Venezuela, declares one recent report, is stuck in a “catastrophic tie.” Though the crisis fades in and out of public attention in the United States, conditions have continued to deteriorate. In addition to coronavirus lockdowns, the country faces persistent hyperinflation and shortages of goods, particularly gasoline, as well as high levels of violence and poverty. The government of Nicolás Maduro, which calls itself socialist but has become deeply authoritarian, maintains control and the support of the military, in defiance of the challenge led by Juan Guaidó, the head of the National Assembly. Since January 2019, Guaidó has insisted that he is the legal president of the country and has been recognized as such by around fifty countries, including the United States.
The Trump administration wants Maduro out. Its most visible strategy for removing him has been the maintenance and escalation of economic sanctions. The administration has issued indictments of government officials (including Maduro himself) for “narco-terrorism” and other charges. Though there have been occasional gestures toward the idea of military action, there seems to have been no serious planning behind such statements. According to the memoir of former National Security Advisor John Bolton, a Venezuela hawk, Trump has oscillated between thinking that it would be “cool” to invade Venezuela and being impressed by Maduro and his generals. Bolton writes that Trump came to believe that Guaidó didn’t “have what it takes,” calling him the “Beto O’Rourke of Venezuela.” But a policy of sanctions against the state oil company, PDVSA, remains in place, and the U.S. team has undermined efforts to reach negotiated solutions that don’t involve Maduro’s immediate resignation. The Trump administration surely sees potential electoral benefits to this approach, particularly in Florida, where it has made anti-socialist messaging central to its campaign rhetoric. Yet Maduro is more deeply entrenched in power than ever.
By January, there is likely to be a new administration in the White House, and with it an opportunity for a new policy toward Venezuela. Some elements of the approach have been bipartisan. Maduro has no allies among major U.S. elected officials, and in January 2019 Joe Biden also recognized Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela. In the lead up to the election, I wanted to ask Venezuelans what they hope a new a Biden administration might do differently. Public opinion in Venezuela runs from right-wing pro-Trump “Magazuelans” to radical socialists who outflank Maduro to the left. But I spoke by email with five Venezuelan social scientists, who, while representing different positions on the political spectrum, are within the range of opinions that a Biden administration would find reasonable and compelling.
All five of the people I interviewed agreed that the current situation is desperate. Father Arturo Ernesto Peraza Celis, a Jesuit priest and political scientist who currently serves as the vice-chancellor of the private Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, told me Venezuela is a failed state, with a mafia-like dictatorial government. Margarita López Maya of the Universidad Central de Venezuela, a political scientist who has written extensively and increasingly critically about the politics of Hugo Chávez and his successor, described the country as quasi-totalitarian. Maduro’s sliver of remaining support, she said, is rooted primarily in fear. No one among those I interviewed disputed the fact that Maduro’s government is responsible for the economic crisis, and they agreed that the Trump administration’s broad sanctions have made an already bad situation worse.
With Maduro ensconced in power, the opposition is deeply divided. Sociologist Hugo Pérez Hernáiz of the Universidad Central de Venezuela, who monitors conspiratorial thinking in Venezuelan politics, argued that the “all options on the table” rhetoric of the Trump administration was a mirage that gave false hope to a sector of the opposition that sought Maduro’s removal through foreign intervention. Maria Pilar García Guadilla, a human rights and environmental activist and professor of Urban Planning at the Universidad Simón Bolívar, said that this uncertainty has divided the opposition within Venezuela and has also heightened divisions between Venezuelans in Miami and those still living in the country. Peraza, while giving Trump some credit for confronting Maduro, argued that he may have torpedoed negotiations to please voters in Florida. He said that broad sanctions have actually strengthened Maduro’s hand by making the population more dependent on government support. Hugo Pérez Hernáiz agreed, noting that the sanctions also limit the opposition’s ability to act within the country.
If Biden takes power in January, my correspondents hope that the humanitarian elements of the catastrophe will get more attention. Venezuelans are suffering, and the delivery of foreign aid has become intensely politicized. In February 2019, for example, the Trump administration situated aid shipments on Venezuela’s borders, trying to encourage an anti-Maduro revolt, an action that has linked foreign aid to efforts at regime change. In June of this year, Maduro’s government agreed to allow aid administered by the United Nations to enter the country. Peraza thought that a Biden administration should work through international organizations to help restart economic activity and basic services in Venezuela. At the same time, everyone agreed that the broad objective of U.S. policy should be to support a path to credible elections. “The goal is to produce a peaceful political change,” wrote Margarita López Maya, “that through competitive and transparent elections, produces a legitimate government for Venezuela.” Fair and democratic elections are widely seen as the solution to the present crisis—or the beginning of a solution.
When asked how these goals should be accomplished, all five agreed that it is important to bring U.S. efforts more in line with the work of other allies, such as the European Union and the Lima Group, which represents a group of Latin American countries (and Canada). In late September, the Trump administration’s special representative to Venezuela Elliott Abrams accused European diplomats of engaging in “cowboy” diplomacy by being too willing to deal with Maduro and not consulting Washington. One anonymous opposition official told the Washington Post, “I do think that there is a component of the [European] mission that is anti-U.S., but we need the E.U. and we need the U.S. They should not put us in the position of having to choose. It’s like we are the kids and the parents are fighting.” This dynamic has damaged efforts to find an exit from the crisis.
While broad sanctions were unpopular with the group, there was more support for targeted sanctions, which have been a policy of both the Obama and Trump administrations. These sanctions, aimed at corrupt and criminal regime officials, impose visa restrictions and freeze financial assets. Margarita López Maya noted that such sanctions, also put in place by European and Latin American countries, have helped force Maduro’s government to the negotiating table. At the same time, they may be making members of his inner circle cleave more closely to the regime, so she argued that sanctions should be designed to provide opportunities for their targets to flip and support a democratic transition.
Better treatment of Venezuelan refugees in the United States is also a high priority. Temporary Protected Status (which is currently opposed by Trump and favored by the Biden campaign) would allow Venezuelans already in the United States to live and work in the country temporarily, without fear of deportation. As María Pilar García Guadilla put it, Venezuelan migrants “have suffered enough [only] to end up imprisoned.”
All five of my interviewees agreed that policies and measures that harm the general population should be avoided. Peraza suspected military intervention would only worsen the situation, though he wondered whether in the end there “will be no other options.” Maria Puerta-Riera, a Venezuelan political scientist now teaching in Florida, agreed that any use of force would only further destabilize Venezuela and the region more broadly. She did note that it would be important for a Biden administration to consider the ways in which other national policies, particularly toward Cuba, contributed to the crisis in Venezuela.
Finally, I asked everyone how they rate the probability of success for a Biden administration. Everyone noted the complexity of the problem, hardly reducible to one person or actor, but a dynamic involving multiple partners. “The only path is long and uncertain,” Peraza wrote. Hugo Pérez Hernáiz did not rate the chances of success as high but said they would be greater than on the current path. Margarita López Maya stated that much is needed: unification of forces in the democratic international community, some sort of agreement with Maduro’s international allies, and for the Venezuelan opposition to create a robust national pro-democratic movement. All of these changes could occur in the medium term, she thinks, “but it doesn’t seem close.” Maria Puerta-Riera said it will take action both inside and outside the country to convince those in power to allow free elections—the first, but not the only, step toward the restoration of democracy.
If Biden is elected, he will face a challenging domestic and international environment, with multiple emergencies to confront simultaneously. The situation in Venezuela is among the most acute. It is one where the United States is far from the only significant actor, and where an effective policy is hardly a guarantor of success. But a poor policy can be and has made the situation worse, intensifying the political crisis and the suffering of Venezuelans.
Patrick Iber teaches history at the University of Wisconsin and is the author of Neither Peace nor Freedom: The Cultural Cold War in Latin America. He is a member of the editorial board of Dissent.