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The U.S. now has a Mad-utin problem. It's solvable — if we drop the dictator hypocrisy

PETRO PARTNERS? President Biden (left) announcing a ban on Russian oil imports this week, which could re-open the door to imports from the regime of dictatorial Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro (right)
PETRO-PARTNERS? President Biden (left) and Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro

COMMENTARY: If Trump dealt with Kim, then Biden can deal with Maduro — as long as Biden treats Venezuela's dictator tougher than Trump treated North Korea's.

Two weeks into the global crisis leaching from Russia’s monstrous invasion of Ukraine — as Americans stare at the prospect of paying as much for gas as they do for guns — the U.S. now has a Mad-utin problem:

Should the Biden Administration lift U.S. sanctions on the oil Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro’s regime exports, in order to make up for the ban Biden just slapped on crude imports from Russian strongman Vladimir Putin’s regime?

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Top U.S. officials discussed the possibility, among other issues like releasing Americans imprisoned in Venezuela, with top Maduro officials in Caracas last weekend. But this actually leaves Americans wrestling with two issues: not just the urgent need to find replacement petroleum, but the just as urgent need to fight repressive presidents — dictators like Maduro.

On the one hand, it’s nauseating to think of the U.S. seeking help from and offering help to a thug whose goons have committed what U.N. investigators call crimes against humanity. A guy who's annihilated Venezuela’s economy and democracy, forcing a fifth of its population to flee the country. A wingnut the U.S. doesn’t even recognize as Venezuela’s legitimate head of state — and Putin’s biggest cheerleader in Latin America during Russia’s Ukraine blitzkrieg.

READ MORE: Rubio's hypocrisy on Trump, North Korea — call in Rubiocrisy — is bad for Latin America

On the other hand, as I’ve said before in this space, it’s right for the U.S. to engage even vile U.S. foes when there’s a valid opening.

It was right for former President Obama to reboot relations with communist Cuba in 2014, especially since half a century of isolation policy hadn’t moved the island one pulgada toward democracy. And it was right for former President Trump to sit down with North Korea’s own communist crazy, Kim Jong Un — even though Kim brutalizes his population and starves it to pay for nuclear missiles.

Politicos like Rubio can't defend Trump's bromance with a dictatorial U.S. foe in North Korea and then cry foul when Biden engages another in Venezuela.

In fact, guess who else didn't denounce Trump’s Singapore huddle with Kim in 2018? Our own Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. He even got furious with the media then for questioning Trump’s ludicrous description of Kim as a “talented” statesman whose people “love him.”

“I don’t recall all the ‘experts’ criticizing Obama when he met with a brutal dictator in #Cuba [then President Raúl Castro] who also oversaw a police state & also killed & jailed his opponents,” Rubio tweeted.


The media and “experts” did criticize Obama for missteps during that 2016 visit to Havana, like his bit-too-chummy outing with Raúl to a baseball game. But the more important point is that politicos like Rubio can’t defend Trump's bromance with a rabid U.S. enemy and then decry last weekend’s Caracas confab — as Rubio of course did, again on Twitter:

Biden, he tweeted, “wants to replace the oil we buy from one murderous dictator with oil from another murderous dictator.” Translation: it’s OK for Trump to woo a murderous dictator in North Korea, but Biden’s a traitor for talking to one in Venezuela — whose exiles come to Florida and vote.

Then President Trump (right) and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Singapore in 2018.
Evan Vucci
Then President Trump (right) and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Singapore in 2018.

Once we get past that hypocrisy — or Rubiocrisy — the real question becomes how should the U.S. deal with Maduro during this crisis? And the answer is: a hell of a lot tougher than Trump dealt with Kim.

Start by recognizing that Maduro needs to sell us his oil again more than we need to buy it. Yes, it would be nice to have the half million barrels a day Venezuela’s wrecked petro-industry could supply us as gasoline levitates toward $6 a gallon. But that’s a fraction of what the U.S. imports. Meanwhile, Maduro desperately needs to take advantage of the more-than-$100-a-barrel price window while it lasts — especially now when Russian banks can't help him sidestep the hurdles that U.S. sanctions put in the way of selling Venezuelan oil around the world.

So seller, meet your buyer:

To relax sanctions, America can press much harder for real democratic reforms in Venezuela, including the release of political prisoners and a new, credible presidential election that Maduro would almost certainly lose. Add leverage by requiring Maduro, under close international monitoring, to let most if not all the oil revenue go to NGOs who’ll deliver food, medicine and other scarce essentials directly to beleaguered Venezuelans.

Fact is, the Mad-utin conundrum is solvable. There’s a way to have our replacement petroleum and eat up a repressive president too.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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