U.S. Reimposes Oil Sanctions on Venezuela as Hopes Dim for Free Election

When the government of President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela and his country’s opposition signed an agreement in October to work toward free and fair elections this year, it was seen as a glimmer of hope after years of authoritarian rule and economic free fall.

The United States, as a sign of good will, temporarily lifted some of the economic sanctions that have crippled the country’s crucial oil industry.

But six months later, the Maduro government has made several moves that have dimmed the chances of legitimate elections, and a frustrated Biden administration on Wednesday announced that it was letting the sanctions relief expire.

The reinstatement of the penalties could carry significant consequences for the future of Venezuela’s democracy, for its economy and for migration in the region.

“Maduro and his representatives did not fully comply with the spirit or the letter of the agreement,” said a senior administration official who spoke with a group of journalists on background to discuss a sensitive diplomatic matter.

Another top official discussing the restored sanctions cited the “disqualification of candidates and parties on technicalities, and what we see as a continued pattern of harassment and repression against opposition figures and civil society.”

The sanctions relief will expire at midnight on Wednesday, but the official said there would a be a “45-day wind-down period for transactions related to the oil-and-gas sector operations” so that the expiration “does not provoke uncertainty in the global energy sector.”

The Venezuelan government did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But in a televised address on Monday, Mr. Maduro, anticipating that the sanctions would be restored, said, “We are not a gringo colony. Venezuela is going to continue its economic march.”

The United States has placed sanctions on some Venezuelan leaders for years, but the Trump administration tightened them significantly in 2019, after the United States accused Mr. Maduro of fraud in the last presidential election.

The move was meant to force the Maduro government from power, but Mr. Maduro has managed to retain his grip, even as the sanctions have led to economic misery for many Venezuelans.

Venezuelan oil imports to the United States — its biggest customer — have been effectively banned. Oil is Venezuela’s main source of export income, and the sanctions have dealt a devastating economic blow that has contributed to a mass exodus of Venezuelans.

The sanctions relief allowed Venezuela to sell its crude freely for a period of six months.

Mr. Maduro, who has been in power for 11 years, has long sought the lifting of sanctions, while the United States and its allies in the Venezuelan opposition have demanded that Mr. Maduro allow competitive elections that could give his political opponents a legitimate shot at winning.

While the agreement last year, signed in Barbados, was a significant step forward, many were skeptical that Mr. Maduro would ever allow an election with any real possibility that he might lose.

Just days after the agreement was signed, a former Venezuelan lawmaker, María Corina Machado, won a primary election with more than 90 percent of the vote. Her victory and a high turnout showed, according to experts, that she stood a strong chance of defeating Mr. Maduro in a free and fair election.

Since then, the Maduro government has put up more barriers to prevent the possibility of a competitive vote.

The country’s top court disqualified Ms. Machado in January over what the judges claimed were financial irregularities that occurred when she was a national legislator. Those types of disqualifications are a common tactic used by Mr. Maduro to keep strong competitors off the ballot.

Then the government, using technical electoral maneuvers, prevented an opposition coalition from putting forward another preferred candidate. The opposition was ultimately allowed to put forth a different candidate, Edmundo González, a former diplomat, but it is unclear is if his name will appear on the ballot in the July 28 election.

One opposition party was allowed to officially register another candidate: Manuel Rosales, the governor of the populous state of Zulia, whose candidacy is widely seen as rubber-stamped by Mr. Maduro, according to political analysts.

An unclassified U.S. intelligence report in February stated that Mr. Maduro was likely to win the election and remain in power “because of his control of state institutions that influence the electoral process and his willingness to exercise his power.”

While the Maduro administration had placed allies on Venezuela’s electoral council, the intelligence report said it was “also trying to avoid blatant voting fraud.”

Six of Ms. Machado’s campaign aides have been arrested and six more have gone into hiding since arrest warrants were issued against them. Men on motorbikes have attacked supporters at her events. Many Venezuelans living abroad have been unable to register to vote because of expensive and cumbersome requirements.

Now that sanctions have been reinstated, experts say it is unlikely the Venezuelan government will reconsider its antidemocratic actions.

The Maduro government does not “have any further reason to make more concessions or even maintain some of the concessions that they have made so far,” said Mariano de Alba, a senior adviser for International Crisis Group, a think tank. “So we could be walking toward a more uneven playing field on the electoral side.”

The move could also affect migration in the region.

Exhausted by years of economic struggle and a lack of freedoms, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have tried to reach the United States border in the last two years, creating a political and humanitarian crisis for the Biden administration.

Around the time of the Barbados agreement, Venezuela also agreed to accept Venezuelan migrants deported from the United States, a move meant to help show that President Biden was aggressively tackling record border crossings and to deter other Venezuelans who might be considering the journey.

But those deportation flights stopped in February without an explanation. Now that sanctions are reinstated, they are unlikely to resume.

Sanctions relief also had a modest but notable effect on the Venezuelan economy over the past six months, according to experts. Oil exports recently hit a four-year high and inflation hit a decade low.

But the resumption of sanctions could reverse those gains. A struggling economy along with the strong possibility that Mr. Maduro could win another illegitimate election could lead to another surge in migration, experts said.

While the Biden administration said it would restore the sanctions, another U.S. official said the government could still allow individual companies on a case-by-case basis to do business with Venezuela’s oil-and-gas sector.

Allowing such limited business to continue with Venezuela gives the United States some leverage in discussions with the Maduro government, experts said.