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“They Need the Oil”: Venezuelan Pres. Maduro & U.S. Officials Meet After Biden Bans Imports from Russia

Web ExclusiveMarch 09, 2022
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Before Biden imposed new sanctions on Russian oil, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro met with American officials over the weekend and reportedly discussed easing U.S. sanctions on oil from Venezuela, the largest producer of oil in the Americas. After the rare visit, Venezuela released two jailed U.S. citizens. “What we are witnessing now is an attempt to repair breaches not for any big moral or political reasons,” notes writer and activist Tariq Ali. “They need the oil.” In Part 2 of our interview, we discuss the developments with Venezuela, the conflict in Ukraine, and the response from China.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with Part 2 of our discussion with Tariq Ali, the British historian, activist, filmmaker and author. In Part 1, we talked about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the expansion of NATO. We now turn to look at how all that relates to Venezuela. That’s right, Venezuela has just released two jailed U.S. citizens following a rare visit to Caracas by a delegation from Washington, D.C. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro met with American officials over the weekend, and meetings, he said, were respectful, cordial, very diplomatic.

The U.S. delegation reportedly includes key figures like Juan Gonzalez, the National Security Council senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs, and Jimmy Story, the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela. Part of the visit was to discuss the possible easing of U.S. sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry. The New York Times also reports that shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine, Russia’s deputy prime minister traveled to Caracas to meet with Maduro officials, and Maduro has had two phone calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the last month. This is Venezuelan President Maduro speaking on Tuesday.

PRESIDENT NICOLÁS MADURO: [translated] As I said to the U.S. delegation, I reiterate all our will so that from diplomacy, from respect and from the hope of a better world, we can advance in an agenda that allows well-being and peace. … There are issues of interest that we’ve agreed to work on to move forward on an agenda. I find it very important to be able to have face-to-face discussions on topics of maximum interest to Venezuela and the world.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Tariq Ali, what rapid-fire changes are taking place as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. So, you have now the U.S. wanting to thaw relations with Venezuela, maybe dealing with taking away sanctions, because they want to replace Russia’s oil with Venezuela’s oil. Can you talk about these developments and the release of the prisoners?

TARIQ ALI: Well, I think it’s of extreme interest, obviously, Amy, and shows how the capacity of a war whose end is unpredictable can have on other players in different fields. I mean, the United States has been absolutely vicious against, first, Chávez, and then even more so against Nicolás Maduro. And the reasons are pure pique, the fact they can’t control the regime. They have backed coups to try and topple the regime. They have tried to buy over leading Venezuelan generals with cash. All the failed. And when that failed, they actually found a new way of trying to influence the country, which is by setting up a virtual government with a virtual president, who was Juan Guaidó, a total U.S. puppet, who was recognized as the legal president of Venezuela by the United States, welcomed by European leaders, when everyone, including the bulk of the Venezuelan opposition, knew he was a total joker. That has all failed.

And the Russian war on Ukraine has now concentrated minds in Washington again. They can’t cut themselves off from other oil-producing countries. So Venezuela and Saudi Arabia are the key countries that they’re trying to negotiate with. The other thing, obviously, the United States and everyone else noticed was that at the much-vaunted U.N. General Assembly resolution, where the press reported in the Western media a huge majority to condemn Putin — well, A, it wasn’t huge; B, a number of key countries on other continents — I mean, China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh in Asia alone, and others, many small countries in Africa, and in South America, both Cuba and Venezuela — abstained on the resolution. They didn’t vote for Putin, but to show their disapproval of this style of politics globally, they abstained. And I think that must have both surprised and pleased some elements in Washington, who are for a saner policy.

And what we are witnessing now is an attempt to repair breaches, not for any big moral or political reasons, but they need the oil. You cut off Russia’s oil, you have to fill the coffers somehow. And Venezuela is the largest — one of the largest producers of oil, the largest in the Americas, and that oil is necessary. So I think the release of prisoners is a cover. I mean, that could have been negotiated at any time. It’s to show goodwill. The real discussions taking place are the lifting of sanctions against Venezuela, which will be a huge boon. Whatever the reason for that, it will be a huge boon for the people of Venezuela, who have suffered really badly, including periods of food shortages, malnutrition, etc. So, obviously, Maduro is not going to look a gift horse in the mouth, and the Venezuelans have always said they’re prepared to sell the oil to anyone. It wasn’t their idea to impose sanctions. So, this is a change.

The question, Amy, is whether this will now apply to Iran, as well. Are they prepared to mend the breach with Iran, tell the Israelis to take a ride somewhere else for a change, mend the breach with Iran and do a deal? It could happen. It’s not impossible. So, we are seeing a lot of — already we are seeing a number of changes as a result of this war, where the U.S. does find itself a bit isolated in half the world. It’s not supported. The Europeans, obviously, most of them back it, except in Serbia, where there was a huge pro-Putin demonstration, as people — the Serbs remember the bombing of Belgrade by NATO some decades ago. So, that is what the effect of this war is, and I don’t think we’ve seen everything yet.

I mean, the sanctions against Russia will also affect quite a few European countries, Italy in particular, the Germans obviously. Britain, the oligarchs who made Britain their home, the large number of rich Russians who send their children to British schools — excuse me — large numbers of Russians who send their children to British schools and have to withdraw them because of sanctions, so all the rich private schools are fearful that their budgets will collapse if this happens — quite entertaining on one level. So, it’s not — you know, we can’t yet delineate everything that this war has triggered off.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to mention two people who aren’t being released, American prisoners in Venezuela, are former Special Forces members Airan Berry and Luke Denman, who were arrested in 2020 after they tried to invade Venezuela by boat as part of a failed plot to overthrow President Maduro. Tariq?

TARIQ ALI: I know. I mean, this is fantasy politics, actually. You know, people who serve in the special services, whether in whatever part of the world, do develop some traces of sort of craziness. And, you know, they do these things. They get locked up. Let’s hope Hollywood doesn’t decide to make a movie about them. It’ll just encourage such stupidities in the future. And they just followed what they thought was government policy, except government policy in Venezuela was not for a direct invasion but for a carefully orchestrated and organized coup to topple Maduro from within. That failed. That failed. I mean, the Venezuelan generals were very angry at being approached, and saying, “Why do the Americans forget, yes, we are generals, but we are Venezuelan generals?” So, after all these attempts have failed — and, you know, the so-called plan to send in various mercenary elements from Colombia to destabilize the Maduro regime, they were sent in, but they failed, too. So I think the internal opposition to Maduro in Venezuela, or a section of it, was really shocked at the imposition of this virtual president by the U.S. and his recognition by so many people. So, the U.S. are not popular.

AMY GOODMAN: I’ll never forget — speaking of which, the media recognizing it — watching CNN one day, and Juan Guaidó’s wife was being interviewed, and the lower third said, “The first lady of Venezuela.”

TARIQ ALI: Yeah. Well, I mean, we’ll see more and more of this as the oil begins to flow, Amy. Best to remain very cynical on this. And let’s hope the sanctions against Venezuela and, for that matter, against Cuba are lifted. I mean, sanctions against Cuba have now existed for nearly 50 years, if not more. So, it’s a crazy method of punishing people in these countries. And many of the sanctions against Russia are not going to bite the oligarchs. However they might be inconvenienced, it won’t totally affect them in the way people imagine they will. But ordinary people in Russia will suffer. And then add to that the institutions making decisions to ban Russian conductors, expel Russian opera stars, it is just slightly crazy. And, you know, in Italy, we had a case where a university in Milan ordered the professor of Russian literature to stop teaching Dostoyevsky because of the war in Ukraine. I mean, it’s imbecility to think that Dostoyevsky could in any way be sympathetic to what is going on now. And so, it’s a very foolish way to operate.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me ask you about the isolation of Russia now and the sanctions that are being imposed. Putin is calling this an economic war against Russia as he wages war on Ukraine. But what does this mean for China, the long-term impact of this?

TARIQ ALI: Well, so far, the Chinese have abstained on the U.N. resolution. Their policies, as enunciated by several Chinese leaders over the last decades, are: “We trade with everyone. It is not our job to go into these countries and interfere and topple their regimes because they don’t have the same system or whatever. We do not do that. We are essentially a trading power.” Well, that has been their position, and formally that still is their position.

On the other hand, they’re not blind. They follow very closely what is being said in D.C., in the think tanks, what op-ed writers are writing in the American media, the tone of television towards them, and they see the hostility. I mean, there’s some criticism of NATO for enlarging eastwards in Europe by people who say, “Well, you know, this is the wrong target. We should be targeting China.” I mean, this has been said by a number of people in the United States. And the Chinese follow all this, and so their attitude to the United States has changed. They don’t always vote with the United States at the Security Council. They’re insisting that they’re an independent country, which of course they are, the largest in the world, with their own sovereignty, and they are watching closely.

I don’t think that Xi would have been too pleased with the way in which Putin did this business, but I don’t think he is going to follow. I may be wrong, but I don’t think he is going to accept the U.S. demand for sanctions, because it’s completely linked to U.S. foreign policy, as we know. So, Putin may be isolated by the United States, its allies and NATO members and the EU, but he’s certainly not isolated from India and China, who are trading partners, as well. And privately, various Russians are saying, “We’re not worried by the sanctions.” I think it’s a foolish way of looking at it. They are saying sanctions are just now an automatic part of U.S. wars against countries they don’t like. This is also true. But in this case, Putin gave them a huge excuse by this, you know, crazed military intervention. So, whether it actually affects the Russians — it’s bound to, on some levels — we shall see as time goes by. The best thing, Amy, is to try and bring this war to an end.

AMY GOODMAN: And how do you see doing that, Tariq?

TARIQ ALI: Well, I mean, I think it would require two things. One, NATO has to back off a bit, because the Ukrainian politicians now openly are in NATO’s pocket. They do nothing serious without consulting NATO. NATO is arming them, sending in billions of more weaponry. Where is this going to end? That’s from the NATO side.

From the Russian side, the Russian elite, and especially the military, has to see that if they carry on like this, things are not going to get better for Russia, and remove Putin from power. They will not do it while the clashes are going on, obviously, and they’ll probably give him some more even possibly months, but there will be talk in Moscow of replacing Putin, not with someone outlandish but with someone who has a bit of credibility to stand up and say, “Enough is enough. We need peace negotiations immediately.”

And what does peace negotiations have to determine, then? I mean, unfortunately, and tragically, the Ukraine will be partitioned, and the blood of the people is the cement which will partition it. But that is what has to be agreed, depending on how the war goes over the next two months. It shouldn’t be allowed to carry — it’s not in the interests of the Ukraine itself. It’s not in the interests of the Europeans or the United States, and certainly not of the Russians. So, who does this war aid? And so, having a partitioned Ukraine probably will be the best way of doing it.

Putin’s attempt, which he was very arrogant about in the first few weeks after the war, was implying they would take the country in, you know, short time. Well, that hasn’t happened. It very rarely happens. Even in Afghanistan, where the Taliban government didn’t resist, it still took some time for the U.S. to occupy it. And certainly that was the case in Iraq. And so, Putin has a few more weeks or a month or two of grace from his allies at home, and then one can only hope that the Russian peace movement, as the stories from conscript soldiers who had no idea what they were being sent to do send messages back home, or their bodies return home, or they mutiny — it’s not impossible; these things can happen — there will be an attempt to change the leadership, the presidency in Russia. And that, I think, now would be a very positive.

AMY GOODMAN: So, as we begin to wrap up, I wanted to ask you about the silencing of media outlets, both inside and outside of Russia. Media organizations in Russia are now barred from describing Russia’s actions in Ukraine as an invasion or a war. TV Rain, for example, the radio Echo in Moscow has been shut down. Meanwhile, the European Union has banned the Russian finance news outlets RT and Sputnik. Here in the U.S., RT America just shut down last week after a TV satellite took them off the satellite. Your response to all of this?

TARIQ ALI: I’m opposed to all of this, Amy, on both sides. I think the — it would be interesting for people to see what the Russians themselves are saying. I mean, people are not dumb; they can judge for themselves whether it’s propaganda or not. I mean, often we can judge when the CNN or BBC World is effectively indulging in orgies of propaganda. You can tell. And then you can decide whether it’s true or not. Obviously some people can’t. So, I’m never in favor, unless there are very exceptional circumstances, of banning media flow, regardless of whether it’s owned by billionaires or by the state. And that is, in my opinion, intolerable and shouldn’t be defended at all.

On the other hand, I have to say that the British media, in particular, much worse than the U.S. media in this particular war, the aggressiveness and the militarism displayed, the pumping up of sort of chauvinist fantasies, of even encouraging wars, more war, no cover, you know, things, no zones and no bombing over — it’s just crazy. It’s crazy. It’s all being fueled by British government policy and the fact that we don’t have an opposition. So, we are all suffering in different ways, the Russians more than us, because these few outlets they — opposition outlets they had were extremely important for maintaining some degree of democracy, however managed it is, for the people of that country. And I think people will find other ways of communicating with each other now, but it’s not going to be easy.

AMY GOODMAN: Tariq Ali, I want to thank you for being with us, historian, activist, filmmaker, author, on the editorial committee of the New Left Review, days before the Russian invasion wrote a piece headlined “News from Natoland.” We will link to your articles at democracynow.org. And to see Part 1 of the discussion Juan González and I had with Tariq Ali on Democracy Now!, go to democracynow.org. Thanks so much.

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