Petro Pushes to Restart Venezuela Talks

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.

The highlights this week: Colombia hosts a high-level conference on the crisis in Venezuela, a former Peruvian president is jailed, and Chile unveils a new approach to the lithium industry.

Setting the Table for Talks

It’s been an eventful week for Colombian President Gustavo Petro, who shook up his cabinet by replacing seven ministers after his flagship health care reform stalled in Congress. But that wasn’t all: On Tuesday, Petro hosted a summit on Venezuela’s political crisis that included high-level envoys from 19 countries and the European Union.

At the summit, Colombia aimed to build international momentum behind the prospect of restarting stalled talks between Venezuela’s government and opposition. Petro discussed his strategies for bringing the two parties to the table with U.S. President Joe Biden during a visit to Washington last week, and Tuesday’s event suggests the United States is supporting Petro’s initiative.

Venezuela is due to hold presidential elections next year. Since 2021, on-again, off-again talks facilitated by Norway and mostly based in Mexico City have floated the possibility that President Nicolás Maduro’s government could commit to holding a fair vote in exchange for sanctions relief from the international community. (Foreign countries have sanctioned Caracas for many reasons, including for tilting the electoral playing field in the past.)

The prospect that the negotiations could produce truly free elections is a long shot. Maduro walked out of the talks in October 2021 after a close business associate of his was extradited to the United States. Though a revived dialogue in November 2022 reached a deal to unfreeze an estimated $3 billion in sanctioned Venezuelan assets to provide humanitarian relief to the country, the funds remain frozen.

Beyond Mexico’s hosting role, Latin American countries did not play a large leadership role in the talks, and it remained unclear how seriously the United States—which has imposed the bulk of sanctions on Venezuela—was offering significant sanctions relief.

But Tuesday’s summit revealed at least two changes in the diplomatic landscape. Now, neighboring Colombia is taking a front seat in trying to move negotiations forward. And the United States made its clearest-ever public statement saying that it was open to gradually lifting sanctions on Caracas if unspecified electoral guarantees were met.

“I think the Biden administration understands that the only way to jump-start these talks is by putting sanctions relief on the table in a meaningful way,” Atlantic Council senior fellow Geoff Ramsey told Foreign Policy.

Both the U.S. and Colombian strategies appear to involve engaging Venezuela rather than shunning it to force Maduro’s ouster, an approach that failed in 2019. The Biden administration has tested small steps of incremental rapprochement over the past year, such as allowing Chevron to resume limited operations in Venezuela. Since taking office last August, Petro has normalized Colombia’s diplomatic ties with Venezuela and met personally with Maduro.

This week’s event culminated with a statement by Colombia’s foreign minister saying that attendees had agreed on the need to set a timetable for free elections in Venezuela, meet progress by Maduro’s government with sanctions relief, and establish the humanitarian fund agreed to last November as talks move forward. Ramsey said the fund has been held up by “overcompliance with financial sanctions” in the United States and “massive amounts of bureaucratic red tape” at the United Nations.

Representatives of Venezuela’s government and opposition did not attend Tuesday’s conference, though some met with Petro beforehand. The opposition itself is in flux, as candidates campaign for an Oct. 22 presidential primary to choose who will run against Maduro next year. While the Mexico City talks could affect how free and fair the election is, political scientists have also stressed that the opposition’s internal organization—or lack thereof—will be critical to its performance.

On that front, Venezuela’s opposition has work to do, political scientist and Oxford University research fellow Maryhen Jiménez Morales told Foreign Policy. “The opposition doesn’t have a coalition that has dealt with, ‘What’s the kind of program that we want?’ ‘What’s our narrative?’ ‘How are we going to structure the economy?’” she said.

The opposition was not even unified in how to engage with Petro surrounding Tuesday’s conference. While a coalition of some opposition factions sent a representative to meet with him last weekend, opposition figure Juan Guaidó attempted to cross into Colombia via its land border on Monday to attend the conference—but was promptly ejected from the country. Jiménez suggested that the international community could go so far as “to condition support on [the opposition] repairing its relations.”

The coming weeks will show whether Petro’s summit yields any progress. Cynics abound: Some argue that Petro is trying to make his friendliness with Maduro look principled; others say the new U.S. engagement strategy is not about democratic change but rather Washington’s hunger for more oil on the international market. The EU foreign affairs chief, for his part, mentioned the possibility of an EU-Venezuela natural gas deal in an interview to El País following Tuesday’s conference.

Despite the uncertainty, Ramsey said, even partial progress down the negotiation path would be highly significant: “It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this humanitarian agreement” considering conditions on the ground. More than 81 percent of Venezuelan households live below the poverty line, according to a survey last year.

Sunday, April 30: Paraguay holds its presidential election.

Wednesday, May 3: Brazil’s monetary policy committee is due to announce an interest rate decision.

BRICS ambitions. South Africa’s ambassador to the BRICS grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa told Bloomberg that 19 other countries have expressed an interest in joining the bloc. They include Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Argentina, and Indonesia, he said. BRICS foreign ministers are due to discuss the requests at a June meeting in Cape Town, South Africa.

While Russia’s war in Ukraine has caused a number of countries to distance themselves from Moscow and even pushed previously neutral European countries such as Finland to join NATO, the potential BRICS enlargement is the latest evidence that many countries in the global south not only remain comfortable maintaining relationships with Russia but also want even closer ties. BRICS is a group based on loose economic and political cooperation rather than a military alliance like NATO, though South Africa recently conducted joint naval exercises with China and Russia.

It’s unclear whether Russian President Vladimir Putin will attend the August BRICS summit in Durban: Host South Africa is a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has an arrest warrant for Putin. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Tuesday that the country planned to leave the ICC, but then walked back his comments later in the day.

Peruvian police stand guard outside the National Police Aviation Department in Lima, Peru, where former President Alejandro Toledo would be transferred after his extradition from the United States, on April 23.

Peruvian police stand guard outside the National Police Aviation Department in Lima, Peru, where former President Alejandro Toledo would be transferred after his extradition from the United States, on April 23.

Peruvian police stand guard outside the National Police Aviation Department in Lima, Peru, where former President Alejandro Toledo would be transferred after his extradition from the United States, on April 23. Ernesto BenavidesAFP via Getty Images

Justice in Peru. Former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo was jailed on the outskirts of Lima on Sunday night after being extradited to Peru from the United States to face corruption charges.

The 77-year-old Toledo, who governed from 2001 to 2006, stands accused of accepting bribes from Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht in exchange for awarding the company a contract to build a highway. It’s the latest development in a web of probes across the region that have examined Odebrecht’s dealings over the past two decades.

While Peru’s political parties have chaotically navigated social unrest in recent years, the country’s robust justice system stands in contrast, University of Chicago political scientist Michael Albertus wrote in Foreign Policy this week. For instance, after former President Pedro Castillo’s coup attempt last December, the disgraced leader was rapidly “served justice,” Albertus noted. But he added that “Peru’s nonpolitical institutions cannot survive on their own forever without political support, or at least a modicum of stability.”

Honoring an environmental defender. Among the winners of this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize, the “Green Nobel” for environmental activism, was Indigenous Brazilian Munduruku organizer Alessandra Korap.

Korap and her colleagues’ denunciations of the harms that mining poses to their territory led British mining company Anglo American to withdraw plans for expansion into the area in 2021. The activists were successful despite former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s permissive stance toward mining on Indigenous lands.

The BRICS grouping held its first summit in 2009, when they were still known as “BRIC.” Which year did South Africa join?

South Africa was already a member of the group by the time it established its development bank in 2015.

FP’s Most Read This Week

• A BRICS Currency Could Shake the Dollar’s Dominance by Joseph W. Sullivan

• Ukraine’s Longest Day by Franz-Stefan Gady

• America Has Dictated Its Economic Peace Terms to China by Adam Tooze

In Focus: Chile’s National Lithium Strategy

Chile's President Gabriel Boric delivers a speech in front of a podium reading "National Lithium Strategy" after announcing he would nationalize the country's lithium industry.

Chile’s President Gabriel Boric delivers a speech in front of a podium reading “National Lithium Strategy” after announcing he would nationalize the country’s lithium industry.

Chilean President Gabriel Boric delivers a speech in front of a podium reading “National Lithium Strategy” after announcing he would nationalize the country’s lithium industry in the northern city of Antofagasta, Chile, on April 21.Ximena Navarro/Chilean Presidency via Reuters

Chilean President Gabriel Boric announced plans last week to gradually increase state control over the country’s lithium sector as part of a new suite of measures designed to guide Chile’s approach to the resource known as “white gold.” Global demand for lithium, which powers electric vehicle batteries, has skyrocketed in recent years, and Chile is currently the world’s No. 2 lithium producer behind Australia—though its known reserves are far more extensive than those down under.

As part of Chile’s national lithium strategy, Boric said, companies would be invited to open new mining contracts for lithium with the government as a controlling partner with at least 50.01 percent shares.

Chile’s SQM and the United States’ Albemarle are the only firms that currently have lithium mining contracts in the country, which require them to pay royalties as high as 40 percent to the Chilean government.

While some in Chile’s private sector criticized Boric’s announcement as unwelcome state interference, Albemarle’s CEO said he expected the changes to lead to new business opportunities and that Boric had been discussing the plans directly with mining firms since his presidential transition. SQM issued a statement saying it would cooperate with Boric’s strategy.

Boric’s approach aims to strike a middle ground between that of Bolivia, where the state has extensive control over mining and almost none occurs, and that of Argentina, where mining is largely privately run. The three countries straddle what is known as the “lithium triangle,” which holds around 60 percent of the world’s known reserves.

While Boric said he plans to create a state lithium company, doing so requires congressional approval; in the meantime, he said, state copper mining company Codelco would represent the government’s stake in new contracts. SQM and Albemarle can choose to finish their current lithium contracts—which extend until 2030 and 2043, respectively—or choose to renegotiate with the possibility of an extension. The government did not immediately announce what it would offer the firms to try to lure them into renegotiation.

Beyond lithium mining, the Chilean government will seek partnerships with private companies for lithium processing, with the hopes of eventually becoming a major producer of electric car batteries. One such public-private partnership has already been secured: Last week, Chile’s economic development agency announced that Chinese firm BYD would build a plant for battery components in the northern Chilean region of Antofagasta and receive discounted prices on raw lithium in return.

Altogether, Boric said he aims for Chile to become the world’s biggest lithium producer. It’s an ambitious goal, and progress toward it depends on moving past “fighting in Congress,” Chilean lithium scholar Gustavo Lagos told El Mostrador. “We are literally sitting on a gold mine” he said. “If we reach agreements on how to do things, we can do them very well.”

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