The collapse of Venezuela's talks
may extend U.S. sanctions
The collapse of Venezuela talks in protests of the estradition of the Venezuelan government's high-profile middleman Alex Saab and the sending back to prision from house arrest of the Citgo's chicago six could extend sanctions
- Alex Saab to face alleged money-laundering charges
- The Citgo-6, the executives face more time in prision
By Patricia Garip / Argus Media
Petroleumworld 10 18 2021
The Venezuelan government's withdrawal from negotiations with opposition parties over the tumultuous weekend may embolden hardliners on both sides and postpone US plans to gradually dismantle sanctions on the Opec country.
The Norwegian-brokered negotiations collapsed on 16 October, hours after the African archipelago of Cape Verde extradited the Venezuelan government's high-profile middleman Alex Saab to the US to face alleged money-laundering charges. Saab, a Colombian businessman who brokered sanctions-skirting oil and food deals, is now in US custody.
Even before the Venezuelan government's top negotiator Jorge Rodriguez announced the pull-out, Venezuelan security forces took six executives of Venezuelan state-owned PDVSA's US refining subsidiary Citgo out of house arrest and back into detention, in apparent retaliation for Saab's extradition. Known as the Citgo-6, the executives have been shuttled between house arrest and prison since their detention in Caracas in November 2017 on obscure corruption charges.
Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro's government entered the talks with the US-backed opposition in August in Mexico, where the two sides have since met to forge cooperation with a focus on health and social welfare. The parties' agreement to set up working groups was hailed by civil society groups as a pragmatic way to address Venezuela's humanitarian crisis. In parallel, most of the Venezuelan opposition has agreed to end a long electoral boycott and participate in 21 November state and local elections.
US president Joe Biden's administration has indicated a willingness to relax financial and oil sanctions on Venezuela in tandem with progress toward restoring democracy. Early moves, such as clearing LPG sales, were timid but signaled a departure from former US president Donald Trump's failed "maximum pressure" strategy. Anticipating a breakthrough, some oil companies and investors were starting to line up proposals and debt-for-equity deals.
That scenario now looks more remote. Sources close to the talks say Maduro had been communicating through allies Mexico and Russia that his government would be willing to cede political ground if Saab's extradition were further postponed. Now, facing the risk that Saab will implicate them, Maduro and his associates are now digging in their heels, with little short-term incentive to return to the negotiating table.
"Part of our strong response to the kidnapping of the diplomat Alex Saab is our withdrawal from the Dialogue in Mexico. We warned of this! The US empire does not want Peace, dialogue or negotiation with Venezuela," Maduro tweeted.
For its part, the opposition led by Juan Guaido is publicly urging the government to return to the talks. "The dictatorship, in a ruinous act, decided to abandon the Venezuelans to show loyalty to one who profited off of hunger," Guaido said.
Opposition hardliners who cast doubt on the Mexico talks have seized on the government's withdrawal as vindication, and now anticipate that Saab will "sing" to US prosecutors in Florida. In private, other Maduro critics express ambivalence about Saab's extradition because of its broader consequences. "This is not really a victory. Are the secrets that Saab knows worth all of this?" one asks.
With the talks now on ice, the opposition's participation in the November elections looks less certain. Guaido's mandate to lead the US-backed opposition in the talks is fast running out. His claim to an interim presidency expires in January, giving the mainstream opposition little room to maneuver, even as Citgo — which it nominally controls — slips from its hands.
Norway called negotiations "the only solution for Venezuela" and said it "will keep working for the parties to, as soon as possible, continue their important effort at the negotiating table for an inclusive political solution for the benefit of the Venezuelan people."