When Colombia’s newly elected president Gustavo Petro arrived at Venezuela’s presidential palace to a red-carpet welcome, it was his host who had the most reason to smile.
Petro — Colombia’s first leftist president — was the first leader of a major Latin American nation to visit Nicolás Maduro in four years. It was the first time in six years that leaders of neighbouring Colombia and Venezuela had met.
Maduro — like Petro, dressed in white — said that the two countries “share a destiny”. Petro, meanwhile, described the rupture in relations as “suicidal” for both governments.
Maduro, a socialist strongman who has presided over a collapse in the oil-rich country’s economy, was persona non-grata in much of Latin America, where most governments in 2019 joined the US-led coalition that recognised opposition leader and congressional president Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president.
Now, as countries across Latin America eject incumbents and choose leftist leaders, incoming governments are acknowledging the failure of the US-backed “interim government” to achieve its objective of regime change, and moving to recognise Maduro in some form.
“There’s a signal across Latin America that countries can change their Venezuela policy, and that’s partly because the strategy towards the Maduro regime has stalled,” said Nastassja Rojas, a Venezuelan professor of political science at the Javeriana University in Bogotá, Colombia.
Rojas added that while the Guaidó policy did not achieve regime change, the surrounding international pressure heralded international investigations into Maduro’s human rights record.
As the region grapples with a dire economic outlook — exacerbated by the Ukraine war and its effects on worldwide energy markets — governments are increasingly accommodating towards Maduro and the oil supply he wields. Venezuela boasts the world’s largest proven oil reserves and used to pump 3mn barrels a day — but US sanctions, years of mismanagement and the expulsion of foreign companies have crippled production.
In the past week, the leftist government in Honduras also moved away from the US-led policy, naming an ambassador to Caracas and restoring relations that were broken off in 2019.
Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, less than 24 hours after winning Sunday’s vote, spoke with Maduro, suggesting his government will follow suit when the veteran leftist returns to the presidential palace in January. President Jair Bolsonaro has been one of Maduro’s fiercest critics in the region and warned Brazilians that Lula would turn their country into “another Venezuela” if he won.
“Imagine a Petro, Lula and Maduro summit,” goaded Diosdado Cabello, one of Maduro’s most combative lieutenants at a press conference on Monday. “It will give a lot of people hives.”
Chile’s Gabriel Boric has been an exception and has criticised the left for remaining quiet on human rights abuses in Venezuela.
Venezuela remains mired in political and economic turmoil. Inflation is soaring at more than 300 per cent, Bloomberg estimated on Tuesday, potentially undermining a recovery from the rampant hyperinflation that dogged the past few years. The IMF has forecast that real GDP will grow 6 per cent this year and 6.5 per cent in 2023 as it starts to climb back from economic collapse.
Blackouts and shortages of basic goods are a daily reality for those who have remained in the country. More than 7mn people have voted with their feet and fled the country, with upwards of 2mn residing in Colombia.
Amid the humanitarian disaster, Maduro has clamped down on dissent. Mass protests in 2019 were met with a crackdown, with dozens killed and hundreds arrested. A UN fact-finding mission in September concluded that Venezuelan intelligence services committed systematic abuses, while the International Criminal Court has opened an investigation into Maduro for crimes against humanity.
Maduro was accused of stealing re-election in 2018, ultimately leading the US to back Guaidó as the head of an “interim government” in the hope of triggering Maduro’s downfall, despite the leader holding no real power inside Venezuela. Members of the opposition are now seeking to end the “interim government” and change leadership.
The White House is also looking for a way to unravel the knot tied by the Trump administration in 2019 when it levied sanctions on oil exports, further crippling Venezuela’s economy.
The state department has said that it will relax sanctions if Maduro returns to negotiations with the Venezuelan opposition in Mexico and takes steps towards free elections. Such a deal could pave the way for Chevron to ramp up operations at its joint ventures with Venezuelan state-owned PDVSA.
Last month, Venezuela released seven detained Americans, including an energy executive, in a prisoner swap for two of Maduro’s family members convicted in the US on drugs charges.
Ned Price, a spokesperson for the state department, said at a briefing on Wednesday that the US respected the rights of governments to chart their own foreign policy. “We also call on democratic governments to uphold the democratic norms that have been broken by authoritarian regimes like Maduro’s in Venezuela.”
Michael Shifter, a senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue, a think-tank in Washington, questioned whether governments in Latin America and Washington will be able to keep pressure on Maduro over political and humanitarian issues while working with him on economic policies.
“To succeed will require sophisticated diplomacy, the right measure of principle and pragmatism, which, sadly, has lately been in short supply.”