Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

A Bipartisan U.S. Approach On Venezuela Is Possible—and Necessary

Trump and Obama National Security Council appointees pitch a new strategy, together.
President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela speaks at the Tienditas International Bridge in Cúcuta, Colombia, on Feb. 16, 2023.Ferley Ospina/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Despite divided government in Washington, there is ample room for bipartisan action on U.S. foreign policy. Countering China and buttressing Ukraine against Russia top the list, but the foremost opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to work together may be in Venezuela, where presidential elections next year offer the best chance in years for a democratic opening.

U.S. policy in the Americas has often been characterized by bipartisanship. In recent decades, Democrats backed the George H.W. Bush Administration’s diplomatic efforts that helped end civil wars in Central America; the North American and U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreements each passed with a strong bipartisan vote in Congress; Plan Colombia, which reduced drug trafficking and weakened an armed insurgency, has been implemented across five U.S. presidencies; and both parties have supported development programs to address the root causes of migration from Central America.

On Venezuela, too, Republicans and Democrats have generally found common cause, jointly reacting with alarm as Presidents Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro dismantled democratic institutions, engaged in drug trafficking, allied with rogue regimes and created an economic calamity that has driven more than 7 million Venezuelans out of the country. In 2015, President Obama issued an executive order on the “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security” posed by Venezuela, and his administration laid the groundwork for sanctions imposed on Venezuelan officials by the Trump Administration. Democrats were largely supportive of Trump’s gambit to recognize National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela and to widen sanctions on the Venezuela economy.

Today, most members of Congress agree on using sanctions as leverage to induce the Maduro regime to engage in genuine negotiations with the political opposition and improve conditions for the 2024 election. There is broad support for denying Maduro the international legitimacy he craves and the financing his government needs unless he holds a legitimate election.    

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To the extent there have been differences over U.S. policy toward Venezuela, they have largely mirrored tactical differences of opinion within the Venezuelan opposition—namely, whether to participate in elections under unfair conditions and how to calibrate sanctions to pressure the regime. But today, there is near-unanimity among the opposition on a political way forward: to hold a primary in October to select a standard bearer for next year’s presidential election, and to negotiate with the regime for better electoral conditions.

Opposition candidates Sergio Garrido celebrates after defeating Maduro's candidate in a special election for governor of Barinas state.
Opposition politician Sergio Garrido celebrates after upsetting Maduro’s candidate in a special election for governor of Barinas state, the birthplace of Hugo Chavez, in Jan. 2022.
Photo by Manaure Quintero/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

Naturally, there is ample skepticism that the regime would hold an election that could threaten its grip on power. But there is now also widespread agreement that sanctions alone will not bring down the regime, that street protests have largely run their course, and that fissures in the armed forces are not sufficient to produce political change. The democratic opposition, moreover, has enjoyed notable success in recent elections, including in 2021 when opposition-aligned parties won a majority of votes nationwide in local elections.

The opposition is putting differences aside ahead of the presidential election. Both parties should support its decision to compete in the elections and back policies and programs that will maximize the likelihood the election will produce a democratic opening. That means delivering a united message to the opposition that, notwithstanding any doubts about the likelihood of success, the U.S. stands behind the decision to use the electoral process to advance democracy in Venezuela.  

To the Maduro regime, Congress should make clear that the U.S. will gradually lift sanctions in response to positive steps, such as releasing political prisoners, announcing a date for the presidential election, and lifting prohibitions on some opposition figures’ right to run for office.

At the same time, both parties should underscore that lifted sanctions can be reimposed if the government fails to engage seriously in negotiations with the opposition or takes regressive steps, like passing a proposed law that would place independent NGOs in legal jeopardy.

Congress should keep several key points in mind. First, the election of left-wing governments in Colombia and Brazil does not necessarily undermine the democratic cause in Venezuela, and may even strengthen it given the sway the new presidents could have with the Maduro regime.

Second, some members of Congress might themselves be well-positioned to constructively engage with the Maduro regime. While the Boston Group, an informal gathering of legislators from the United States and Venezuela, long ago disbanded as a bilateral forum, some of the former U.S. participants maintain contact with their Venezuelan counterparts. The release in 2018 of Joshua Holt, an American unjustly imprisoned in Venezuela, came about because of quiet diplomacy by Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Third, tangible support for the Venezuelan people should continue. Congress has been strongly supportive of the humanitarian assistance the U.S. has provided to date, making it the largest donor to Venezuelans inside and outside the country. Congress should back efforts to implement the humanitarian agreement reached by the regime and the opposition to direct billions of dollars in frozen assets to U.N. social programs in Venezuela.

Finally, Congress should also agree on continued support for democracy advocates in Venezuela. Washington can provide logistical support to the opposition to organize a successful primary, resources to keep independent media alive and combat disinformation, and assistance to civil society groups to monitor and educate voters about the electoral process. The Maduro regime would surely denounce such assistance as meddling, but Washington should defer to local activists to weigh the benefits and risks of receiving support from abroad.

The most difficult matter for U.S. officials to grapple with will be over guarantees for regime officials in the event the opposition wins the presidential election. Maduro and other senior officials have committed crimes against humanity, as documented by U.N. investigators, and Maduro and other high-level officials have been charged in the U.S. with drug trafficking and corruption.

Ultimately, however, Washington should agree to let Venezuelans render justice. The opposition figures who would negotiate any form of modified justice are victims themselves, and civil society leaders will be vocal on the matter. The U.S. should be ready to defer to agreements made between Venezuelans.

Contemplating such matters might seem like a pipe dream. The alternatives, however, are to double down on failed approaches or acquiesce to an autocratic state. Millions of Venezuelans will be on the front lines in this struggle. They deserve the unified backing of the United States.

Mark Feierstein is a senior advisor at Dentons Global Advisors-Albright Stonebridge Group and the U.S. Institute of Peace. Juan Cruz, a 35-year veteran of the U.S. Government, is a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. They served in the Obama and Trump Administrations, respectively, as both special assistant to the president and senior director for Western Hemisphere Affairs on the National Security Council.

Tags: Maduro, U.S. Policy, Venezuela, Venezuela elections
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