Stand tough against Russia-Venezuela-Iran axis, says opposition figure

Venezuelan politician Isadora Zubillaga says Tehran and Caracas are colluding against western oil sanctions

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, second left, shakes hands with Iran's Oil Minister Javad Owji during his visit to Caracas earlier this month. Photo: AFP

Venezuelan opposition figure Isadora Zubillaga has warned of an axis between Russia, Venezuela and Iran, and urged western leaders to maintain pressure and sanctions on the three authoritarian oil exporters.

Ms Zubillaga, the deputy foreign minister for the US-recognised interim government of Juan Guaido, called for sustained international pressure to help end the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

She said Mr Maduro was a “subsidiary” of Russian President Vladimir Putin, described co-operation between Moscow, Caracas and Tehran to blunt the effect of sanctions, and urged western leaders to create a united front.

“Making regimes like Maduro, Putin, Iran's stronger will not help to make democracies and freedom-loving countries stronger,” Ms Zubillaga told The National.

“They have been collaborating in the past; they will be collaborating in the future. They will bypass sanctions.”

The US recognises Mr Guaido as Venezuela's rightful leader and has shunned Mr Maduro, calling his 2018 re-election a sham. Washington imposed oil sanctions the following year in an effort to dislodge him.

Western nations have led the push to impose sanctions on Russia over its 10-week-old invasion of Ukraine, while Iran has for years been subject to on-and-off UN and bilateral sanctions over its nuclear programme.

Ms Zubillaga pointed to Mr Maduro’s recent meetings with senior Russian officials and last week’s visit of Iran’s Oil Minister Javad Owji to Caracas as signs of “very comfortable” ties between the three countries.

Venezuela has begun importing Iranian heavy crude to feed its domestic refineries, documents released this week from the state-run oil company PDVSA showed. The two US-sanctioned nations signed a swap deal last year.

Ms Zubillaga warned against making political concessions to Mr Maduro.

US diplomats met the Venezuelan leader in March, reportedly about loosening American sanctions and boosting Venezuelan oil exports to raise supplies and reduce reliance on Russian exports, in an effort to put pressure on Moscow over the war in Ukraine.

“Our international allies should be very aware … that is not in favour of democracy,” Ms Zubillaga said.

“You don't trade oil for democracy. You don’t trade with these regimes thinking they will be closer to you, because they won’t. They will never be friends with" the US, she added.

Isadora Zubillaga, pictured in New York in 2019. Photo: Getty

Dozens of western countries originally supported Mr Guaido as Venezuela's leader, but since 2021 legislative elections the EU and several countries back him only as a major opposition figure.

Mr Guaido's popularity is sagging, Mr Maduro's opponents are divided, and few analysts see any imminent threat to the president's political survival.

"We are not achieving the results as fast as we would have wanted," said Ms Zubillaga, who is also an envoy to France.

“We're fighting every single day, sometimes in the dark.”

Still, she added, there was a "window of opportunity" for world powers to put pressure on Mr Maduro to return to stalled talks with opposition figures in Mexico, with hopes that he could be challenged in elections set for 2024.

“That is not going to be spontaneous, it needs to be forced by the international pressure, it needs to be co-ordinated,” she added.

Mr Maduro says US sanctions — not his own administration's mismanagement — have tanked Venezuela's economy and sent desperate migrants spilling across its borders. He says Washington has tried to assassinate him and stage a coup.

Updated: May 10, 2022, 5:56 PM