialogue is an unveiled effort to dictate the composition of the negotiating table and divide the opposition, sidestepping these international efforts.

Credible, internationally mediated negotiations offer Venezuela its best chance at a diplomatic way out of this crisis. But to achieve progress through diplomacy, it is not enough for Maduro to simply show up for talks. He must also be prepared to negotiate in good faith. Making progress through negotiations will require greater coordination among key stakeholders in the international community. International coalitions on Venezuela—like the Lima Group and International Contact Group—have gone dormant and are plagued by divisions. Maduro has also worked hard to build alliances with leaders across Latin America because he understands that if he divides the international community—just as he seeks to divide Venezuelan democrats—he will emerge stronger.

To make progress through internationally mediated negotiations, it is imperative that countries like the United States and Canada work with allies in Europe and Latin America to reinvigorate the talks. But it is not enough for Maduro to just come back to the table. Sanctions relief for his regime must be contingent on progress at the negotiating table as well as concrete and irreversible democratic reforms and outcomes in Venezuela.

Maduro must implement reforms that create the conditions for free, fair, and verifiable elections as well as the reinstatement of the rule of law. This includes implementing the recommendations of the European Union Election Observation Mission, releasing political prisoners, addressing the structural deficiencies that have undermined the country’s lack of judicial independence, authorizing investigations into allegations of human rights violations, ending the illegal destruction of Venezuela’s Amazon and exploitation of its Indigenous communities, and implementing the dozens of recommendations issued by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the international, independent fact-finding mission, which span the gamut from steps to secure an independent Supreme Court of Justice to credibly investigate human rights abuses.

But pressure on Maduro cannot just be external. Those of us in the Venezuelan opposition must also do our part to secure our country’s democratic transition. This means staying focused on the issues that unite us—democracy, human rights, political inclusivity, free and fair elections, and equitable economic growth—rather than letting our differences divide us. We cannot achieve our vision for Venezuela if we tear one another down or put our egos before our country. Venezuelans have suffered the whims of strongmen, convinced of their own power and legitimacy, for too long. We must be guided instead by the will of the people.

As we reaffirm our united defense of democratic principles, Venezuela’s democrats must also be frank about what is no longer possible. No one side will emerge totally victorious. A negotiated solution will require compromises on all sides, some of which will undoubtedly be difficult. We must be open to considering power-sharing arrangements with regime elements and institutions, so long as they have not committed human rights violations or crimes against humanity. The formation of a new National Assembly that represents both sides could offer an example of a feasible compromise.

Many Venezuelans are already considering these options and working behind the scenes to achieve democratic change. Groups like Women for Democracy in Venezuela, an inclusive movement of women committed to democracy and women’s rights, which I co-founded late last year, are taking concrete steps to cross party lines, build bridges between politics and civil society, and develop practical solutions that can break the country’s political impasse.

Just as we work to overcome our divisions, so too must the international community. Venezuela’s democracy deserves a fighting chance. Our international allies must ensure that Venezuelans’ struggle for freedom is not traded away for elusive cents on the gallon, but that sanctions relief instead form the basis for true democratic renewal.

Isadora Zubillaga is the deputy foreign minister of Venezuela’s interim government under Juan Guaidó. Twitter: @isadorazubi

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