Did we just lose an enemy? After harshly sanctioning Venezuela for years, the United States has suddenly changed course. “Maximum pressure” is over. Reconciliation and compromise are the new bywords. Eager to find new sources of oil, we’re finally acknowledging two truths: Venezuela does not threaten us, and our efforts to depose its leftist government have failed.
For years the United States has piled economic sanctions on Venezuela. They were first imposed during the presidency of Hugo Chavez, an anti-imperialist firebrand who once told the United Nations General Assembly that President George W. Bush was “the devil.” Since Chavez died in 2013 and was replaced by Nicolás Maduro, we have intensified our sanctions. President Obama declared them necessary because Venezuela — bankrupt, without a functioning navy, and more than 1,000 miles from our shores — posed an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”
After Maduro won dubious reelection in 2019, the US State Department announced that we no longer recognized him and would henceforth consider an opposition congressman, Juan Guaidó, to be Venezuela’s true president. We cajoled more than 50 countries into recognizing this nonexistent government. The Justice Department then accused Maduro of narco-terrorism, described him as “former president of Venezuela,” and offered $15 million for information leading to his capture.
In 2020 “President” Guaidó enjoyed a hero’s welcome in Washington. He was given a bipartisan ovation at the State of the Union ceremony. President Trump embraced his “righteous battle for freedom.” Meanwhile, sanctions on Venezuela were tightened yet again. Economic collapse plunged millions of Venezuelans into poverty and set off a flood of migration. A squad of 60 armed men, including two Americans with military backgrounds, was intercepted while trying to storm a beach near Caracas, hoping to stage a coup. Nothing worked. Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, later wrote that the frustrated president “began blaming me for the opposition’s failure to overthrow Maduro.”
In recent weeks, without explicitly crossing Venezuela off our enemies list, we have stealthily moved it into the category of a potential oil supplier. President Biden made a forthright calculation. The United States is determined to stop importing oil from Russia and wants other countries to do the same. To avoid destabilizing the global market, Biden must find replacement suppliers.
The obvious place to look was Saudi Arabia, but when Biden asked the Saudis to increase oil production, they did the opposite. Iran has plenty of extra oil, but geopolitics makes trade with Iran impossible. It was only a matter of time before our gaze fell on Venezuela, which has the world’s largest proven petroleum reserves. Years of sanctions and decay have rusted its refineries. Last month the US Treasury Department issued a license to an American oil company — Chevron — allowing it to work in Venezuela. American banks will also release $3 billion in frozen Venezuelan assets.
The money will be used to pay for food and other aid for poor Venezuelans, in a program administered by the United Nations. This arrangement emerged from talks between the Venezuelan government and opposition figures. They reached a comparable agreement five years ago, brokered by Spain, but the United States scuttled it. We were still in no-negotiation mode and wanted the opposition to settle for nothing less than regime change. Now we’re pushing them in the opposite direction. It’s a welcome return to diplomacy, even if the underlying reason is lust for oil.
This climb-down teaches several lessons. One is the danger of exaggerating threats; we may have reason to dislike Maduro’s regime but not to fear it. Another lesson is that populations made miserable by sanctions generally do not rebel against their leaders; on the contrary, hungry people are often apolitical and preoccupied with survival. Third, we don’t weaken foreign leaders by demonizing them; instead, we often turn them into nationalist heroes at home. Fourth, regional politics affects our foreign policy; until recently we counted on anti-Maduro leaders in Brazil and Colombia to help keep him isolated, but leftists who sympathize with Maduro have recently won presidential elections in both those countries, so isolation is now less of an option than ever. Finally, wise foreign policy is always shaped by national interest rather than emotion; abandoning our unsuccessful campaign against Venezuela makes transactional sense because that could bring us a resource — oil — that we need.
Bashing Venezuela has been part of the foreign policy catechism in Washington for a generation. It was always an odd passion, more suited to the days of the Monroe Doctrine and the Cold War than to today. Some of it stems from our long history of slapping down defiant governments in Latin America. Yet our back-and-forth with Venezuela also reflects a central contradiction in Western foreign policy.
During World War II President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill promised that after the war, the West would “respect the right of all peoples to choose the government under which they will live.” Since then, however, Western powers have lashed out repeatedly when other countries chose governments we disliked. This impulse pushed the United States and Venezuela into conflict. Both countries now seem to have concluded that pragmatic interest dictates reconciliation. Diplomacy may work where sanctions failed.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.