Venezuela Pledges Small Steps Toward Fair Elections Next Year

The government of President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela and the country’s opposition resumed talks on Tuesday designed to move toward free and fair elections, though the agreement that was announced fell short of what human rights activists and the U.S. government are ultimately seeking.

Hopes were high that, as part of the agreement, Mr. Maduro would allow opposition candidates already disqualified by his government to participate in the 2024 presidential vote in exchange for the lifting of sanctions on Venezuela’s vital oil industry.

Doing so would be a critical move toward a credible race, given that the front-runner in an opposition primary election set for Sunday, María Corina Machado, is barred from running in the general election.

But the agreements signed on Tuesday, during a ceremony on the Caribbean island of Barbados, were vague. While they included commitments to allow international election observers and access to the news media in 2024, there were few other concrete promises. Experts say it is unlikely that the United States will lift sanctions if Ms. Machado is not allowed to run.

“We are going toward the supreme objective of lifting the sanctions,” said Jorge Rodríguez, the president of Venezuela’s legislature, at the ceremony. But “if you received an administrative disqualification,” he added, “then you cannot be a candidate.”

Even before an official announcement, some Venezuela experts expressed skepticism that the agreement would lead to real political change.

“It’s a minimalist deal that will not lead to free and fair elections,” said Phil Gunson, an analyst with International Crisis Group who lives in the country’s capital, Caracas. But he said, it “is the best available in the circumstances. It allows Maduro to hang on to power unless something really dramatic happens. Baby steps, really.”

He added, “The Maduro government has a history of failing to abide by agreements it signs.”

Mr. Maduro came to power in 2013, after the death of President Hugo Chávez, the founder of the country’s socialist-inspired revolution. Under Mr. Maduro, Venezuela, once among the richest countries in Latin America, has witnessed an extraordinary economic decline, leading to a humanitarian crisis that has caused widespread migration.

President Nicolás Maduro claimed victory in a 2018 election widely viewed as fraudulent and that led to stricter U.S. sanctions.Credit…Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

More than seven million Venezuelans have fled the country of roughly 28 million people, and in recent years, hundreds of thousands have begun trekking by foot to the United States.

Mr. Maduro claimed victory in a 2018 election widely viewed as fraudulent. In response, the U.S. government significantly tightened sanctions on the country’s oil industry, Venezuela’s key source of revenue, a move that exacerbated the economic crisis and isolated Mr. Maduro from much of the world.

To help the economy, Mr. Maduro needs sanctions to be lifted. At the same time, the opposition wants him to set competitive conditions for the next presidential election that would give it a legitimate shot at winning.

The two sides, however, have been at an impasse over how to achieve these goals, and Mr. Maduro has seemed unwilling to do anything he believes would risk his grip on power.

In November, as a sign of its openness to lifting sanctions in exchange for ensuring fair elections, the United States granted the oil company Chevron a license for a limited expansion of energy operations in Venezuela, a small step toward the country’s possible re-entry into the international oil market.

The Biden administration is under pressure to ensure that oil prices remain stable going into next year’s presidential election. The threat of a broader conflict in the Middle East combined with ongoing disruptions to Russian energy exports threaten to fan another episode of inflation and potentially cause gasoline prices to rise in the coming months.

But even after lifting sanctions, it would still take years and billions of dollars of investment to increase oil production enough to lower prices, said Francisco Monaldi, an expert on Venezuelan energy at Rice University in Houston.

He said the Biden administration was most likely motivated more by trying to stem the flow of Venezuelan migrants to the U.S.-Mexico border than by driving down oil prices in the short term.

Mr. Maduro’s government is being investigated by the International Criminal Court for possible crimes against humanity committed since 2017, including torture and persecution on political grounds.

Isayen Herrera, Bianca Padró Ocasio and Alan Rappeport contributed reporting.

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