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Maduro has only himself to blame for Venezuela's plight

Venezuela's strongman sounds desperate. In an interview with Bloomberg News, Nicolas Maduro pleads with U.S. President Joe Biden to lift the crippling sanctions on his country imposed by former President Donald Trump.

"If Venezuela can't produce oil and sell it, can't produce and sell its gold, can't produce and sell its bauxite, can't produce iron, etcetera, and can't earn revenue in the international market, how is it supposed to pay the holders of Venezuelan bonds?" he said. "This world has to change. This situation has to change."

It's tempting to concede his point. Trump's policies − imposing sanctions, attempting to get humanitarian aid directly to Venezuelan citizens and recognizing the head of Venezuela's legislature as its interim president − have not produced free and fair elections.

At the same time, it's important to remember that Venezuela's economy was in free fall before the U.S. imposed sanctions. Indeed, the hyperinflation and collapse of the oil sector has more to do with the socialist policies and the corruption of the Maduro regime than with the economic penalties imposed on it for stealing the 2018 election.

There is a fundamental flaw in Maduro's effort to persuade Biden to loosen the sanctions on his country: The root cause of Venezuela's misery is Maduro himself. He chose to pack his country's Supreme Court after the opposition routed his ruling party in 2015 legislative elections. Maduro's cronies on that court chose to effectively dissolve and replace the national assembly in 2017. The political and economic crisis in Venezuela is Maduro's doing.

Now Maduro is hoping that a few cosmetic concessions will be enough to get Biden to rethink U.S. policy. These include moving six oil executives (five of whom are U.S. citizens) from prison to house arrest; offering the opposition two seats on a five-man electoral council; and allowing the U.N. World Food Program to resume its operations inside the country.

Biden has so far ignored these moves, and rightfully so. The executives should have never been imprisoned in the first place; Maduro's decision to move them to house arrest proves that Venezuela's courts are not independent. Maduro's loyalists will still have a majority on the electoral council. And allowing humanitarian aid is the absolute least any national leader can do.

Nonetheless, Maduro's desperation can be tested. If he is truly interested in attracting foreign investment from the West, he can always agree to the initial conditions set by the Trump administration: Allow free and fair elections for the presidency. As recently as two years ago, his delegates walked away from talks to set conditions for such a contest.

A good move for Biden would be to put that 2019 offer to Maduro again. If he wants to see sanctions eased, he should allow for free and fair elections.

In the meantime, Biden should keep an eye on provincial and local elections in Venezuela scheduled for November. As Bloomberg News reports, the opposition appears split on whether it should participate. Biden should make clear that whatever Maduro decides on these contests, they are no substitute for submitting to a real democratic process to determine the next president.

Maduro has always had the power to ease the economic pain being inflicted on Venezuela. So far, however, he has chosen his own survival over that of his country.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy.




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