What to make of a high-level U.S. delegation that traveled to Venezuela to meet with the government of President Nicolás Maduro? The visit was initially posited as an opportunity to reset U.S.-Venezuela relations. The United States could assist in the recovery of Venezuela’s decimated petroleum industry, which possesses some of the largest reserves in the world, in exchange for reorienting their petroleum tap towards the United States.
It appears the Biden administration would rather engage the rogue regime in Caracas than consider increasing U.S. domestic production. This decision further damages the international credibility of the United States and can only be viewed as the latest example of foreign policy malpractice from an erratic, unserious Biden administration.
Let’s review: for more than a dozen years, the United States has imposed sanctions on Venezuela. Sanctions have spanned several U.S. administrations and were instigated by the regime’s lack of cooperation on narco-trafficking and counterterrorism, human rights abuses, corruption, and other anti-democratic behaviors.
Diplomatic relations were severed and the U.S. embassy shuttered in 2019 when the United States recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s lawful president. The Trump administration imposed heavy sanctions on Venezuela’s oil exports, virtually unplugging them from global financial markets, and brought charges against government officials to pressure Maduro to abdicate. He did not.
In 2019, Guaidó was recognized as the legitimate president by some 50 countries. While that recognition has diminished over time, the United States still “maintains diplomatic relations” with Guaidó, but the Biden administration did not meet with him during the visit.
Today on the Department of State webpage under its Wanted: Narcotics Reward Program targets, there are eight Venezuelans. The list includes Maduro, president of Venezuela’s Constituent National Assembly Diosdado Cabello Rondón, and an assortment of government and public security officials. The Maduro reward poster states he:
helped manage, and ultimately, lead the Cartel of the Suns, a Venezuelan drug-trafficking organization comprised of high-ranking Venezuelan officials, as he gained power in Venezuela in a corrupt and violent narco-terrorism conspiracy with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization. Maduro negotiated multi-ton shipments of FARC-produced cocaine; directed the Cartel of the Suns to provide military-grade weapons to the FARC and solicited assistance from FARC leadership in training an unsanctioned militia group that functioned…as an armed forces unit for the Cartel of the Suns… The U.S. is offering a REWARD OF UP TO $15 MILLION for information leading to the arrest and/or conviction.
The referenced Cartel of the Suns (“Cartel de los Soles” in Spanish) has been involved in drug trafficking in Venezuela since the 1990s. Cartel of the Suns is the literal translation, but Cartel de los Soles symbolizes high-ranking officer misconduct.
Soles are general officer insignias in Venezuela, like stars to American generals. Maduro is the titular head of Cartel of the Suns, but Rondón is the organizing force, its operational leader, and the actual power behind the cartel.
Cartel de los Soles comprises an inner circle of military and political officials involved not only in drug trafficking, but arms smuggling, human trafficking, and rampant economic corruption. Military cartel members provide security and logistics support at airports, checkpoints, and ports. They decide which shipments are fast-tracked and which are searched or seized, who gets a free pass and who gets detained.
The Soles represent unquestioned power and have unrestricted use of government resources to conduct their operations. They have callously overseen the Bolivarian diaspora.
Soaring inflation, record-high unemployment, outrageous prices for basic commodities, the crumbling of schools, hospitals, and national infrastructure, combined with soaring crime rates, have pushed nearly 20 percent of Venezuela’s population, nearly 6 million people, out of the country. For the Soles and their acolytes, however, life is good. There are well-stocked supermarkets, high-end stores filled with luxury goods, and fine restaurants.
Friends with our Enemies
While the Soles rule Venezuela with a maniacal hand, they have surrounded themselves with a rogue’s gallery of global malign actors. There are the Cubans, the Russians and Chinese, the Iranians, as well as Hezbollah and the FARC. China and Russia threw Venezuela a financial lifeline as Maduro sought billions in “loans for oil” agreements and other arrangements to stave off defaulting on bondholder debt.
Both were happy to aid a strategic ally that could serve as a spoiler to undercut U.S. interests in the region. The loans also ensured them an increased market share in Venezuela’s exports and a larger role in production of their abundant oil and natural gas endowment.
Russian investment in Venezuela tops $20 billion, with more than half in military hardware. They are key players in the Soles’ elaborate security and intelligence system. The Russians have complex business entanglements in Venezuela, but will subordinate them for geopolitical advantage.
The Chinese have sent hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance and security and surveillance equipment to Venezuela. Their interests center on petroleum exports, having their companies supplant competition in the petroleum service sector, and expanding their access and control of Venezuela’s vast coal, gold, iron ore, and bauxite deposits.
The Iranians barter crude oil for refined products, since Venezuela cannot meet its domestic gasoline demand and the Iranians also need to skirt U.S. sanctions. They continue to seek long-range missile sites in Venezuela. Hezbollah and the FARC are part of a transnational criminal network involved in narcotics and weapons trafficking whose terrorist activities should be especially worrisome for the United States given the porous nature of our border.
Oil experts point out that prior to the socialist government Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A., the Venezuelan state-owned oil and natural gas company, produced up to 3.5 million barrels per day. Today, estimates are around 600,000bpd, due primarily to the corruption and incompetence of the cartel’s administrators. The daily output gets divided between Cuba, Iran, Russia, China, and, strangely, India. Some experts believe it would take at least a year of dedicated and coordinated effort to increase petroleum outputs in Venezuela, but the political obstacles would be formidable.
It is hard to imagine what the Biden administration thought it could gain from this visit. They must know the Soles are proud members of the Global Pariahs Club. Caracas would have forwarded detailed reports to Havana, Moscow, and Beijing before the delegation even returned to the United States. It is almost certain their assessments found the U.S. position weak and the delegation feckless. While there are options for positive change in Venezuela, sending a few suits to Caracas is not one of them.
It would be interesting to know just how the discussions were advanced. Did the U.S. delegation mention any information gleaned from the interrogations of the two former Maduro confidants (one his personal money launderer and the other a former head of military intelligence) currently in U.S. custody facing a legion of felony charges and decades in jail? Did any of the Soles chronicle the large amount of intelligence picked up from friendly sources concerning President Biden’s son Hunter’s international activities? Sitting down with the Cartel of the Suns is no simple matter.
While the Biden administration will surely attempt to divert attention from this meeting and downplay its significance, it happened and that speaks volumes about their hubris and the vacuity of their policies.