A Sidelined Venezuelan Opposition is Deeply Divided Over U.S. Sanctions

As we finally come face-to-face with the ghost of sanction relief, let’s see where do the different factions of the Venezuelan opposition stand in the matter... and what is their actual sphere of influence

Photo: Juan Barreto / AFP

After months of foreplay in the press, the negotiations between the Maduro government and the opposition in Mexico appear bound to restart soon. Gerardo Blyde–the chief negotiator of the Unity Platform, composed of delegates from the mainstream opposition parties, including Guaidó’s–tweeted today that they were working with the United States to achieve “specific actions” to incentivize the return to negotiations in Mexico. As mentioned in the Caracas Chronicles Political Risk Report, Blyde was looking to claim prior knowledge and tacit approval of a recent development that he failed to mention in his tweet: shortly before posting it, the United States updated the list of sanctioned individuals to exclude Carlos Malpica Flores–First Lady Cilia Flores’ nephew and “business manager” of the presidential couple.

By removing Malpica Flores from the list, the US delivered on the remaining concession promised to Maduro in exchange for the latter to restart talks with the opposition, following months of reports and the first high-level visit to Caracas by U.S. officials in years.

The U.S., enduring an energy crisis, has sought to allow oil companies to export Venezuelan oil in exchange for negotiations that will guarantee free presidential elections in 2024.

Yet, the lukewarm rapprochement between the United States and Venezuela has also opened new rifts in an already highly fractionalized opposition, as publicly asking for sanctions lifting in mainline opposition circles “was taboo” before the U.S. visit in March. Guillermo Tell Aveledo, one of Venezuela’s leading political scientists, says that “in private it was something already being criticized [by some] since at least 2019.” Now, once Pandora’s sanction box has been cracked open, a complex debate over the very existence of sanctions has surfaced.

Since the debate is as diverse as the multiple factions that nominally oppose Maduro, ideology is no longer helpful to determine who supports what. For example, Movimiento Al Socialismo—a minor formerly Chavista-turned-loyal opposition leftist party—maintains an anti-sanctions position. Meanwhile, the leader of La Causa R—opposition labor and environmental party formed by unionists from the dilapidated industrial south of Venezuela—has called the anti-sanctions position “an insanity.” Even Venezuela’s only Roman Catholic cardinal has joined the debate, supporting the pro-sanction position.

One end of the debate—known by their 25-signatories letter asking Biden to ease sanctions—is led by a group of opposition-leaning journalists, economists, and politicians that are now openly critical of U.S. sanctions, accusing them of exacerbating the humanitarian crisis afflicting Venezuelans.

Some figures of the mainstream opposition have supported this position. For example, Jesús “Chúo” Torrealba, an activist and former Secretary General of the opposition’s electoral coalition. Henrique Capriles, an opposition leader who ran against Chávez in 2012 and against Maduro in 2013, has also embraced the signatories of the letter—which include José Guerra, a congressman associated with Capriles’ Primero Justicia—and openly supported sanction-lifting because “the country needs income.”

Nevertheless, discrepancies also exist within those that are skeptical of sanctions. While Capriles has supported sanction-lifting for economic reasons, Francisco Rodriguez, a former chief economist at a Wall Street broker-dealer specialized in Pdvsa bonds who signed the anti-sanctions letter, believes sanctions should be used to ensure funds for an Oil-for-Food humanitarian program. Nevertheless, the possibilities of the Maduro regime accepting an independent program remain daunting. “If economic sanctions were simply lifted and Maduro were able to export oil again to the U.S., his government would have unhindered access to the funds thus generated, which he could funnel to corruption or use for repression”, he says.

Meanwhile, the other end of the debate—the pro-sanctions factions of the opposition— are mostly skeptical of any sort of sanctions lifting or easing.  For María Corina Machado, a former congresswoman and leader of the minor center-right party Vente, “it’s absolutely incomprehensible” that while the U.S. sanctions Russia, it eases sanctions on a Russian ally in the Americas. “The regime got what it wanted before sitting on the [negotiation] table,” she says, mentioning there’s been fourteen failed negotiation rounds in the past, “It’s another episode in the same terms.”

Machado was amongst 68 individuals who wrote a counter-letter asking for sanctions to be “kept and deepened” and stronger political pressure to restore democracy in Venezuela. In the negotiation table, “the regime will defend the interests of the regime, the Russians the interests of Russia and the Americans the interests of the United States,” she says.

“The question is: who’s defending the interests of Venezuelans?”

For Machado, sanctions encircle “a system that has kidnapped Venezuela and loots it to maintain power and expand its criminal activities.” Disagreeing with those who believe sanctions affected the oil industry, Machado says the collapse of Venezuela’s oil industry is the result of “the regime sacking [18,000] oil workers, taking control of private maintenance companies and converting PDVSA into an instrument of crime and money laundering.” 

The discrepancies within the sanctions debate have also turned upside down the usual friendships and rivalries within the opposition.  While Machado has been one of the most vocal critics of Juan Guaidó, their factions coincide in their support of sanctions. “Sanctions do work, and they are a tool to continue pressuring Maduro and force a serious negotiation,” recently said Leopoldo López, a mayor-turned-political prisoner who fled into exile and leads Voluntad Popular, the social democratic party that weights much influence in Guaidó’s “interim government.”

“They are asking for sanctions to be lifted for a regime that has wasted and stolen more than $500 billion,” says opposition congresswoman Olivia Lozano, a member of Voluntad Popular, “as long as there is no rule of law and an institutional control of [public] spending, no income will be used for the welfare of Venezuelans.”

Lozano notes that while the Maduro government blames sanctions for Venezuela’s impoverishment, it canceled in April the debt of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines—a country with a GDP per capita three times bigger than Venezuela’s. For her, sanctions should only be lifted if the Maduro regime “takes firm steps towards institutional restoration and the rescue of our democracy.”

The debate has also engulfed civil society. COFAVIC—one of Venezuela’s first human rights groups—released a statement criticizing the anti-sanctions faction. “The State’s obligations of Truth, Justice and Reparation cannot be minimized or impounded,” the communique read. “Human rights are not subdued to the will of minorities or majorities, they can’t be exchanged,” the statement read, indirectly referring to a survey made by openly anti-sanctions pollster Luis Vicente León, which stated that more than 70% of Venezuelans opposed sectorial sanctions.

“If the reasons that gave origin to the sanctions haven’t stopped, how are you going to ask for them to be lifted?” says Ligia Bolívar, the coordinator of Alerta Venezuela—a coalition of five local human rights groups, “A [sanctions] lifting cannot be a blank check. There has to be clear and unequivocal signals that there really is a willingness to respect human rights.”

Research results on the effects of sanctions on Venezuela have been mixed. While the economic collapse of Venezuela had been ongoing years before sanctions, its autocratic government has blamed the crisis on a “criminal blockade” by the U.S. For instance, an analysis by Ricardo Haussman—a prominent Venezuelan economist at Harvard—and research fellow Frank Muci found that “by the time sanctions were imposed, Venezuela had already slashed imports of food and medicine by more than 80%” and its oil production was already on freefall, following “a sustained decline” due to corruption and mismanagement. On the other hand, a U.S. Congress agency concluded that sanctions had caused obstacles for humanitarian organizations assisting Venezuelans.

Nevertheless, a 2021 study by Anova Policy Research—a Caracas-based think tank led by Venezuelan former IDB economist Omar Zambrano—concluded that while sanctions had contributed to the decline of oil production, they also led to a rise of food and medicine imports and a drop in their decline rates. “There’s no evidence that [sanctions] had a negative effect on food and medicine imports,” the study concluded, arguing that the effect of sanctions on Venezuela’s oil money inflow had forced Maduro to liberalize the economy and allow imports.

Such varied results have supported the different positions. “You do remember that before sanctions we didn’t have food?” tweeted Carlos Peláez, a Caracas-based Venezuelan botanist, echoing Anova’s study. “If sanctions had any effect in the Venezuelan economy, it was the immediate reduction of [food and medicine] shortages,” says Machado.

Nevertheless, the debate highlights the crisis the Venezuelan opposition is living domestically. While Maduro remains extremely unpopular, the approval of most opposition leaders—anti and pro-sanctions alike—has also plummeted in the last two years. While the opposition was once almost unanimously united in supporting a then highly popular Guaidó, the consensus has been increasingly falling apart for years. “The popularity of the [Guaidó] interim government dwindled because they didn’t manage to oust Nicolás Maduro, they didn’t answer to what they promised,” says Pablo Andrés Quintero, a political scientist and consultant, “There’s physical and emotional burnout. The high expectations did a lot of damage to people’s illusions of change.”

In fact, most figures associated with Guaidó’s government—to which the Biden administration has reassured its support—and all the major opposition parties, now discredited, have been absent from public discussions on the matter.

While sanction lifting has been slow because of Chavismo’s stubbornness, such as demanding the replacement of Norway with Russia as the negotiation’s mediator, “the multiple [internal] criterions and agendas make it impossible for the opposition to organize around one strategy. All the [political] actors think of ousting Maduro in a different way,” says Quintero.

“In light of a lack of uniformity, coherence and coordination it will be very difficult for the opposition to get rid of the [Maduro] government.”

As varied and complex as it is, the internal debate of the opposition over sanctions has barely any effect on U.S. policies towards the Maduro regime and the Mexico negotiations. While the U.S. depends on opposition parties and civil society groups “in their narrative and discourse,” says Quintero, these groups “aren’t determinant to sanction lifting or decision making.”

While the debate might have some minor influence in U.S. considerations or diagnoses, Chavismo understands that sanctions must be dealt with the United States as the opposition—divided, exhausted, with no influence on the Armed Forces and partly co-opted—“has nothing to offer,” says Quintero. Nevertheless, the Unitary Platform in Mexico—supported by the United States—has the duty to appear grandiloquent.

Still, as Blyde’s statement shows, the opposition can be “an instrument to generate dialogue.” Although it may not be key to ensuring real change. “The game opened a geopolitical space, it’s no longer a purely local issue,” says Quintero, “There are now many more interests here—like those of the United States, Russia, and Turkey—that have more weight than the opposition.”

Tony Frangie Mawad

Tony (1997) is one of Caracas Chronicles' editors, where he writes since 2016. He graduated in Journalism and Political Science from Boston University in 2021. Since then, he has written at Bloomberg, The Economist, Politico and others.