Venezuelan Elections Amidst U.S. Sanctions: Balancing Democracy and Diplomacy

María José Mera Medina
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Woman protesting against Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela 2014
A woman takes part in a demonstration against the government of Nicolás Maduro in Caracas (Venezuela). Source (Flickr).

As tensions escalate between the United States and Venezuela ahead of the country’s upcoming presidential elections in July, the delicate balance between democracy and diplomacy is under scrutiny. Last year, the US government took steps to alleviate diplomatic tensions by easing sanctions against Venezuela, aiming to foster dialogue between the government and opposition parties to address pressing economic concerns.

However, recent events have re-ignited diplomatic friction, raising concerns about the fairness and transparency of the electoral process and prompting the US government to reimpose sanctions on Venezuela.

The Backdrop of Diplomatic Strain: US-Venezuela Relations Leading to Sanctions

Venezuela has long been the target of a diverse array of sanctions imposed by the US government, primarily focused on restricting access to the US financial system and penalizing individuals deemed by US authorities to have violated human rights or undermined democratic processes within the Latin American nation. These sanctions were initially introduced during the presidency of George W. Bush, and have persisted through subsequent administrations to the present day. Moreover, in addition to the mentioned measures, these sanctions have been extended to address issues such as drug trafficking, visa restrictions, terrorism, and corruption.

Among the most recent sanctions levied against Venezuela by the US government, before April 2024, occurred during the Trump administration in January 2019. The Secretary determined that “Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, PdVSA, warranted sanctions. This led to the freezing of all property and interests owned by PdVSA, subjecting it to US jurisdiction and prohibiting transactions with US individuals and companies”.

Additionally, sanctions were imposed on Venezuela’s Central Bank, the National Development Bank, and the state-owned gold company; Minerven. Moreover, sanctions targeted individuals and entities perceived to support the Maduro government, alongside the seizure of vessels transporting Venezuelan oil.

PdVSA oil refinery
The price of Venezuelan oil has risen again and closed the week at $50 per barrel. Source (Diario Las Américas)

Recent Diplomatic Initiatives: Easing Tensions and Facilitating Dialogue

Despite the strained relationship between the US and Venezuelan administrations, there have been notable shifts in diplomatic approaches. Following the transition from President Trump to President Biden, the Biden administration initiated a re-orientation of diplomatic relations with the Maduro government in 2019. This involved gradually issuing amended licenses permitting certain transactions between the two nations, to facilitate negotiations for democratic elections in Venezuela.

One significant development occurred in May 2022 when discussions regarding future operations with PdVSA involving Chevron, the only American energy company in Venezuelan territory, was allowed. Subsequently, after a series of negotiations, Chevron resumed its production and commercial activities in Venezuela in November 2022. This marked a crucial step towards fostering dialogue and cooperation between the two nations.

One year later, the outcome of those negotiations materialized in the signing of the Barbados Agreement in October 2023. This agreement, endorsed by the Maduro government and representatives of the opposition firstly, aimed to promote political engagement by lifting restrictions on political participation and ensuring freedom of expression and assembly for all candidates. Secondly, it sought to uphold the integrity of the electoral process by addressing concerns about the credibility of the electoral system.

Delegates for the negotiations of the government, Jorge Rodríguez (left) and the opposition in Venezuela,Gerardo Blyde (center)  sign one of the two partial agreements signed in Barbados. October 2023
The ‘thorny points’ of the Barbados agreement on Venezuela: disqualifications, political prisoners, sanctions, and risks. Source (Voz de América)

Exclusion of Opposition Candidates: Electoral Controversy Surrounding Maduro’s Government

Following the signing of the Barbados Agreement, Venezuela’s Supreme Justice Tribunal recently made a divisive ruling, upholding a 15-year ban preventing presidential candidate Maria Corina Machado from holding office. Machado, who secured victory in the opposition’s independently-run presidential primary with over 90 per cent of the votes in October, now finds her candidacy for the upcoming presidential elections slated for the latter half of 2024 in jeopardy.

The tribunal’s ruling, which coincides with the detention of three of Machado’s allies on conspiracy charges, underscores the escalating tensions between President Nicolas Maduro’s government and the political opposition. Citing findings of Machado’s alleged support for US sanctions, involvement in corruption, and financial losses of Venezuela’s foreign assets, including US-based oil refiner Citgo and Colombian chemicals company Monomeros, the court maintained its stance on the ban.

Biden Administrations Response

The 15-year ban on Machado’s candidacy was perceived by the Biden administration as a failure to comply with the Barbados agreement, raising concerns about electoral manipulation and the harassment of political opponents. Consequently, the administration decided not to extend the sanctions relief granted in October 2023. Instead, the US re-imposed the sanctions initially imposed by the Trump administration in 2019 following Maduro’s re-election victory, targeting Venezuela’s gold mining, oil, and gas sectors. This action was taken on April 18th 2024. The decision was prompted by Maduro’s government’s refusal to reverse Machado’s ban, and the ongoing detention of activists and the allies of the opposition in recent months.

Despite the decision, Washington emphasizes that these events shouldn’t be taken as a signal of a complete loss of faith in Venezuela’s ability to conduct fair and inclusive elections that re-affirms their ongoing commitment to dialogue with Maduro’s representatives.

Presidential candidate María Corina Machado
María Corina Machado: “I am not the candidate of the Unitary Platform, not even of Vente, I am the candidate of the Venezuelans.” Source (Twitter)

Navigating Economic Turbulence, Diplomatic Intricacies, and Global Geopolitical Shifts

The recent re-introduction of sanctions for Venezuela has stirred apprehensions about its economic stability and humanitarian well-being, echoing past instances of punitive measures. As these sanctions take effect, Venezuela anticipates a substantial impact on its fuel sales, while US oil firms operating in the country navigate the complexities of obtaining special permissions. In the event US administration does not provide sufficient individual authorizations, Venezuela’s state-owned oil entity, PDVSA, may resort to unconventional channels to market its oil at reduced rates, primarily directing its efforts towards the Asian market.

Additionally, Venezuela’s recent decision to halt deportation flights from the United States and Mexico has thrust the Biden administration’s management of the ongoing migrant influx into the spotlight once again. This sudden policy shift, implemented in January 2024, highlights the intricate challenges surrounding enforcement strategies amidst diplomatic strains and geopolitical tensions. Venezuela’s decision to annul an agreement forged last October, amidst the backdrop of looming US threats of economic sanctions, which have now materialized into a reality, alongside escalating geopolitical discord, further complicates the already strained relations between the two nations.

Venezuela’s mass migration crisis, stemming from its economic collapse and humanitarian struggles, looms large as a critical challenge to regional stability in Latin America. While neighboring nations extend aid to immigrants, the sheer influx strains public services and labor markets, posing a threat to the region’s delicate equilibrium. Amidst Venezuela’s dire circumstances, millions seek refuge in countries like Colombia, Peru and Brazil. Underscoring the urgent call for regional collaboration to tackle this pressing issue and uphold stability across Latin America.

As the migration crisis persists, the Biden administration finds itself under increasing pressure to navigate these complex dynamics while crafting comprehensive strategies that balance enforcement priorities with humanitarian concerns. Enhanced cooperation with regional partners becomes paramount to prevent further exacerbation of the crisis and effectively address the challenges at hand.

Demonstrators at the White House expressed opposing views on US intervention in Venezuela March 2019
Increasing Struggle for Human Rights in Venezuela. Source( Green

Looking Ahead: Navigating Uncertainty in US-Venezuela Relations

As the date for Venezuela’s presidential elections draws near, questions loom large over the future trajectory of US-Venezuela relations amidst recent diplomatic upheavals. Against the backdrop of escalating tensions, the delicate interplay between democracy and diplomacy takes center stage, with implications reverberating far beyond national borders.

The upcoming elections slated for July 2024, unfold against a backdrop of renewed diplomatic friction between the United States and Venezuela. Despite initial attempts to thaw relations by easing sanctions and fostering dialogue, recent events have reignited tensions, prompting the re-imposition of sanctions by the US government. With concerns mounting over the fairness and transparency of the electoral process, the delicate balance between democracy and diplomacy hangs in the balance.

As the diplomatic saga unfolds, the implications of these developments extend beyond bilateral relations to impact regional stability and global geopolitics. Venezuela’s alliances with global powers like Russia and China come under scrutiny, as they navigate the complex web of international relations within US sanctions. Against this backdrop, the need for a coordinated and multilateral approach to address the challenges posed by Venezuela’s presidential elections becomes increasingly urgent.


  1. As geopolitical dynamics continue to shift, what role will global powers like Russia and China play in influencing the trajectory of US-Venezuela relations, and how might this impact regional stability in Latin America?
  2. Looking ahead, what innovative diplomatic strategies and collaborative initiatives could international actors employ to address the causes of Venezuela’s economic turmoil and humanitarian crisis, while promoting democratic values and fostering long-term stability?
  3. In an increasingly interconnected world, what role will digital diplomacy and virtual platforms play in shaping public discourse, facilitating international negotiations, and building consensus on key issues affecting US-Venezuela relations?

Suggested readings:

“Venezuela’s Maduro broke a promise on elections. The U.S. must respond”. The Washington Post. February 15, 2024.

Ramsey, Geoff. “U.S. Policy on Venezuela Is Converging”. Foreign Policy. April 11, 2024

Buschülter, Vanessa. “Venezuelan opposition denounces ‘intimidation’ attempts”. BBC. January 24, 2024.

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Venezuelan Elections Amid…

by María José Mera Medina time to read: 6 min