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Wednesday, June 7, 2023

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Venezuela’s dictator is less isolated than he used to be

Aregional leaders At the elaborate inauguration of Colombia’s first leftist president in Bogotá on August 7, one figure stood out by his absence. The outgoing conservative president, Iván Duque, is using his last remaining powers to ensure that. He banned Nicolás Maduro, the dictator of neighboring Venezuela, from setting foot on Colombian soil until the moment Gustavo Petro was sworn in. So Mr Maduro stayed at home, acting as a TV presenter, standing in front of a big screen in his palace, commenting on Bogotá as the events in Colombia unfolded.

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Missing the ceremony did not dampen Mr. Maduro’s enthusiasm for the political change sweeping Colombia, America’s staunchest ally in the region. Like many tyrants, Mr Maduro cheers democracy when it gets his way. “A new era is coming,” he tweeted shortly after his June victory by guerrilla-turned-senator Petro. The leftist Mr Petro has pledged to ease his country’s frosty relationship with Venezuela. First, he said he would restore diplomatic ties that had been broken since 2019.

But Mr Maduro’s euphoria isn’t just based on Colombia’s left leaning. He seems to think that left-wing elections such as Chile’s Gabriel Boric and Peru’s Pedro Castillo will undermine the movement to isolate his regime. Meanwhile, the U.S. appears too worried about oil shortages to keep up the pressure on the regime. All of this will help make the Venezuelan president less of a pariah in the region. Even the right-wing government has quietly accepted Mr Maduro (pictured) to stay.

The irony is that the wily Mr Maduro may have benefited from the rise of the left’s leader, while he has actually hindered it. After boosting socialist movements across Latin America in its heyday, Venezuela has become a political headache for leftists trying to get elected. On the campaign trail, conservatives have painted Venezuela’s pain as waiting for voters to support the left. Candidates often end up caught between centrist allies they need to support effectively in order to govern effectively, and radical elements in their base who still worship Mr Maduro’s regime.

This may be why Mr Petro, who acknowledges the “dictatorship” of the Venezuelan regime, did not mention Venezuela in his inaugural speech and may proceed very cautiously. Relations between Colombia and Venezuela have been fractured since 2019, when Mr Duque and much of the West recognized Venezuela’s National Assembly leader Juan Guaido as the country’s legitimate leader and demanded Mr Maduro step down. Mr Duque, a US-friendly technocrat, became the main backer of Mr Guaido’s long but fruitless power bid.

Nevertheless, there is still a lot of room for cooperation. One obvious step is the reopening of the 2,200-kilometer (1,400-mile) border between the two countries. Since 2015, most vehicles have been impassable; almost all border crossings and trade are carried out on foot. This has been disastrous for livelihoods in what was once South America’s busiest border region. Trade worth $7 billion in 2008 shrank to just $142 million in the first four months of this year. Fernando Grajales, who makes jeans in the Venezuelan border town of Ureña, said production is only 10% of what it was in 2015, and 80% of the town’s clothing companies have closed. “We want to have Colombian consumers here,” he said.

Many of the 1.7 million Venezuelans who have immigrated to Colombia as refugees in recent years have been less enthusiastic about détente. Since Venezuela’s economic crisis deepened in 2014, one in five people, or about 6 million people, has fled Venezuela. Some worry that Mr Petro’s interventionist instincts will send their new home down a familiar path of destruction. “We know how the movie ends,” lamented Jorge Moreno, a young engineer who moved to Bogota from Venezuela four years ago. Others worried include members of the Venezuelan opposition, which have made Bogotá their headquarters since 2019. Some may choose to leave the country.

Larger geopolitical events further disturbed Mr Maduro’s enemies: the war in Ukraine and the US’s subsequent search for alternatives to Russian oil. President Biden has had to reassess his relationship with Venezuela, which has the world’s largest proven oil reserves but whose state oil company, pdvsa, under the pressure of sanctions. Mr. Biden has sent negotiators to Venezuela twice this year. Officials insisted the talks were aimed at launching negotiations with the opposition and the release of American prisoners, two of whom returned home after their first visit in March.

Yet the U.S. appears ready to let Venezuelan oil flow. In June, two European oil companies were granted pdvsa– the first such approval in two years. Chevron, a Western energy company still in Venezuela, is said to be working on a deal with Venezuela to ship oil from its joint venture. pdvsa directly to the US, after pdvsa Reduce its stake to just under 50%. Venezuelan economist and anti-sanctions activist Francisco Rodríguez said that for the Biden administration, such an obscure plan could “reduce the political cost” of dealing with tyrants by lowering oil prices.

Mr. Biden is unlikely to formally accept Mr. Maduro as the legitimate leader of Venezuela, let alone give him the punch he did with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. But the quest for cheap oil isn’t the only reason for the U.S. to ease its grip on the Venezuelan government. It also does not want to strain relations with the region’s growing leftist government by asking them to ostracize Mr Maduro.

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