Venezuela opp talks highlight strengthened Maduro position

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro gestures while delivering a press conference at a polling station in Simon Rodriguez school in Fuerte Tiuna, Caracas, on Aug 8, 2021 during the Socialist United Party of Venezuela (PSUV) primary elections to choose candidates ahead of the November's mayor and governor election. (FEDERICO PARRA / AFP)

CARACAS Venezuela's socialist President Nicolas Maduro will enter upcoming talks with the South American country's opposition in a strengthened position that could be bolstered further by a deal to release more than $3 billion in humanitarian funds, analysts said.

Government and opposition delegates met on Saturday in Mexico City after more than a one-year pause, and in renewed negotiations the parties signed a "social agreement" aimed at creating a United Nations-administered humanitarian fund.

The government needs funds to spend and to show that they're managing ahead of the election

US oil company Chevron Corp also received an expanded license on Saturday, allowing it to resume oil production in the OPEC nation and bring Venezuelan crude to the United States.

READ MORE: Venezuela confirms US decision to ease oil sanctions

These moves will allow Maduro's administration to argue that it is stabilizing the country whose economy has suffered from years of turmoil worsened by US sanctions. The opposition, meanwhile, has struggled to recover from the exile and imprisonment of some of its leaders, as well as internal divisions, according to analysts.

"Politically, Maduro has been strengthening both internally and externally for some time … the maximum pressure strategy has not worked. Everything (the agreement and license) is happening within that context" of strength, said Crisis Group analyst, Phil Gunson.

In 2019, Washington strengthened oil and financial sanctions on Venezuela as a way to pressure Maduro, whose re-election the year before was widely considered fraudulent. The United States also joined other countries in supporting the opposition leader, Juan Guaido, in an interim government.

READ MORE: Venezuela's Guaido vows protests as Oslo talks produce no deal

Maduro, who has retained staunch backing from the military, has managed to circumvent some of the sanctions. Still, 72 percent of Venezuelans view his administration negatively, according to an October poll by Datanalisis.

Under pressure from the international community, the government and opposition sat down for talks in August 2021. But Venezuela suspended the dialog few days later after Colombian businessman Alex Saab, a close ally of Maduro, was extradited to the United States on money laundering charges.

Maduro had demanded the removal of all sanctions, among other conditions, to resume the talks but ultimately greenlighted them after the Chevron license was granted although most US sanctions remained in place.

The opposition has said it hopes the talks will bring improved guarantees for the upcoming presidential elections, expected to happen in 2023 or 2024.

In the upcoming negotiations, "the government is the strongest actor, but it needs (international) recognition and money," said Benigno Alarcón, director of the Center for Political and Government Studies at Caracas' Andres Bello Catholic University.

The UN administered fund could receive around $3 billion and its use could coincide with the upcoming elections, boosting the government on the economic front even if it has no direct control over how the funds will be spent.

"The economic and social issue will be fundamental for a good result in the elections. As long as the programs help to strengthen the very delicate social and economic situation, it will obviously help the Maduro government to clean up its image," said economist and professor Leonardo Vera.

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With Venezuela's economy showing signs of improvement following the easing of currency controls and dollarization, poverty has been reduced to 50 percent from as high as 65 percent at the height of the crisis, but income inequality has worsened, according to the Survey of Living Conditions, as wages fail to keep up with an annual inflation rate of 155 percent.

"The government needs funds to spend and to show that they're managing ahead of the election", said Enderson Sequera, director of local consultancy Politiks. With the agreement, "the government wins, and the opposition's benefits remain to be seen," he added.

The head of the opposition delegation, Gerardo Blyde, said in an interview on Monday that the tough stage of the negotiations, in which political and human rights issues would be addressed, would soon follow.

Maduro's willingness to make political concessions looms as a key issue, given doubts about whether he would actually agree to changes that could hand power over to the opposition, analysts say.

"If Maduro does not make political concessions, any gains in terms of his international standing will be lost," the Crisis Group's Gunson said.