Has Biden already cut a deal with Venezuela's Maduro?

(AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

Earlier this week we looked at a couple of recent reports suggesting that Venezuelan tyrant Nicolas Maduro was reaching out to American diplomats in an effort to cut a deal with the Biden administration. We know that there have been some third-party talks going on in the background, including meetings taken by people including former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. At the time, I raised the possibility that a deal might already be in the works, but there hadn’t been any concrete signs to confirm that. As of last night, we may have gotten our first indication that the wheels are turning for better or worse. Maduro has moved six American hostages from prison and transferred them to house arrest. All six are executives from CITGO. (Associated Press)

Six American oil executives jailed in Venezuela more than three years ago on corruption charges were granted house arrest on Friday in a gesture of goodwill toward the Biden administration as it reviews its policy toward the politically turbulent South American country.

The partial release of the six employees of Houston-based Citgo was confirmed to The Associated Press by lawyers and family members of the men.

Tomeu Vadell, Jose Luis Zambrano, Alirio Zambrano, Jorge Toledo, Gustavo Cardenas and Jose Pereira were hauled away by masked security agents while at a meeting in Caracas just before Thanksgiving in 2017. They had been lured to Venezuela in order to attend a meeting at the headquarters of Citgo’s parent, state-run oil giant PDVSA.

These six oil executives (who all have dual citizenship) have been pawns in Maduro’s geopolitical games for several years. Their initial arrests were an obvious scam and they have basically served as hostages since then. They were released to house arrest once before in 2019, only to be hauled back to prison after Donald Trump announced his recognition of Juan Guaido as the rightful leader of the country.

The main question at this point is whether this was done because Joe Biden has already agreed to some concessions for Venezuela such as the removal of some sanctions on its oil industry or if this is just a case of Maduro throwing out some goodies to see if that will bring Biden to the table. Either is possible. Strangely enough, when I wrote about this issue earlier in the week, I suggested two things that Maduro could do to try to show some good faith. One was the immediate release of all American hostages and the other was to schedule a new round of elections with extensive international supervision.

This move by Maduro doesn’t really fit the description of either, but it’s at least a bit of progress. There are three other American hostages still being held in cells, all of whom are former American Marines. And the six oil executives haven’t actually been “released” yet, though house arrest is no doubt an improvement over their previous conditions. Assuming there was no formal deal in place, what, if anything, should Joe Biden do to continue this process?

I suppose the lifting of some sanctions wouldn’t upset me too badly if we were getting anything concrete in return. But if that happens, then the full release of all nine of the hostages should follow immediately. It’s not as if the sanctions have been all that effective to begin with because the Russians and the Chinese have been helping Maduro get around them anyway. It would be more of a symbolic gesture than anything else, and that sort of symbolism is precisely what Maduro is seeking more than anything else. He very much craves international recognition as the rightful leader of Venezuela and the freedom to travel in those circles.

Speaking of Russia, the sanctions on Venezuela’s largely collapsed oil industry aren’t all that impactful as things stand because the Russians now own a controlling interest in Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A.(PDVSA), the state-run oil and natural gas company. And the Chinese have still been sending in tankers to support Venezuelan oil exports in violation of various international sanctions.

I still don’t expect Maduro to schedule a new round of elections any time soon because that would be a tacit admission that the last elections were fraudulent. If we were to ask anything else of the tyrant at this point it should probably be to kick the Russian military and paramilitary units out of the country. Of course, that would undercut Marduro’s own power base, so that seems unlikely. On top of that, I’m not sure Maduro actually has the muscle to make Russia leave at this point. Venezuela has become more of a collapsed puppet-nation than anything else.