On Saturday, March 5, a group of high-level U.S. officials embarked on a high-profile visit to Caracas to meet with Venezuela’s de facto leader Nicolás Maduro, as well as relevant figures in Venezuela’s opposition. The visit included at least three officials from the Biden administration: presidential advisor Juan Gonzalez, U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela Jimmy Story, and Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens. While little is known about the delegation’s agenda, press reports suggest that they met with Nicolás Maduro, First Lady Cilia Flores, and National Assembly leader and head of the government negotiating team Jorge Rodríguez, and spoke separately with Juan Guaidó and chief opposition negotiator Gerardo Blyde. The delegation also reportedly visited El Helicoide prison, where several U.S. citizens are detained. The visit to Venezuela was the first by a high-level delegation of U.S. officials in nearly six years.
Following the officials’ visit to Caracas, there were two important developments: During a televised address on March 7, Maduro announced that he would return to dialogue with the opposition, a move which has been welcomed and publicly encouraged by the Biden administration. The following day, the Maduro government released two U.S. citizens previously detained in Venezuela, Gustavo Cárdenas and Jorge Alberto Fernández, who have since been reunited with their families in the U.S.
Early reports suggested that the purpose of the visit was to isolate Venezuela from longtime ally Russia and pursue options to alleviate sanctions on Venezuelan oil amid Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine. In the days following the visit, however, the Biden administration has said that sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector will not be lifted until meaningful progress is made at the negotiating table between the Maduro government and the Unitary Platform in the framework of the Mexico City dialogue, which has been suspended since October. In an interview on March 13, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated that “any sanctions relief that we provide, as was true in the last administration and is true in this administration, has to be tied to concrete steps that Maduro and the people around him take.” And following speculation that the release of the two U.S. citizens was linked to a broader arrangement to alleviate sanctions on Venezuela, an administration official said in a press call on March 9 that “on the issue of quid pro quo, there was none…at no point was there an offer for oil in exchange for the detention of Americans.”
The visit has met criticism from both Democratic and Republican members of Congress. Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez (D-NJ) swiftly issued a statement on March 7 opposing any agreement to permit the importations of Venezuelan oil to the United States. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) repeatedly attacked the Biden administration over the visit and over the potential return to negotiations, later proposing a bill in the Senate which would prohibit the importation of oil products from Venezuela and Iran. On March 10, a group of Democratic Representatives from Florida sent a public letter to President Biden in which they opposed easing oil sanctions on Venezuela “absent meaningful change,” and expressed support for the potential return to negotiations in Mexico City.
Reactions from other actors in the U.S. and internationally, however, have been less critical and more open to the prospect of negotiations. Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Gregory Meeks (D-NY) issued a statement on March 9 congratulating the Biden administration on the release of the two U.S. citizens, and describing the visit as “a real opportunity to advance meaningful negotiations between President Maduro and the opposition.” Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) issued a statement applauding the release of the detained Americans, while making no mention at all of U.S. sanctions. Juan Guaidó published a statement reiterating the opposition’s disposition to return to the negotiating table, emphasizing that U.S. sanctions should be conditioned on advances made in the context of negotiations, and urging for the immediate release of the more than 200 political prisoners in Venezuela. A UN spokesperson also welcomed the recent messages from Maduro and the opposition indicating their intention to return to negotiations.
- On February 19, a group of more than 100 activists and regional politicians announced their resignation from Voluntad Popular, the opposition party of which Juan Guaidó is a member. The group issued a statement citing political divisions and differences in party strategy as the reasons for their mass resignation.
- Following an opposition victory in the governor’s race in Barinas state in January, on February 12 Juan Guaidó rallied hundreds of protesters in Caracas as he called for unity and early presidential elections. The opposition protest was one of the largest such gatherings in years, though it was outnumbered by a pro-government protest elsewhere in the city. Turnout was representative of waning support for Juan Guaidó, whose public approval has dropped to under 15 percent, according to Venezuelan polling firm Datanalisis.
- On February 22, the EU electoral observation mission to Venezuela published its final report and recommendations after accompanying the November 21 regional elections. The final report offered 23 recommendations emphasizing issues including the need to reinforce judicial independence and the autonomy of the National Electoral Council, and criticizing arbitrary disqualifications of candidates and censorship on the media. The EU observation mission published its preliminary report shortly after the elections on November 23.
- Russia has reportedly increased diplomatic efforts to secure the support of Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba for the Russian government amid its invasion of Ukraine. Venezuela’s Vice President Delcy Rodríguez and Foreign Minister Felix Plasencia met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Turkey on March 10, after which Rodríguez reiterated support for Venezuela’s “bilateral strategic relations” with Russia and regarded Lavrov as a “good friend.” Venezuela notably was one of 13 countries that abstained from voting on a March 4 UN Human Rights Council resolution to create a commission to investigate human rights violations committed during Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.
- On March 3, President Biden issued a notice extending the U.S. declaration of a national emergency in Venezuela under Executive Order 13692, issued in 2015, for an additional year, citing the continued threat to U.S. foreign policy and national security posed by the situation in Venezuela.
- Following legislative elections in Colombia on March 13, this week, Jorge Rodríguez, President of the National Assembly elected in a widely-questioned 2020 vote, announced that Venezuela will renew engagement with a bilateral commission with Colombia once its new Congress is inaugurated.
- In February, the Colombian government canceled the legal citizenship status of approximately 43,000 Venezuelans in the country without warning, following a review by Colombia’s National Registrar of citizenship applications processed in the past 10 years. Those who have had their ID cards canceled now cannot carry out many daily activities or access public services in the country, and face bureaucratic obstacles, as well as potential detention and deportation.
- On February 24, Governor of Bolivar state Ángel Marcano announced that Venezuela would reopen its border with Brazil and normalize its social and economic relationship with the country, nearly two years after closing the border due to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- In his first press conference as President of Chile, Gabriel Boric, who assumed office on March 11, proposed that Chile and regional governments adopt a quota system to accept Venezuelan migrants and refugees, akin to that adopted by the European Union amid the Syrian refugee crisis. Boric emphasized the need for regional multilateral cooperation and solidarity with Venezuelan migrants.
- On February 17, Costa Rica announced that it would begin to impose a visa requirement for Venezuelans traveling to the country. The move comes less than a month after Mexico imposed a similar visa requirement for Venezuelans, and amid the increasing militarization of borders in Peru and Chile to curb the flow of Venezuelan migrants and refugees.
- Following a contentious battle in Texas courts, on March 12 the CDC issued an order that would exempt unaccompanied migrant children from the Trump-era Title 42 policy, which limits the right to seek asylum under the pretense of curbing the spread of COVID-19. Single adults and migrant families will continue to be subject to detention and deportation under Title 42.
- After Mexico imposed a new visa requirement for Venezuela on January 21, arrivals of Venezuelan nationals to the U.S. border have decreased significantly. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the number of Venezuelans apprehended at the U.S. Southern border dropped to 3,072 in February, down from 22,779 in January.
- Thousands of Venezuelan migrants and refugees have reportedly returned to Venezuela, as the economic collapse and hyperinflation has begun to stabilize in Caracas, and as they face growing xenophobia and financial challenges in their host countries.
- On February 21, the Democratic Initiative of Spain and the Americas (IDEAS) issued a statement condemning “the systematic violations of the freedom of expression” under Nicolás Maduro following a series of public attacks on El Nacional by Socialist party vice president Diosdado Cabello, and a court-ordered transfer of El Nacional’s headquarters in Caracas to Cabello on February 7. Following the seizure of the El Nacional office, Venezuelan NGO Espacio Público reported that the websites of three Venezuelan digital news sources, Crónica Uno, Efecto Cocuyo, and EVTV, as well as that of El Nacional, had been temporarily blocked.
- This week, the Center for Defenders and Justice (CDJ) published a report documenting the various threats and challenges facing human rights defenders in Venezuela, and providing guidance for human rights defenders to learn about and exercise their rights as defined under international law.
- In February, the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict (OVCS) published its annual report, in which it documented a total of 6,560 protests over the course of 2021, representing an average of 18 daily demonstrations, and a decrease from the 9,633 protests reported in 2020. OVCS documents that 74 percent of the protests reported in 2021 were related to demands for basic economic, social, cultural and environmental rights amid the ongoing humanitarian emergency.
- In its latest report on criminalization of civil society, Red de Justicia Libertad documented a total of 44 violations of civil and political rights against civil society in the Llanos and Andes regions of Venezuela between November 2021 and January 2022. The report documents that criminalization of humanitarian and human rights actors by the state security forces was pronounced during this trimester.
- On March 6, Venezuela’s Public Health Minister announced that 69 tons of medicine and surgical equipment were delivered to the country from China.
- On February 22, Nicolás Maduro stated in a televised meeting that 102 percent of Venezuela’s population over 18 has been fully vaccinated for COVID-19, sparking considerable doubts about the government’s official reporting on COVID-19 statistics. As of March 16, PAHO reports that 49.8 percent of Venezuela’s population has been fully vaccinated, and an additional 27.4 percent have received only the first dose.
- A recent study by the University of Tübingen in Germany demonstrates that official statistics on COVID-19 deaths in Venezuela are “inconsistent” and have likely been manipulated, as they do not coincide with reported waves of COVID-19 infections and appear to be an underestimate considering the country’s severely deteriorated healthcare infrastructure.