Sitting on a gilded Louis XVI chair in his office in Miraflores, a sprawling neo-baroque palace in northwest Caracas, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro projects unperturbed confidence.
The country, he said 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, its internal opposition is powerless. If Venezuela suffers from a bad image, it is because of a well-funded campaign to demonize it and its socialist government.
The flight is predictable. But between his denunciations of Yankee imperialism, Maduro, who allowed dollars to flow and private businesses to flourish, launches a public plea and targets it directly against Joe Biden. The message: it’s time to strike a deal.
Venezuela, home to the world’s largest oil reserves, is under capital and is desperate to regain access to global debt and commodities markets after two decades of anti-capitalist transformation and four years of crippling US sanctions. The country is failing, its infrastructure is collapsing and the lives of millions of people are a struggle for survival.
âIf Venezuela cannot produce and sell oil, cannot produce and sell its gold, cannot produce and sell its bauxite, cannot produce iron, and so on. is it supposed to pay the Venezuelan bondholders? Maduro, 58, says his palms turned in appeal. âThis world must change. This situation must change.
In fact, a lot has changed since Donald Trump imposed the sanctions on Caracas and recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as president. His explicit goal of removing Maduro from office has failed. Today, Guaido is marginalized, Venezuelans suffer more than ever and Maduro remains firmly in power. âI am here in this presidential palace! he notes.
However, there was little of the one thing urgently needed to end the Western Hemisphere’s worst humanitarian catastrophe: the compromise – of Maduro, of his opposition, of Washington.
Maduro hopes an agreement to ease sanctions will open the floodgates to foreign investment, create jobs and reduce poverty. It might even secure his legacy as the torchbearer of Chavismo, the hallmark of left-wing nationalism in Venezuela.
âVenezuela will become the land of opportunity,â he said. âI call on American investors not to be left behind.
In recent months, Democrats including Gregory Meeks, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. 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, waits for a sign that the Biden administration is ready to negotiate.
âThere hasn’t been a single positive sign,â he says. “Nothing.”
A sudden turnaround seems unlikely. With broad congressional support, the Trump administration cited Venezuela for human rights violations, rigged elections, drug trafficking, bribery and currency manipulation. The sanctions he imposed on Maduro, his wife, dozens of officials and state-owned companies remain in place. While Biden’s policy of restoring democracy with âfree and fair electionsâ is particularly different from Trump’s, the United States still considers Guaido Venezuela’s legitimate leader.
Maduro gave up some ground. In recent weeks, he has moved six leaders – including five US citizens – from prison to house arrest, granted the political opposition two of the five seats on the council responsible for national elections, and allowed the World Food Program to enter. 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 itâs time for winner-take-all politics to end.
âThere are people on Maduroâs side who also have noticed that the existential conflict isnât good for their positions, because thereâs no way the country is going to recover economically,â he says, taking time out from a visit to the impoverished Valles del Tuy region outside Caracas. âI imagine the government is under heavy internal pressure.â
Venezuelaâs 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.
âWhen Chavez came into power, there were four steps you had to take to export a container of chocolate,â Jorge Redmond, chief executive officer of family-run Chocolates El Rey, explainsÂ at his sales office in the Caracas neighborhood of La Urbina. âToday there are 90 steps, and there are 19 ministries involved.â
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 â 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, âNo Water.â 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-manâs 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 countryâs export revenue has been wiped out.
All the while, Maduro was working backwards, trying to start negotiations with the United States. He sent his foreign minister to a meeting at Trump Tower in New York and his brother, then communications minister, to a meeting in Mexico City.
Maduro says he almost had a one-on-one with Trump himself at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2018. The White House, he recalls, called to make arrangements, but broke up the contact. Maduro blames the foreign policy hawks in Trump’s orbit, many of whom are enslaved to Venezuelan expats in Florida.
âThe pressures were unbearable for him,â he said. âIf we had met, the story might be different.
A former bus driver and union leader, Maduro has proven to be an accomplished survivor. He defeated his rivals to cement control of the United Sociality Party after Chavez’s death in 2013, withstood the attacks of 2018 and 2019, and outlived Trump.
Guaido, who worked closely with the US campaign to oust Maduro, was forced to shift strategy from regime change to negotiations.
“I support any effort to organize free and fair elections,” Guaido said at his makeshift offices east of Caracas, surrounded by unofficial, state-by-state counts of Covid-19 cases. “Venezuela is exhausted, not just 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 up to 90 minutes, he appears on state television to detonate the âeconomic blockadeâ and swear his bondage to popular power. Populist theatricality conveys a carefully scripted narrative: Venezuela’s sovereignty, dignity and right to self-determination are violated by the immoral abuse of financial power.
During the interview, Maduro insists he won’t budge if the United States continues to point a proverbial weapon at his head. Any request for a change in domestic policy is a âgame overâ.
âWe would become a colony, we would become a protectorate,â he said. “No country in the world – no country, let alone Venezuela – is ready to kneel down and betray its heritage.”
The reality, as any Venezuelan knows, is that Maduro has already been forced to make significant concessions. Guided by Vice-President Delcy Rodriguez and her advisor Patricio Rivera, former Ecuadorian Minister of the Economy, he removed price controls, reduced subsidies, abandoned restrictions on imports, let the bolivar float freely against the dollar. and created incentives for private investment.
Rural areas continue to suffer, but in Caracas the impact has been dramatic. Customers no longer have to pay with stacks of tickets and the far from bare supermarket aisles are often crowded.
Maduro even passed 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, barely the makings of Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution. Maduro replies that they are tools of a “war economy”. Of course, dollarization has been “a useful escape valve” for consumers and businesses, but it and other reluctant nods to capitalism are temporary.
“Sooner or later, the bolivar will once again occupy a strong and preponderant role in the economic and commercial life of the country,” he said.
Not so long ago, the United States viewed Venezuela as a strategic ally. Exxon Mobil Corp., ConocoPhillips and Chevron Corp. held significant stakes in the country’s oil industry, and refineries in Texas and Louisiana were re-equipped to process heavy crude from the Orinoco Belt. Wealthy Venezuelans traveled to Miami so often that they spoke of it as a second home.
All that changed when Chavez was elected in 1998. He expropriated billions of dollars in US oil assets and forged alliances with socialists in Cuba, Bolivia and Ecuador.
Maduro went further, embracing Washington’s most menacing enemies. He calls the relationship with Russia “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 has hopes for a win-win deal.
Guests of the VIP lounge at Simon Bolivar International Airport recalled Venezuela’s new friendships. Three clocks mounted in a vertical row indicated the time in Caracas, Moscow and Beijing.
Asked in the interview what they mean, Maduro replies that “the world of the future is in Asia”. But an idea crosses his mind. Perhaps, he said, there should also be clocks for New Delhi, Madrid and New York.
The following afternoon, there are in fact six clocks on the living room wall. In this country, Maduro is still all-powerful.
Except for one thing: like so many others in Venezuela, the clocks don’t work.