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Qatar emerges as go-between on frozen US-Venezuela front

Sometimes it takes a mediator from another part of the world to provide a 'safe space' for talk.

Analysis | Global Crises

Spanish newspaper El Pais had a scoop last week: at the beginning of June, Juan Gonzalez and Jorge Rodriguez — President Joe Biden’s adviser on Latin American affairs and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s right-hand man respectively — secretly met in Qatar. 

The focus of the meeting? Exploring ways to unblock the two countries’ bilateral relations, heavily strained over the Trump administration’s crippling sanctions against Venezuela, which were initiated amid accusations of Maduro’s dictatorial drift. Various U.S. embargoes have been in place against the country since 2005, though Trump imposed tougher economic sanctions beginning in 2017.

The meeting in Qatar was not expected to deliver any major breakthroughs, which neither Washington or Caracas seem prepared for at the moment. Rather, it was about establishing a direct, high-level channel of communication to discuss future relations.

Reportedly,  a release of prisoners, including Alex Saab, the Colombian businessman detained since 2021 in the U.S. on money-laundering charges, was discussed. They also talked about, according to the paper, the need to “normalize political life” in Venezuela.

Both sides remain very distant on these and other issues, but the fact that talks are happening is in itself a sign that Washington and Caracas are not giving up on efforts to de-escalate. In this context, it's remarkable that this auspicious meeting took place in Qatar — a Persian Gulf monarchy previously not known for its focus or involvement in Western Hemisphere affairs.

Emerging as an unexpected facilitator of U.S.–Venezuela dialogue, Qatar partly fills a void left by other actors, primarily Colombia. After the election of leftist president Gustavo Petro in 2022, Colombia transitioned from being a springboard of the hemisphere-wide anti-Maduro strategy to a principal advocate of Venezuela’s re-integration into the international forum. Petro had also hoped to facilitate democratic reforms and better dialogue between Maduro’s government and its political opposition. 

Shortly after his election, Petro launched a charm offensive towards its neighbor which led to a re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Bogota and Caracas in 2022. Then, after years of isolation, Maduro was warmly welcomed in Brazil, which in 2022 also changed hands from staunch Maduro antagonist  Jair Bolsonaro to the leftist president Lula da Silva.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates Maduro’s shifting fortunes in the region more than the fact that even the recently elected right-wing government in Paraguay announced that it will seek full re-establishment of diplomatic relations with him. Meanwhile, the ruling center-right government in Uruguay has already sent an ambassador to Venezuela. 

However, no comparable progress has been achieved so far on electoral reforms in Venezuela. As recently as June 30, Maduro’s government disqualified the leading opposition presidential candidate Maria Corina Machado from running in 2024 and banned her from politics for the next fifteen years. 

While Mexico and Norway have also played a role in mediating talks between Maduro and his opposition, the stakes were higher for Colombia, Venezuela’s closest neighbor, to make progress on the domestic front. Petro’s failure to initiate reforms in Caracas, plus his own mounting problems in Colombia, have reportedly led his government to de-prioritize the Venezuelan file and focus more on domestic politics.

That opened space for other players like Qatar to step in. For the emirate, getting involved in Venezuela is a high reward/low risk strategy. By offering its services, Doha is consolidating its emerging reputation as a global diplomatic go-between, helping Washington in several particularly politically sensitive areas. Qatar mediated between the U.S. and Iran in efforts to revive the moribund nuclear pact and exchange prisoners. Doha also hosted talks between the U.S. and the Taliban, which paved the way to an agreement leading to a withdrawal of the U.S. troops from Afghanistan. 

Venezuela is another arena where Qatar’s diplomatic versatility is seen as an asset by the U.S. Qatar never joined the extensive list of countries that recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president. That enabled the emirate to maintain relations with Caracas.

In June 2022, the U.S. excluded Maduro from the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. Shortly after, he toured a number of Eurasian and African countries. Qatar was on his list, alongside Turkey, Iran, Algeria, and Kuwait. Qatar views Venezuela as a potentially promising market to invest in, particularly in the mining, tourism, and oil sectors, all depleted by years of mismanagement, but also by U.S. sanctions. Qatar’s close relations with Turkey, one of Maduro’s key international partners, also helps to boost bilateral confidence. 

There is a fair chance that this recent U.S.–Venezuela diplomacy will fail to break the ice. While Maduro refuses to take steps to liberalize his regime, the U.S. refuses to ease the crippling Trump-era sanctions – despite a growing chorus in Biden’s own party pushing to reconsider that policy. 

Engineering a true détente between the U.S. and Venezuela likely far exceeds Qatar’s capacities. But unlike Venezuela’s neighbors, such as Colombia and Brazil, Qatar’s stakes in the normalization of Venezuela’s international and domestic situation are much lower. Should the effort fail, Doha could move to another international crisis where it could offer its diplomatic services to the U.S.

Positioning itself as a trustable diplomatic troubleshooter increasingly seems to be at the very core of Qatar’s foreign policy strategy. In the case of Washington and Caracas, there is nothing really to lose.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (shutterstock/Golden Brown); Qatar Shutterstock/HasanZaidi; President Joe Biden (Luca Perra/shutterstock)
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