Over the past decade, Venezuela has become persona non grata in the Western Hemisphere as its government has taken a notably anti-American line both domestically and in international affairs. From Venezuela’s interventionist economic policies that generally hurt American businesses to Venezuela’s decision to strengthen relations with countries such as China, Iran, and Russia, the South American country has made it clear that it’s thoroughly against the American-dominated unipolar order of yesteryear.
As a result, the United States pursued various punitive measures such as sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign directed against Venezuela’s regime. While these sanctions have yet to topple the regime of Nicolás Maduro, they have done a number on Venezuela’s oil sector. Add in a general deterioration of the country’s vaunted oil industry, and you have the recipe for a rapidly collapsing oil sector that has trouble sending exports abroad.
In light of these developments, the Venezuelan state has had to adapt by circumventing international restrictions and finding new means of generating revenue. Enter “dark fleets”. Dark fleets refers to groups of tanker vessels which hide their locations in order to facilitate the transportation of illegal cargo of crude oil and other related oil and gas products.
According to a report by Matthew Smith of Oil Price, tanker dark fleets are established through devious methods that allow the tankers to avoid being identified or tracked. Some of these methods consist of “turning off the vessel’s ID system, spoofing its location and using multiple flags of convenience over short periods.”
The use of dark fleets is not brand new. Dark fleets first surfaced when the US first tightened sanctions against Iran and Venezuela. To avoid stiff financial penalties for simply exporting crude oil to prominent markets, the two sanctioned countries started engaging in this practice.
However, dark fleet voyages have increased significantly in the wake of Russia’s military incursion of Ukraine. As a response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the US and its satrapies in NATO imposed sanctions on Russia’s petroleum export sector.
In a similar vein, the volume of tankers covertly shipping petroleum to Iran and Venezuela has increased in the last three years. Per a Reuters investigation, there was a fleet of 300 vessels transporting Iranian crude oil by March 2023. By contrast, these figures compared stood at 70 in November 2020. Data from maritime AI company Windward points to 1,100 vessels being present in the dark fleet. Roughly 32% of these vessels are crude oil tankers, an additional 20% are oil product vessels, and the rest are made up of chemical in addition to other kinds of tankers.
Venezuela’s oil sector has experienced all sorts of tumult in the last few decades to the Chavista regime’s policies that promoted cronyist hiring policies that prioritized party loyalty over competency. Combined that with interventionist economic policies that undermined property rights and created institutional instability, and you have the recipe for prolonged economic tumult — a fixture of Venezuela’s political economy in the last two decades.
However, Venezuela was able to get a lifeline from Iran, who has supplied it with high-skilled technicians and important parts to help rebuild the South American country’s deteriorating oil infrastructure. This is just one aspect of the growing Iranian-Venezuelan partnership that has largely been forged in response to the US’s mutually hawkish foreign policy towards both countries. The use of dark fleets is just the latest way for both countries to skirt the US’s sanctions while staying economically afloat.
Dark fleets are crucial for Venezuela’s exports of crude oil, which are largely heading towards China — a country that has demanded even more gas and oil exports to buttress its rapidly industrializing economy. For Venezuela, dark fleets and subsequent expansions of this grouping of vessels will allow it to dial up its oil export volume, which is integral to Venezuela’s economic success.
In a multipolar world order, Venezuela’s relationship with Iran will naturally tighten due to the aforementioned antagonism both countries hold against the US. Moreover, these two “rogue” nations will find ways to economically keep the lights on in the face of the stiff penalties they have incurred by evoking the wrath of the American national security state. Just like criminals find ways to raise funds in the black market, sanctioned nations like Iran and Venezuela will team up to find under-handed schemes to make money.
With most of the world outside of the West on largely good terms with Iran and Venezuela, these two countries will likely be able to pull off this dark fleet scheme with relative ease. With the US no longer the only sheriff in town, countries on its naughty list will still be able to interact with the rest of the world without any fear of being subverted. This is a marked difference from the unipolar era where the US could throw its weight around with virtual impunity.
The game has changed now that the US is not the only nuclear power dictating the terms of the geopolitical great game.