Trump, Biden and the Venezuelan Diesel Shortages ‘Hot Potato’

VA columnist Ociel López looks at the “hot potato” of Venezuela’s diesel shortages left by the outgoing Trump administration.

Previous readings of this column will show that it does not tend to be sensationalist or to exaggerate the on-the-ground situation in Venezuela. Living here and confronting the daily problems forces one to be responsible in order to suitably intervene in the debate concerning the current crisis and not reduce our analysis to partisan viewpoints presented by the forces in conflict.

However, the recent diesel shortages force us to sound the alarm amongst those who stand in solidarity across the world.

Diesel is the main fuel used for transporting food, medicine, passengers, and other goods in Venezuela. With no rail freight network, trucking depends on it.

Until a few weeks ago the oil crisis (1) had not transcended into the diesel sector as the latter was exempt from US sanctions. Thus, Venezuela could exchange crude for diesel with several multinational companies.

Elliott Abrams, White House representative for Venezuelan affairs in the Donald Trump administration, changed this dramatically five days before the US presidential election. Following Abrams, the Treasury Department banned the crude-for-diesel swaps on November 1.

The impact of this change is now obvious, and many political and economic analysts expect the situation to worsen in the near future.

Diesel scarcity

Venezuela’s truck driver’s guild has reported that its members spend up to a week queuing at service stations, with trucks carrying food and other goods spending many days stranded in the pursuit of diesel, delaying their arrival to their destination.

On March 9, industrial guilds also warned that diesel inventories, which are essential to keep industries operating, were down to one week.

Venezuela’s Cattle Ranchers Federation (FEDENAGA) has added that “the lack of diesel makes it impossible to produce and distribute food such as meat, milk and cheese.”

Some estimate that seven out of ten trucks are already inactive.

The Venezuelan Association for the Chemical and Petrochemical Industry (ASOQUIM) has further explained that 80% of the sector has distribution issues while 76% struggles to obtain raw materials.

All this comes amid serious economic problems in the country, including steady hikes in food prices and a broken state structure that keeps the minimum wage below one US dollar per month.

How did this happen if, despite Venezuela’s oil crisis, diesel was not targeted until now?

Abrams’ epiphany: hawk or dove?

In Venezuela, Abrams’ policy and his constant actions against the country are well known. We are used to the Trump official publicly coordinating military coup efforts like the April 30, 2019 putsch and work obsessively to design a sanctions system to aggravate people’s suffering.

So it’s strange that, a few weeks after President Biden’s inauguration, Abrams wrote an article for the Council on Foreign Relations asking the new White House tenant to backtrack on the diesel sanctions.

In that article, Abrams acknowledged that the sanctions on Venezuela have generated an internal debate in the US government, as some do not consider them opportune. But above all, he argued that the sanction allows President Nicolás Maduro to shed “crocodile tears.”

Was he sorry for his initiative? Was this old hawk turning into a dove? Did he have an epiphany? The last of these options may be true.

Diesel sanctions: a boomerang against Biden

In Venezuela’s oil and economic crisis, there is an open debate about who the main perpetrators of the crisis are, with mutual accusations and weighty arguments coming in from both sides.

On the issue of diesel, there is no such confusion: responsibility for the situation lies at the door of the US government, with Republicans leaving the hot potato to the incoming Democrats.

The argument that Maduro “gifts away diesel” to Cuba or that he keeps it for the armed forces – often repeated by White House representative for the Western Hemisphere Juan González – sounds like ideological propaganda and does not withstand any rational evaluation. As I stated, not even Abrams repeats this thesis because the Caribbean country clearly has never had a problem with diesel before.

Even Venezuela’s increasingly opposition-orientated industrial guild has acknowledged that “its supply had been fluid until December.” At that time Cuba and the army also existed.

With their last-minute decisions, Washington’s hawks left a minefield for the new Democratic party government: if Maduro’s government allies can’t supply the country with diesel quickly, we may see images of scarcity, rotting food, and paralyzed public buses in a few weeks’ time.

All this comes just as the Brazilian Covid-19 variant hits Venezuela’s shores, generating a new wave of infections in some important cities, and the health system begins to show signs of exhaustion.

Could the humanitarian crisis, which the global media has talked about so much, be about to come true? If so it will not be seen to be the doing of the hawks nor Trumpism, but the candid Democratic doves instead.

President Joe Biden will have a hard time deactivating the minefield left by the Republicans. Their officials pretend to not be holding the hot potato, but they will be held responsible for the situation, which may affect their more sensitive and committed voters who still have hope in a more humane foreign policy. It may also impact US relations with some Latin American governments.

In recent weeks, US officials have declared that “there will be no new military interventions” (Secretary of State Anthony Blinken) or that [Venezuela’s self-declared “interim president” Juan] Guaidó is doing awfully in the polls (González), but nobody dares to clarify Biden’s policy on the issue of diesel.

For its part, Maduro’s government, perhaps placing its hopes on a possible negotiation with the new US administration, has not publicly addressed the diesel situation, nor has it renewed its everlasting allegations against the US government. Maduro’s discourse is, at least for now, post-Trumpist. In the meantime, Venezuela’s reality has never been as Trumpist as it is currently.

The diesel situation is worsening on a daily basis and Venezuelan food stocks are in danger. Biden’s image may be damaged if he doesn’t find a way to cool the hot potato which Trump left him: and this time Maduro’s tears may not be so crocodile-like.

Ociel Alí López is a Venezuelan researcher who has published numerous written and multimedia works. He is dedicated to analyzing Venezuelan society for several European and Latin American media outlets. He is a co-founder of alternative Venezuelan state television station Avila TV in 2006. He is the recipient of the CLACSO/ASDI researcher prize and the Britto Garcia literature award.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.