Will President Biden change policy on Venezuela? The question — and presumed answer — moved enough votes in the 2020 U.S. elections to turn Florida red. But it was a conversation fraught with conjecture, cynicism and willful misinformation. There is no sign the new team has any intention of reversing the Trump administration’s approach. Still, based on shifting ground in Venezuela itself, it is time to review whether existing policies are working and, if not, to make adjustments.
The Biden administration takes office facing a newly-consolidated dictatorship in Venezuela and limited options. Neither the Organization of American States (OAS) acting under the authority of the Inter-American Democracy Charter, the United States imposing significant individual and sectoral sanctions, the Lima Group, the Contact Group, the United Nations, the Pope or any other entity has been able to arrest Venezuela’s 20-year slide from democracy to dictatorship.
For the United States, presidential transitions, particularly from one party to another, offer an excellent opportunity to consider what’s worked, what hasn’t and what remains to be done with the tools available. Successful policy implementation begins with a hard-nosed assessment of vital U.S. interests. These no longer include access to Venezuelan crude oil, which lost much strategic relevance with the domestic fracking boom and parallel increase in global reserves.
What is in the national interest relative to Venezuela is protecting the U.S. homeland from threats like drug trafficking, money laundering and other illegal activities; supporting regional and extra-regional friends and allies threatened by the export of instability, including revolutionary violence, economic duress, refugee flows and health emergencies; and reducing the footprint of authoritarian regimes in the Western Hemisphere. The Biden administration will also find that its desires to protect human rights, mitigate environmental destruction and collaborate more closely with allies all find expression in the Venezuela crisis.
Several recommendations naturally follow.
The first is to acknowledge that President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign failed to achieve the desired result, but so did the Obama administration’s actions. The Maduro dictatorship remains in power. Clarity about the U.S.’s ability to change circumstances within Venezuela using realistically available tools is appropriate; hubris is not. The regime in place in Caracas will neither reform nor negotiate its own demise unless incentives for regime officials, including military and security leaders, shift dramatically.
Targeted sanctions have had a real impact on the dictatorship. But there is yet no particular anxiety in Miraflores Palace that the days of the regime are numbered, and therefore little incentive to negotiate anything in good faith. That may change to the extent that development of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, coupled with an investigation by the International Criminal Court of crimes against humanity, really takes off. The OAS under the leadership of Secretary General Luis Almagro has been instrumental in advancing both of these initiatives, and the Biden team, with its strong preference for multilateral approaches to international affairs, has the international standing to develop them further. It should seize the opportunity, working closely with UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, who has highlighted significant human right abuses by the regime. The Biden administration should also take steps to have Nicolás Maduro and key regime officials banned from U.S.-based social media platforms, including Twitter. There is no legal or moral obligation for the United States or our social media companies to assist those who are credibly accused of crimes against humanity in the oppression of their own people.
All successful sanctions programs must be robust. To reduce leakage, the United States needs allies willing to adjust their sanctions activities. Europe may be more willing to do so now that the Trump administration is gone and the Biden administration seeks to rely more heavily on a multilateral global approach. Canada and Japan are ripe for renewed coordination. Much additional work is also necessary with Latin American nations, including efforts to address the secrecy around banking havens in the Caribbean and Panama. Argentina and Mexico must be brought back into the fold as much as possible, and, given their competing priorities, both will require nimble diplomacy from the new administration. The Biden administration will also need to explore new ways of expelling authoritarian regimes from Venezuela, including China, Russia, Cuba, Iran and Turkey, by changing the cost-benefit calculations behind each country’s decision to engage in virtual colonization.
One early initiative should be to establish a contact group of global democracies for the coordination of Venezuela policies, including, at a minimum, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and the Secretary General of the OAS. Such a Democracies Contact Group for Venezuela (DCG-V) would initially seek specific, achievable objectives as a means to build momentum toward free and fair, internationally monitored presidential elections: allowing in humanitarian aid blocked by Maduro, increasing public space for political dissent, restoring press freedoms, identifying and releasing political prisoners, reducing cross-border drug trafficking and eliminating safe-havens for insurgents and criminals, just to name a few. Each might be linked to specific and coordinated sanctions relief (or further sanctions forbearance).
Certain sanctions, meanwhile, should be reexamined altogether. Although Venezuela’s humanitarian collapse is fully the responsibility of the regime, not the United States or international partners, the longer sectoral sanctions are in place, the more propagandists are able to use them as an excuse to blame others and to create domestic conditions that allow the regime to further consolidate its control. Sanctions are a tool to achieve broader goals, not an end in themselves. If they are effective, they should be utilized. Those that aren’t, or those that trigger unintended consequences in excess of their benefits, should be reconsidered.
Additionally, for its own longer-term interests, the United States must soon find a way to reframe the crisis, changing the narrative and putting the spotlight back where it belongs: the dictatorship in Caracas. One idea is to allow new energy production into international markets with proceeds devoted to humanitarian relief. The complications around developing and implementing such a program are daunting, but so are the increasingly desperate needs of the Venezuelan people, so callously ignored by their own authorities. Regardless, regional humanitarian assistance should be increased, and not just from the United States. A portion of Guyana’s new oil wealth, for example, could contribute to regional relief. Stolen asset recovery could also contribute billions of dollars to the independent distribution of humanitarian aid. At the same time, the United States and like-minded nations must ensure that any new financial resources flowing into the country, including a renewal of diesel swaps, rather than giving succor to the regime, are instead used to alleviate human suffering. It’s a tall order, indeed.
Finally, in politics, you can’t beat something with nothing. Any negotiations with the Maduro regime must empower the interim government of Juan Guaidó, not undermine it. Guaidó must remain the primary interlocutor, and the interim government must demonstrate — not just declare — unity. In-fighting, accusations of corruption and scheming are not helpful. What is helpful is clear, consistent messaging: An illegitimate narco-regime staked by global authoritarians has wrecked the country, causing humanitarian collapse and spreading regional crisis, including transnational crime; its leaders are credibly accused of crimes against humanity; free and fair presidential elections are the desired goal; they cannot occur without Maduro’s exit. Everything else is noise.
The ultimate foreign policy goal, of course, is the peaceful re-establishment of democracy, midwifing a Venezuelan return to the global community of democratic nations. By its nature, this would do more than anything else to create conditions to address other priority concerns while giving voice to the highest aspirations of the Venezuelan people. And it would be a critical step toward building a vision of the hemisphere that is, as Biden himself told the Council of the Americas in 2013, middle-class, democratic and secure.
This is not to say that it will be easy. The Maduro regime is a cadre of self-interested kleptocrats more concerned with self-enrichment than governing, more invested in clinging to power and protecting their privileges than seeking a peaceful restoration of democracy. For them, collateral damage, no matter how devastating, is irrelevant. Any group of individuals who would rather kill their own citizens than allow international aid into the country, as the regime did on Feb. 23, 2019, is not a crowd that will willingly negotiate themselves out of power or even, for that matter, acquiesce to a process that would potentially lead to this result.
This is the basic disconnect that must be resolved by those calling for a negotiated solution with the regime. Otherwise, new negotiations would merely be what they have been: an effective way for the regime to buy time, consolidate control further, claim international legitimacy, divide the international community, and embarrass, divide and demoralize the opposition. Of course, it might also be a way for the United States, in the famous words of Vermont Senator George Aiken, to declare victory and get out, if that is the overriding interest. In calling for negotiations, some international observers wearing ideological blinders may in fact seek such a scenario, with the Maduro regime and its Chavista successors ensconced indefinitely. But walking away from democracy in Venezuela — a consolidated, revolutionary dictatorship in the geographic heart of Latin America and the Caribbean, one that uses the wealth of the world’s largest proven oil reserves to undermine democracy elsewhere — would not be much of a victory. Fortunately, this is neither the intent nor the desire of the Biden administration.
For negotiations to succeed in finding a peaceful, democratic solution, however, incentives must shift. The costs of the regime remaining in power must be made to exceed the costs of departure. That has been the underlying rationale of U.S. sanctions to date, in addition to restricting the ability of Venezuela to use its resources to undermine regional democracies and promote an anti-democratic worldview. Sanctions have not worked effectively to the extent that they have not yet caused Maduro to depart. But they have restricted the Maduro regime’s freedom of action and exposed the true nature of the regime to worldwide condemnation. Some nations have matched at least some of the sanctions, while others have balked. Much more can and should be done to coordinate the international sanctions regime.
Sanctions can also be calibrated to encourage or discourage behavior, with some obvious limitations. Because the sanctions regime is tied closely to the criminal activities of the Maduro regime, including drug trafficking, gross corruption, human right abuse and crimes against humanity, they cannot be lightly unwound. At the same time, assertions by some observers that indictments against regime officials would prevent successful negotiations cannot be taken seriously.
Ultimately, it’s not the interim government that will ultimately restore democracy; it’s the Venezuelan people. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding Maduro’s downfall , it will be the Venezuelan people that will risk their own present conditions for the promise of a better future. Sanctions must be married to internal pressure. For this to occur, people need hope, the biggest threat to Maduro’s reign. Without popular hope that the future can be better, the regime will never leave. With it, there is nothing over time that the Venezuelan people cannot do to reclaim a democratic future.
Tags: Biden, Nicolás Maduro, United States, Venezuela