First Venezuelans Sent Back Under New U.S. Policy Arrive in Caracas

The United States, marking an end to a four-year suspension of returning Venezuelan migrants home, sent its first deportation flight to Caracas on Wednesday, with 127 people on board.

Later in the day, the Biden administration announced it would lift some of the sanctions on Venezuela in the oil and gas sectors.

The deportation flight from Harlingen, Texas, and the limited sanctions relief came a day after the administration of President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela and the opposition announced in Barbados that they had made tentative steps toward free and fair elections.

A senior U.S. administration official said easing some of the sanctions was a result of the partial agreement signed on Tuesday. The official was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity during a phone call with reporters on Wednesday evening.

It is unclear if the Biden’s administration’s promise of sanctions relief also included Mr. Maduro agreeing to accept Venezuelans deported back to his country.

Another deportation flight is scheduled to leave on Saturday, according to a U.S. official familiar with the strategy who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal plans.

The resumption of deportations is unusual because the United States and Venezuela do not have diplomatic relations, even as the Biden administration has shown that it wants to have more engagement with the authoritarian government than the administration of former President Donald J. Trump did.

Dozens of uniformed police and intelligence agents descended on Simón Bolívar Airport in Caracas on Wednesday afternoon waiting for the private charter flight, but declined to offer any details about the arrival.

Some of the officers were from the police homicide unit, which was there to determine whether any of the deportees were wanted for crimes, an official there told reporters. Police vehicles lined up outside the airport, and the head of the nation’s immigration agency arrived to inspect the operation himself.

No families appeared to be at the airport waiting for the passengers, and reporters gathered at the terminal were not given access to the arriving Venezuelans.

Deportees — considered “traitors of the revolution” — would likely face serious obstacles back home, including finding work, said Patricia Andrade, the founder of Venezuela Awareness Foundation, a human rights organization in Miami, who testifies for Venezuelan immigrants applying for political asylum.

“The Biden administration stabbed these people in the back,” Ms. Andrade said.

More than 500,000 Venezuelans have crossed the southern U.S. border in the past three years, as the economy cratered and political conditions there worsened, U.S. immigration data shows.

In 2019, the Trump administration suspended air transportation between the United States and Venezuela, citing conditions in the country, such as civil unrest, that threatened the safety of passengers, aircraft and crew.

On Oct. 10, the Biden administration asked for a limited exemption to the suspension in order to carry out deportation flights.

These flights were “urgently needed” to secure American borders and protect “the integrity of its immigration system,” according to a letter to the Transportation Department from Blas Nuñez-Neto, the assistant secretary for border and immigration policy at the Homeland Security Department.

The increase in migration from Venezuela is straining immigration systems throughout the hemisphere, including those of the United States, Mr. Nuñez-Neto wrote.

The request followed several significant migration developments in September, including the apprehension of about 50,000 Venezuelans who had crossed the southern U.S. border illegally.

The continuing influx was leading to mounting pressure on President Biden from Democratic mayors in cities where migrants — many of them Venezuelan — were straining local resources.

And a potential roadblock for deportation was removed when Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey and a vocal opponent of deporting Venezuelan migrants, stepped down from his powerful post as head of the Foreign Relations Committee after the Justice Department accused him of conspiring to act as an agent of Egypt.

While Venezuela and the United States do not officially have diplomatic relations, there has been some progress. Last year, Venezuela released American hostages, and weeks later, the United States granted Chevron a license for a limited expansion of energy operations in Venezuela, signaling the possible beginning of the country’s re-entry into the international oil market.

The recent sanctions relief is not likely to have an immediate impact on global oil supplies, though it is a positive development for Mr. Maduro in an election year.

A woman in shackles was patted down before boarding the plane.Credit…Veronica G. Cardenas/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But the deportation arrangement is an even bigger step, because it involves the Biden administration and the Maduro government working together and often.

Officials from both countries have to coordinate departure and arrival times. Venezuelan officials have to provide travel documentation for the citizens who will be deported. And American officials will be on the flights to hand over the migrants to Venezuelan officials when they land.

“What’s interesting about it is that we’re negotiating with a government that we don’t have diplomatic relations with,” said Thomas A. Shannon Jr., a former career diplomat who was the third-highest ranking official in the State Department. “It will be very hard to maintain the fiction that you don’t have a relationship.”

Experts say regular interaction between the two governments on deportation flights helps to legitimize Mr. Maduro as the recognized president of Venezuela. He was re-elected to the presidency in 2018 in an election that is widely considered fraudulent.

The current agreement between the United States and Venezuela calls for a couple of deportation flights per week. But if the Biden administration sees a need to add more to stem illegal crossings, Mr. Maduro now has some bargaining power, said Christopher Sabatini, a senior research fellow for Latin America at the Chatham House, a research group in London.

Venezuelans have been mired in a severe economic crisis for a decade that has left store shelves empty and decimated the country’s health care and public school system. About one-fourth of the country’s population has abandoned Venezuela in recent years.

Living conditions have become so difficult there that the Biden administration offered temporary humanitarian protections to Venezuelans in 2021, and again a few weeks ago to nearly 500,000 Venezuelans who were in the United States by July 31.

The temporary protections were necessary, the Biden administration said, because “extraordinary and temporary conditions continue to prevent Venezuelan nationals from returning in safety.”

Just two weeks, later the administration announced the resumption of deportation flights, even though there has been no significant change in the humanitarian situation on the ground.

Administration officials have said that the United States already deports people to other troubled nations.

Isayen Herrera contributed reporting from Caracas, Venezuela, and Clifford Krauss from Mexico.

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