It is always dangerous to negotiate with a dictator, because his only goal is to remain in power. And he will do everything to do that. Everything.
That’s why it’s a bad idea for the United States to negotiate with dictator Nicolás Maduro to buy Venezuelan oil. The gains would be minimal and short term. How far can the U.S. price of gasoline drop? And the consequences for the more than 28 million Venezuelans would be enormous: more repression, less freedom and the shrinkage of a possible democratic solution.
On March 8, U.S. President Joe Biden banned all oil and gas imports from Russia. It was a powerful sanction for its invasion of Ukraine. That means the United States will stop importing about 600,000 barrels of oil from Russia every day. And that, of course, will drive up gasoline prices.
That’s bad news for the Biden administration, already facing the worst inflation in 40 years. But urgency and quick gains make for bad decisions. The United States is looking to counterbalance the loss of those 600,000 barrels. And in doing that, it made the mistake of looking to Venezuela.
A US delegation traveled to Caracas to meet with Maduro early this month and, according to a Reuters news report quoting five sources, discussed the possible lifting of US sanctions on Venezuelan oil. Neither Maduro nor the White House confirmed that report, and it appears they did not reach an immediate agreement. But shortly after that meeting, Venezuela freed two of the eight U.S. citizens jailed there since 2017. All the hostages – ALL! – must be freed immediately.
After years of tensions and mutual accusations between the United States and Venezuela, the Biden administration’s approach to Maduro is obvious. Keep in mind that U.S. sanctions and pressures on the Maduro dictatorship are designed to promote a democratic change and protect, as far as possible, respect for human rights.
The Maduro dictatorship is brutal. Nearly 6 million Venezuelans have left their country because of the violence, lack of security and shortages of food and medicines, according to the United Nations agency for refugees. Last year, there were 348 political prisoners, according to the organization Foro Penal. Censorship is nearly total, and the last elections were manipulated by the government.
It makes to sense to move away from one dictator and move closer to another.
Maduro is the perfect definition of a tyrant. And that’s the dictator Biden has approached. The Hispanic members of Congress in Washington are seldom in agreement. But in this case, Democrats and Republicans agreed that it was a grave ethical and foreign policy mistake to look for Venezuelan oil because of the war in Ukraine.
“The democratic aspirations of the Venezuelan people, like the courage of the Ukrainian people … are worth more than a few thousand barrels of oil,” said Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey. And Rep. Mario Diaz Balart, a Florida Republican, was even tougher. “There are two options here,” he said. “Either President Biden and his administration – and I want to be respectful here –are real idiots or they are betraying the cause of freedom in Venezuela.”
The Biden administration’s initial approach to Venezuela has been criticized so much that even White House spokesperson showed some healthy distance from it. She insisted during a news conference that the United States does not recognize Maduro as a legitimate president and told journalists that she would not pay much attention to the possibility of importing Venezuelan oil “at this time.”
But the question remains. If the United States does not recognize Maduro as president, why did three senior Biden government officials go to Caracas? The arepas in Miami are as good as the ones in Venezuela. They didn’t have to go that far.
What Maduro wants is very clear: for the United States to recognize him as the legitimate president of Venezuela. “We have an oil business relationship with the United States going back 100 years,” said Venezuelan Foreign Minister Felix Plasencia. “We didn’t force them out of the business. They left, to impose coercive sanctions. Now they want to come back. Well, if they accept that the only and legitimate government of Venezuela is the one led by President Nicolas Maduro, the U.S. and European oil companies are welcome back.”
But neither the United States nor Europe should recognize Maduro as president. Not for all the oil in Venezuela. He is, simply, a tyrant. At a time when the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, has shown us the importance of moral leadership during a crisis, the United States cannot give in to the temptation to negotiate with a dictator for oil and sacrifice the future of millions of Venezuelans. We cannot forget that for the Venezuelan opposition, the United States plays a fundamental role in pushing for a democratic solution. Is President Biden really ready to sacrifice the future of Venezuela to cut a few cents off the price of gasoline?
Sadly, after the U.S. delegation visited Caracas, we heard everywhere the famous phrase of Lord Palmerston about national interests: “England has no eternal friends, England has no perpetual enemies, England has only eternal and perpetual interests.”
The United States still has time to correct its path. A dictator is a dictator. And despite the enormous pressures brought on by the war in Ukraine, you can’t criticize one dictator while negotiating with another in darkness. Even in war there is a moral line that should never be crossed.