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U.S. could reimpose sanctions on Venezuela if it does not comply with its demands

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

We're covering Iran's attack on Israel throughout the morning, including the White House response. More on that in a moment. Right now to Venezuela, where the authoritarian government has reneged on a deal with the U.S. Venezuela had agreed to take steps toward holding a free and fair presidential election. Now, as John Otis reports, the U.S. must decide whether to reimpose sanctions on Venezuela's vital oil industry.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We will now proceed with the signing of the two partial agreements.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: At a meeting in Barbados in October, envoys for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro signed an agreement to improve conditions for the opposition ahead of this summer's presidential election.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thank you. Muchas gracias.

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OTIS: The day after the paperwork was signed, the Biden administration lifted - for six months - most of the oil sanctions put in place in 2019. The benefits for the regime were immediate. Last month, Venezuela's oil exports hit a four-year high. But Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas think tank in Washington, says the Biden administration moved too fast.

ERIC FARNSWORTH: We lifted the sanctions prematurely, before the Maduro regime had actually done anything, so we took away our own leverage.

OTIS: Although the Barbados agreement did lead to the freeing of several imprisoned Americans, Maduro continues to oppress his opponents. Opposition leader Maria Corina Machado, who polls predict would crush Maduro in a free election, remains disqualified from the race. Members of her campaign team have been jailed. The regime has blocked millions of Venezuelans from registering to vote.

RYAN BERG: Maintaining political prisoners, taking new political prisoners, persecuting members of Maria Corina Machado's campaign - the list is so long of things that the regime has done which contradict the spirit and the law of the Barbados accords.

OTIS: That's Ryan Berg, head of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Despite Maduro's crackdown, he says, there's not much stomach in the U.S. government for fully reimposing sanctions. That's because promoting democracy is not the Biden administration's only objective for Venezuela. It lifted sanctions in part to get more Venezuelan oil on the market and lower gas prices at home. In addition, a more vibrant economy in Venezuela could convince migrants who have been leaving for the U.S. in record numbers to stay put in Venezuela. National security spokesman John Kirby says there's still time for the regime to do the right thing.

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JOHN KIRBY: We're still willing to consider sanctions relief on the Maduro regime if they meet the obligations that they made in Barbados.

OTIS: But Farnsworth says the U.S. has to respond to Maduro's latest wave of repression, which risks turning Venezuela's July 28 presidential election into a farce.

FARNSWORTH: You can't justify not doing anything, in my view. The question is, do you try to push sanctions all the way back to the level that they were?

OTIS: Another option would be to ramp up individual sanctions against members of the Maduro regime. Either way, Francisco Rodriguez, a Venezuelan who teaches international studies at the University of Denver, says there's simply not very much the U.S. can do to pressure Maduro into holding a free election. That's because Maduro would almost certainly lose, and if he left office, he could end up in prison because he faces U.S. charges on narco terrorism, drug trafficking and corruption.

FRANCISCO RODRIGUEZ: Sure, you can say, I'm going to make life more difficult on Maduro, but it doesn't matter to him enough so as for him to say, I'm going to give up power. I mean, that doesn't make any sense.

OTIS: The deadline for a decision on U.S. sanctions is Thursday.

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DELCY RODRIGUEZ: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: But in a recent TV appearance, Venezuela's foreign minister Delcy Rodriguez made clear that the regime prefers sanctions to a democratic election. For NPR News, I'm John Otis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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