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The government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and leaders from the U.S.-backed opposition signed an agreement Tuesday outlining commitments to hold competitive presidential elections next year, a deal expected to clear the way for the United States to ease oil sanctions on the authoritarian state.
The agreement was a breakthrough in Venezuela’s ongoing political stalemate. Maduro, who claimed victory in a 2018 election viewed by the United States and others as fraudulent, pledged to allow all parties to choose their candidates, allow missions from the European Union and the United Nations to observe the vote, and grant all campaigns fair access to the media. His government said the presidential election will take place in the second half of 2024.
The government did not promise to lift bans that now prevent some opposition candidates from running.
Leaders from the government and the opposition formalized the deal in Barbados during an event facilitated by the Norwegian government with U.S. representatives present.
With the deal finalized, the Biden administration is expected to announce it will lift some sanctions on Venezuela’s state-controlled oil industry, two people familiar with talks between the countries told The Washington Post. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the arrangement. The sanctions relief could include a general license for American companies to resume business in Venezuela.
U.S. to ease sanctions on Venezuelan oil for freer presidential election
National Assembly President Jorge Rodríguez, who signed the deal on behalf of the Maduro government, called it a “first step toward sanctions … being lifted progressively.”
“In the next few days we will be able to see some of the results,” he said.
“With the signing of these agreements we are taking the first step towards the full lifting of all sanctions,” Maduro tweeted Tuesday.
The deal Tuesday follows the failure of multiple attempts at negotiation between Maduro’s government and the opposition. It comes days before Venezuela’s opposition parties will hold a primary election to choose a single candidate to back against Maduro next year. The clear front-runner is María Corina Machado, a fierce critic of the government whom the Maduro government has banned from running for office. U.S. officials had condemned the ban.
The disqualification of opposition candidates, including Machado, was a key point of discussion ahead of the agreement. Many had hoped the deal would include a pledge to lift all bans on candidates.
Ultimately, the agreement promised to authorize the participation of all presidential candidates “provided that they comply with the requirements established to participate in the presidential election, consistent with the procedures established by Venezuelan law.”
Following the signing of the deal, the Unitary Platform — the coalition of opposition negotiators in Barbados — issued a statement assuring that the parties agreed to a “route for those banned and political parties to quickly recover their rights.” However, Tuesday’s agreement does not specifically mention how that would happen.
Rodríguez, speaking in a news conference after the signing, clarified that “if you received an administrative inhabilitation … you cannot be a candidate.”
Venezuela’s Supreme Court declared in August it would not review Machado’s ban from running in future presidential elections.
Geoff Ramsey, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who focuses on Venezuela, said Maduro is “opening a window.”
“Now the opposition, with the support of the international community, has to try and pry that window open all the way,” he said.
U.S. officials have said they would consider easing sanctions if Maduro allowed free and fair presidential elections. The Trump administration and Maduro’s government severed diplomatic relations in 2019. But after Russia invaded Ukraine last year, the Biden administration reached out in an effort to drive a wedge between Caracas and Moscow while securing access to a new source of oil.
Venezuela has the world’s largest proven reserves of crude, but the state-owned oil company PDVSA has been hobbled by government mismanagement and U.S. sanctions.
U.S. officials made a rare trip to Caracas last year to meet with the government. Maduro later released six Citgo executives held since 2017, five of them U.S. citizens, and the Biden administration granted Chevron a license to resume pumping oil in Venezuela — while trying to push Maduro toward competitive elections.
Resuming the oil trade with Venezuela would be a dramatic step after Washington’s years-long maximum-pressure campaign of crippling sanctions failed to oust Maduro from power or solve the political crisis. The United States significantly tightened sanctions in early 2019 after declaring Maduro’s 2018 victory illegitimate.
In the intervening years, Maduro has cemented his grip on power and gained recognition from foreign governments even as he’s investigated by the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity. A U.S. federal court has indicted him on charges of narcoterrorism.
Maduro allowed the European Union to monitor the 2021 elections for local and regional offices. In their report, the monitors noted several obstacles to a fair vote, including the arbitrary disqualification of political opponents, the partisan use of state resources to campaign, unequal access to the media and a lack of judicial independence.