Recent statements by US officials suggest that Washington will continue to pursue a hard-line policy on Venezuela. The Biden administration, however, needs to rethink its approach urgently.
US State Department spokesperson Ned Price remarked on 3 February that he "certainly" does not "expect this administration to be engaging directly with [President] Maduro" in Venezuela. Namely, Price expects that the Biden administration will stick to its predecessor's strategy which is predicated on completely ignoring the current government in Caracas.
Moreover, the Biden team will continue to have a dialogue with Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaidó. On March 2, Guaidó had a discussion with the new US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. It was the highest-level US contact with the increasingly-discredited and isolated Guaidó since Biden's inauguration in January. In their exchange, Blinken and Guaidó agreed on the "importance of a return to democracy in Venezuela through free and fair elections".
It would be rational, therefore, to conclude that no significant change regarding US foreign policy in Venezuela will occur during Biden's presidency. However, such a conclusion would be hasty, as it fails to appreciate the numerous changes that have transpired in and around Venezuela in recent years, especially since Washington strengthened its economic sanctions on the South American country in 2015 and again in 2017, 2019 and, finally, February last year.
Washington's agenda in Venezuela has failed, and no amount of additional sanctions are likely to change the political outcome. Not only did the Maduro government, the ruling party, regional and international allies prove durable and capable of withstanding immense political and economic pressures, but also Washington's allies are no longer united, neither about Venezuela nor anywhere else.
Guaidó, who arrived on the scene in 2015, was elevated from being a little known politician to the anti-socialism hero designated by Washington to reclaim Venezuela in the name of liberal democracy. His legitimacy was largely derived from the Venezuelan opposition's victory in the elections of that same year.
Since then, however, that legitimacy has slowly eroded. By investing disproportionately in Washington's ability to oust Maduro through severe sanctions, diplomatic delegitimisation and political pressure, Guaidó slowly abandoned his initial Venezuela-centric approach, thus delegitimising himself instead, even among his own supporters. Frustrated by his self-serving priorities, and knowing that Guaidó's current strategy would not lead to any substantive political reordering in the country, Venezuela's opposition disintegrated into small factions.
In January 2020, another opposition lawmaker, Luis Parra, attempted to claim the position of Speaker of Parliament. This led parliamentary security officials to block Guaidó's access to the Palacio Federal Legislativo for he, too, was claiming the same chair. Images of the chaotic scene were beamed across the globe.
Venezuela's most recent legislative elections in December reflected the deep divisions among the country's opposition parties, where some adhered strictly to the boycott of the elections while others took part. The outcome was a decisive victory for Maduro's United Socialist Party, which now has complete control over the country's political institutions. France24 news agency captured this new reality with this headline: "New Venezuela Parliament leaves Western-backed Guaidó out in cold".
Actually, Blinken's call to Guaidó, whose moment has passed, is unlikely to change much on the ground. His usefulness now lies in the fact that Washington has no other "strong man" in Caracas. Moreover, Washington has invested a lot of financial resources and political credit in Guaidó which allowed him to claim the title of Venezuela's interim president. Completely divesting from Guaidó is thus also a risky manoeuvre.
Of note is the shift in language in the US political discourse, following the Blinken-Guaidó telephone conversation: the "importance of a return to democracy in Venezuela through free and fair elections". The change is, perhaps, subtle but still significant, as it is no longer a decisive demand to remove Maduro from power.
It seems that the distance between the respective positions of the US and Venezuela is shrinking. In August 2019, the Washington Post reported that Venezuelan negotiators, speaking on behalf of Maduro's government, made a "startling offer" during mediated talks with the country's opposition in Norway two months earlier, where the government "signalled (its) willingness to hold such a vote within nine to 12 months," referring to the opposition's demand for fresh presidential elections.
Nevertheless, it behoves Washington to engage Caracas in civil political conversations, away from threats and sanctions, for two main reasons: despite claims that the majority of Venezuelans living in the US support Washington's hard-line policies, 46 per cent of them also "support a removal of oil sanctions if the Maduro government agrees to hold internationally recognised free and fair elections." That was according to a recent opinion poll published by the right-wing Atlantic Council.
Furthermore, Washington's futile sanctions-based approach to Venezuela has proved not only immensely harmful to the welfare of the Venezuelan people but also to Washington's own regional interests. US obstinacy has allowed its global rivals, Russia and China, to cement their economic and strategic interests in the South American country.
In its 2019 report, the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) revealed that, in 2017-18, US-led sanctions on Venezuela "have inflicted — and increasingly inflict — very serious harm to human life and health, including an estimated more than 40,000 deaths."
There can be no political logic or moral justification for this ongoing humanitarian calamity. The US must end its collective punishment of the people of Venezuela.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.