When the Venezuelan government released five political prisoners late Wednesday to cheers from the country’s opposition, it was the most emotional in a rapid series of policy shifts in the South American country that together represent the most significant softening of relations between Venezuela and the United States in years.
In a matter of days, Venezuela’s authoritarian government has agreed to accept Venezuelan migrants deported from the United States and signed an agreement with opposition leaders designed to move toward a free and fair presidential election in 2024.
In exchange, the United States has agreed to lift some economic sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry, a vital source of income for the government of President Nicolás Maduro.
The developments come just days before more than one million Venezuelans are expected to head to the polls for a primary election to choose the opposition leader who will face Mr. Maduro next year.
The leading candidate is María Corina Machado, a former center-right legislator, who has declared herself the country’s best shot yet at ousting the socialist-inspired government that has governed since 1999.
At a recent campaign event in the eastern city of Maturín, she filled an entire avenue with supporters, who pressed together to hear her speak.
“We are going to shake up this regime!” she shouted. “We are going to bury socialism forever!”
The United States has placed sanctions on some Venezuelan leaders for years, but the Trump administration significantly tightened them in 2019, following an election widely viewed as fraudulent in which Mr. Maduro claimed victory.
For years, Mr. Maduro has sought the lifting of sanctions, which have strangled his economy, while the United States and its allies in the Venezuelan opposition have wanted Mr. Maduro to allow competitive elections that could give his political opponents a legitimate chance at winning.
Under President Nicholas Maduro, Venezuela has witnessed an extraordinary economic decline, leading to a humanitarian crisis that has sent more than seven million people fleeing.Credit…Federico Rios for The New York Times
The two sides have been in a relative stalemate, with a few exceptions. Until now.
Among the factors driving this flurry of new policies is Venezuela’s increased geopolitical importance.
The South American country is home to the largest proven oil reserves in the world, and there is growing U.S. interest in those reserves amid concern over a broader conflict in the Middle East and the war in Ukraine, which has threatened access to global oil supplies.
While it would take years for Venezuela’s hobbled oil industry infrastructure to recover, the country’s petroleum reserves could be key in the future.
The Biden administration is also increasingly interested in improving the economic situation in Venezuela to try to address the arrival of large numbers of Venezuelan migrants at the southern U.S. border.
The five political prisoners Venezuela released late Wednesday included Rolando Carreño, a former adviser to the opposition leader Juan Guaidó, and Juan Requesens, a former deputy in the National Assembly.
Despite the significance of the recent announcements, some analysts worry that Mr. Maduro is playing both the opposition and the U.S. government, and could ultimately end up with everything he seeks — sanctions relief; an election with at least some international recognition; and a victory next year that allows him to retain power.
Mr. Maduro’s government is being investigated by the International Criminal Court for possible crimes against humanity, and the United States has set a $15 million reward for his arrest to face drug trafficking charges. Leaving office could mean lengthy jail terms for Mr. Maduro and his associates.
“The government doesn’t want to yield power,” said Christopher Sabatini, a senior research fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, a research group in London. “Especially when it has effectively a bounty on its head.”
The United States has tried to prevent that from happening by making clear that sanctions could be reinstated at any time. But some analysts say that could be difficult if companies take advantage of the sanctions relief and start investing in Venezuela.
“Once these companies are back in, they’re going to do everything they can, not to be removed,” Mr. Sabatini said. “So this is a very risky move for the U.S. government. Snapback sanctions are not as easy as they sound.”
The sanctions relief announced this week allows Venezuela’s state-owned oil company to export oil and gas to the United States for six months. For the past few years, the Venezuelan government has been exporting oil to China and other countries at a significant discount.
While the move is expected to be a significant boon to Venezuela’s public finances, analysts said that poor infrastructure and a reluctance by some outside investors to enter the Venezuelan market present significant challenges.
“It is an open question whether the Maduro government will be able to take advantage, at least to the full extent possible, of this authorization,” said Mariano de Alba, a senior adviser for the International Crisis Group.
Mr. Maduro came to power in 2013 after the death of Hugo Chávez, the founder of the country’s socialist-inspired revolution. Under Mr. Maduro, Venezuela, once among the richest countries in Latin America, has undergone an extraordinary economic decline, leading to a humanitarian crisis that has sent more than seven million people fleeing.
Many voters believe that Ms. Machado, 55, has the best chance at defeating Mr. Maduro. A veteran politician nicknamed the “iron lady” because of her adversarial relationship with the governments of Mr. Maduro and Mr. Chávez, she is viewed by some supporters as courageous for staying in the country when many other politicians have fled political persecution.
Her proposals to open up the free market and reduce the role of the state have earned her a loyal base across social classes.
At the campaign event in Maturín, Ms. Machado was carried aloft to the stage as if she were a rock star.
The moment she took to the stage, the lights went out — common, even expected, in Venezuela, where power cuts have become an everyday occurrences. Ms. Machado’s supporters didn’t miss a beat, taking out their cellphones to illuminate their candidate.
Some began making video calls so their relatives abroad could hear her speak.
The candidate focused her gaze on a woman in her 60s who appeared to have her daughter on the line.
“This fight is for you to come back,” Ms. Machado said to the daughter.
The video calls multiplied, and for a few minutes, the distance between those who had stayed in Venezuela and those who had left disappeared.
“This is the closing of a cycle of hate, misery, separation and sadness,” Ms. Machado declared.
As she has promoted her candidacy, Ms. Machado’s campaign has been plagued by violence and government surveillance.
She has been beaten by people holding Maduro signs, and had animal blood thrown at one rally in which The New York Times was present. She has been followed by military intelligence police, and she bypasses police roadblocks by riding on the motorcycles of her supporters.
“I understand what I am facing,” Ms. Machado told The Times in an interview. “We are aware that there are many risks and that they can do us a lot of harm. I am not telling anyone that this is easy.”
Polls suggest that she is likely to win the primary, which has 10 competitors, but the biggest question is whether she will be able to participate in the general election.
Mr. Maduro’s government has banned Ms. Machado from running for office for 15 years, claiming that she did not complete her declaration of assets and income when she was a legislator. These types of disqualifications are a common tactic used by Mr. Maduro to keep strong competitors off ballots.
Despite an agreement this week to move toward competitive election conditions, the Maduro government has shown little indication that it will allow Ms. Machado to run.
If Ms. Machado is not allowed to run in 2024, the opposition could put forward another candidate. But it is unclear if Ms. Machado would willingly step aside, if the opposition would rally around a single new candidate, or if they would split the vote, essentially handing Mr. Maduro the election.
Ms. Machado’s motto on the campaign trail is “hasta el final” — until the end.
Sunday’s election will take place with no official government support. Instead, the vote is being organized by civil society, with polling stations in homes, parks and offices of different opposition parties.
At the event in Maturín, Carlos Núñez, 66, a retired professor, said he had sold his car and farm so that his wife and children could leave Venezuela for a better life. Now, he does community outreach to encourage fellow citizens to vote in the primaries.
Mr. Núñez said that if Ms. Machado wins the primary and the government prohibits her from running in the general vote, “then the people should be in the streets.”
Nearby, Carmen Cardoso, 66, an oil industry retiree said, she believed Ms. Machado could win next year. “We know it won’t be easy, ” she said, “but we as a people have to guarantee that she comes to power.”