A possible Hollywood moment on the Venezuela-Colombia border this week failed to follow the script.
Venezuela´s oil minister Manuel Quevedo posed for photographs in Riyadh yesterday, just a couple of weeks after turning up at a conference outside New Delhi. Shaking hands with Indian oilmen and rubbing elbows with dignitaries from Opec, China and Russia at the International Energy Forum — it´s all part of the government’s campaign to show that Caracas is not alone, and Nicolas Maduro is the man in charge.
One might say that appearances are deceiving. US sanctions on Venezuela´s national oil company PdV have closed off the country´s main oil market and shut down its access to US products. Crude production is cratering because there is little naphtha for blending with Venezuela´s extra-heavy crude. Gasoline and diesel are running low.
PdV is hobbling along all the same. The US sanctions have no direct effect on third parties. Companies from India, China and Spain are still buying Venezuelan crude and stepping in to supply the products that no longer come from the US. Naturally, PdV has lost negotiating leverage, and the products it´s managing to secure are lower quality than before. But the company is coping by maximizing domestic crude blending to offset the loss of naphtha, and sharply rationing gasoline and diesel for transport and power generation. Bear in mind, Venezuela´s devastated economy has left fewer fuel tanks to fill.
Venezuela’s president is in survival mode too. Most western countries have spurned Maduro in favor of opposition leader Juan Guaidó. Backed by a hawkish White House, many Latin American countries and well-heeled exiles abroad, Guaidó declared a public oath of office on the streets of Caracas on 23 January, instantly emerging as the opposition’s best chance to unseat Maduro after years of false starts. He quickly named ambassadors and even appointed a board to PdV´s US refining subsidiary Citgo to make sure it won´t fall into the hands of creditors.
Then came February 23, the day Guaidó vowed to bring desperately needed humanitarian aid into Venezuela “sí o sí”. The day before, he boldly slipped into Colombia for an exuberant aid concert in the Colombian border city of Cucuta, from which the food and medical supplies would be delivered into Venezuela the next morning, grateful national guards ceding the way.
It might have been a Hollywood moment: Dashing young hero defies a tyrant, delivering succor to his desperate people. In reality the aid — mostly provided by the US — was meant to crack the resistance of the military that still supports Maduro. Instead, the whole episode turned into a horror show of violence. According to the script in many minds, that was when Washington was supposed to burst onto the stage, turning the words “all options are on the table” into cruise missiles or even the diaspora´s fantasy of an outright invasion.
That was never going to happen. The opposition either miscalculated the odds of sparking an internal revolt, or oversold the case to White House hawks looking for a quick win with an electoral bonus. There is no appetite in Washington to take up another fight for regime change, if only because no one wants the gargantuan task of rebuilding Venezuela. White House attention has since shifted to North Korea and the looming release of a report on Robert Mueller’s Russia probe. Some critics are already starting to call Venezuela the next Syria.
Guaidó is now in Brasilia for a meeting with tough-talking Jair Bolsonaro. He vows that the political transition is unstoppable, and is promising to return to Venezuela in a matter of days, perhaps from his next stop in the EU. Like Leopoldo Lopez and other opposition predecessors, he risks arrest — or worse. There is no sign that Washington would see this as a red line. Even close ally Colombia, the most vulnerable to Venezuela´s maelstrom, is not entirely sure the US has its back.
As for Maduro, he fulfilled his pledge of blocking the aid that he said was a Trojan horse for US intervention. And with the tense borders now closed, he got a free hand to crush resistance, with armed gangs at the forefront of the latest crackdown. PdV is in the throes of a purge.
Yesterday Maduro blithely kicked off Carnival season, promising to keep revelers happy and safe. On his insouciant sojourn, oil minister Quevedo sent the message that Maduro’s Venezuela is a safe bet too.