At last, some encouraging news is emerging from Venezuela. In November, the regime of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and leaders from the country’s opposition movement restarted negotiations in Mexico. That same month, the White House granted Chevron a temporary license to restart oil production in Venezuela. Both initiatives—the talks and the easing of draconian U.S. sanctions—offer hope that the country might be able to break out of its political stalemate and address a humanitarian crisis that has spurred some seven million Venezuelans to flee their country.
To be clear, U.S. President Joe Biden’s moves were modest. The authorization allowing Chevron to operate in Venezuela will be reviewed every six months; the Biden administration is also maintaining sanctions on the Venezuelan economy and on 22 individuals close to the Maduro government. Still, the flexibility that Biden has demonstrated represents an important change from the “maximum pressure” strategy of U.S. President Donald Trump. Back in 2019, the United States imposed crippling sanctions on Venezuela, intended to force the collapse of Maduro’s regime. This move came after Venezuelan opposition leaders, who commanded a majority of seats in the country’s legislative body, argued that Maduro’s 2018 election was illegitimate and that they had the constitutional authority to appoint an interim president. Much of the international community had indeed denounced the 2018 election as fraudulent. And at first, interim President Juan Guaidó commanded substantial global support: almost 60 countries recognized him as Venezuela’s president. He was popular domestically, too: in February 2019, 84 percent of Venezuelans voiced their approval of his leadership, according to a poll by Meganalisis.
But the opposition’s promise of a quick restoration of democracy came to naught after the armed forces remained aligned with Maduro. Overpromising and underdelivering has sent Guaidó’s approval rating plummeting to a low of five percent. Support for the interim government has also collapsed internationally: only nine countries—including the United States—still call Guaidó Venezuela’s president. The opposition appears poised for change: the mandate of the National Assembly that anointed Guaidó expired in 2021, and all signs indicate that that body will not renew the interim government and the Guaidó “presidency” when they vote on the issue on January 5. Although this is arguably a reflection of political reality, it could also exacerbate tensions within the already divided opposition coalition.
This all means that a course correction in U.S. foreign policy toward Venezuela is long overdue. The Biden administration has stressed that the new round of negotiations is between Venezuelans, but the United States has a key role to play. Although Trump’s maximum pressure sanctions failed in their goal of bringing about the surrender of the Maduro government, they remain a powerful point of leverage for the United States to press the Maduro regime to commit to a free and fair presidential election in 2024. The Biden administration must tread carefully to create incentives for Maduro to help restore democracy to Venezuela and support the dialogue between the regime and the opposition. Biden will have to do this while fending off attacks from congressional representatives who are opposed to making any concessions to the regime in Venezuela—even though the current policy has failed to make any meaningful movement toward its original goals.
Half a Loaf
The success of the negotiations will hinge on several factors. Maduro will have to accede to improving human rights conditions and to electoral reforms ahead of the 2024 Venezuelan elections. The divided and weakened opposition, meanwhile, will have to resolve their differences and coalesce around one candidate to have any chance of prevailing in that electoral showdown.
There is mounting pressure on Maduro. The U.S. Justice Department has indicted him and several of his officials for charges ranging from corruption to drug trafficking. In March 2020, the U.S. Department of State placed a $15 million bounty for information leading to Maduro’s arrest. And in early 2023, the International Criminal Court may hand down indictments against Maduro and others for crimes against humanity following the findings of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, created by the UN Human Rights Council.
Political dynamics in the United States, meanwhile, are imposing constraints on the Biden administration. Hard-liners in Congress such as Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, are close with some of the most intransigent members of the Venezuelan opposition, who reject making any concessions to the Maduro regime, including the loosening of sanctions. Their commitment to tough sanctions recalls their defense of the U.S. embargo on Cuba, which has been in place for more than 60 years but has failed to usher in greater human rights and democratization in that country.
To be fair, there is reason to be skeptical of Maduro’s motives. The Venezuelan leader has taken advantage of previous negotiations with the opposition to buy time, divide his opponents, and crack down even harder on dissent. Venezuela’s constitution calls for presidential elections in 2024; Maduro might try to bring the vote forward to 2023 to benefit from fractures in the opposition. Mindful of these potential pitfalls, the Biden administration has pledged that sanctions will return if the regime fails to move toward democratization. New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, the Democratic chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, reinforced that point shortly after the White House announced the changes on November 26, saying, “If Maduro again tries to use these negotiations to buy time to further consolidate his criminal dictatorship, the United States and our international partners must snap back the full force of our sanctions that brought his regime to the negotiating table in the first place.”
A course correction in U.S. foreign policy toward Venezuela is long overdue.
But if the Maduro government were to commit to reforms, there are several concrete steps that it should take. Addressing the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela must be a priority. There are encouraging signs on this front. In November, for example, the government and the opposition reached a deal to unfreeze $3 billion of Venezuelan assets abroad and to use the money to address acute domestic need, under the supervision of the UN.
Accessing the money, however, could prove challenging. With the Venezuelan state effectively in financial default and frozen out of international capital markets, it will be difficult to unblock the funds quickly enough to meet citizens’ expectations. (Encouragingly, a group of the largest creditors clarified that they will not attempt to interfere with the unblocking of assets to support the Venezuelan people.) To help maximize the potential that the talks will be successful, Washington should conditionally lift financial sanctions—pending progress on political and civil conditions—to allow for negotiations over Venezuelan debt and credit. This approach would not only benefit the current government but contribute to the country’s future economic security, since Venezuela could return to international credit markets if it makes credible, concrete progress in elections and restoring the rule of law.
In addition to alleviating Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis, the talks must focus on creating the conditions for a legitimate election. A European Union–led election observation mission that monitored the November 2021 regional elections has provided 23 specific steps that the Maduro government will need to take. They include strengthening judicial independence, reforming the electoral authority, ensuring freedom of expression, and lifting arbitrary restrictions on several opposition leaders. The United States should hinge its easing of sanctions to Maduro’s compliance with these recommendations.
The Biden administration will need to put pressure not just on Maduro but on the opposition, as well. In anticipation of the 2024 election, these leaders should organize primaries and pick a single presidential candidate. In the past, internecine battles have prevented the opposition from mounting the most potent challenge they can. This time, they must rise to the occasion.
A Changing Neighborhood
In addition to monitoring the diplomatic discussions, the Biden administration must reach out to other Latin American countries that could nudge Maduro toward democratization. Unlike in 2019, when most of the region was dominated by right-wing governments that supported Guaidó, today leftist forces are in power in nearly all Latin American countries. As a result, the Venezuelan regime is not as isolated as before. Colombia’s left-wing president, Gustavo Petro, for instance, reopened his country’s border with Venezuela and visited Maduro in Caracas, the first encounter between the leaders of those two countries in six years. Incoming Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—who will formally commence his term in January—recently announced he will restart diplomatic relations with Caracas, as well. This is an important development: Brazil has the economic and political weight to play a significant role in pressing for democratic conditions in Venezuela.
In addition to working with other Latin American nations, the United States must shore up its diplomatic presence in Caracas. The absence of a U.S. diplomatic mission in Venezuela has complicated efforts to protect American interests and citizens. It has also reduced Washington’s ability to regularly engage with the Maduro regime, coordinate the nonpartisan delivery of humanitarian support, and facilitate the ability of Venezuelans living outside the country to vote in domestic elections. The last will require some form of diplomatic recognition of the Maduro regime to allow for consular services for its citizens living in the United States—that is, of course, if the Maduro government is willing to permit Venezuelans to vote outside the country.
The United States should also encourage opposition leaders and Maduro government delegates to the negotiations to agree on a consensus candidate to represent Venezuela in the Inter-American Development Bank. Shortly after the declaration of Guaidó as interim president, the opposition government appointed its own representative to the region’s development bank. But without the necessary approval of the actual government in Caracas, the development bank—which invested $23.4 billion in the region in 2021—is unable to provide much-needed humanitarian or development support and credit lines to the country.
Evidence suggests that sanctions are more powerful when used as a constructive—rather than merely punitive—diplomatic tool. Although Maduro deserves plenty of blame for his country’s economic ruin, international sanctions have undoubtedly worsened an already dire situation and deepened the suffering of millions of Venezuelans. More broadly, then, the Biden administration’s willingness to discuss conditional sanctions relief in Venezuela is an opportunity to revise the use of this foreign policy instrument.
After years of authoritarianism and socioeconomic collapse, Venezuela faces a long road back to democracy. The overriding objective of the diplomatic talks is not to choose Venezuela’s leaders but to help improve the country’s humanitarian situation and give its citizens the opportunity to select their political representatives in free and fair elections. Maduro could well win in a legitimate election. If he lost, he would likely contest the result, though a credibly close election could also open up an opportunity for much-needed national healing via a coalition government. In essence, there are no guarantees. But the talks at least hold the promise for a negotiated solution to Venezuela’s crisis. It may well be the last in some time. The United States should do all it can to give diplomacy a chance.