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A Chance for a Reset on Venezuela

A Chance for a Reset on Venezuela featured image

January 10, 2023

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The collapse of the opposition’s flawed interim government, which the U.S. had backed, provides an opportunity for a new approach.

By William Neuman

The long-running misadventure of Juan Guaidó’s so-called interim presidency in Venezuela has finally come to an end. Guaidó is the former legislator who declared himself Venezuela’s rightful president in January 2019 in a high-stakes bid to force out the country’s strongman ruler, Nicolás Maduro. But Guaidó was a fictitious president in charge of a fictitious government and, despite the full-throated support of President Donald Trump, his crusade was a chimera—it went nowhere as it lurched from one ill-prepared maneuver to another.

The ordinary Venezuelans who initially came out in thousands in the hopes that Guaidó had hit upon a formula to rid them of the despised Maduro soon lost interest. Their attention and energies returned instead to the task of daily survival in a nation whose economy had collapsed, where widespread electrical blackouts were the norm, and where millions of children went hungry.

Finally, a group of Guaidó’s erstwhile legislative colleagues in the National Assembly, meeting via videoconference in late December, voted to draw the curtain on his parallel government; it officially expired last week.

The development was welcomed by the Biden administration, which is eager to move on from a set of policies inherited from Trump. Those policies have not only failed to turn Venezuela back toward democracy but also exacerbated its catastrophic economic collapse and weakened the political opposition that the U.S. supports. This latest course correction by Maduro’s beleaguered opposition gives the White House a chance to reboot.

Guaidó became the face of that opposition when he emerged, seemingly out of nowhere, four years ago. Trump, who had already begun a maximum-pressure campaign of punitive economic sanctions on Venezuela, backed Guaidó, and dozens of other countries followed his lead.

But the Guaidó gambit was doomed from the start. He acted bravely in standing up to Maduro but he never had a plan beyond a vague and ultimately false hope that the military would stage a coup against Maduro or that the U.S. would invade. It was all improvisation: Guaidó never had the ability to make good on his promise to deliver the nation from Maduro or improve the dire conditions of ordinary Venezuelans.

But there was a further reason for Guaidó’s failure. Far from uniting Venezuela’s quarrelsome opposition, he deepened the distrust and discord that has long plagued it.

Back in 2019, Guaidó and his political mentor, the opposition leader Leopoldo López, engaged in secret talks with the White House and the State Department that culminated in the plan for Guaidó to declare himself president. They hid their intentions from other opposition leaders, who were taken by surprise. Anointed by their U.S. backers, Guaidó and López continued to alienate other groups within the opposition. Acting unilaterally and heavy-handedly, they lurched from mistake to mistake, finally leaving the opposition’s base disillusioned.

Today, Maduro is stronger and more secure in power than he was before. The opposition, by contrast, is in disarray as it prepares for the country’s next presidential election, in 2024. When opposition representatives declared an end to Guaidó’s interim presidency (“interim” because it was supposed to last only a short time until a new election could take place), it was partly a comeuppance for hubris and many mistakes, and partly an effort to put that debacle behind them.

The end of the Guaidó fiction coincides with important changes outside Venezuela that favor a Biden policy reset.

In the United States, the Democratic Party is recognizing that Florida is no longer a swing state. The process of that realization began after Joe Biden’s 2020 victory, which came despite a loss in Florida, a state with the third-largest number of electoral votes. The Republican wipeout of Democratic candidates there in the 2022 midterms cemented the view that Florida is now out of play. For years, because of the swing state’s delicate poise, electoral concerns over Cuban American voters have held U.S.-Cuba policy hostage—and that dynamic was extended to U.S.-Venezuela policy by Trump. The altered electoral geography allows Biden to create a new policy without worrying about its impact on a relatively small number of voters who could tip the balance in Florida.

Another change is a leftward shift among Latin American governments. Left-of-center presidents have recently taken office in Venezuela’s neighbors, Brazil and Colombia, whose previous right-wing presidents were strong backers of Guaidó and Trump.

Tom Shannon, a former undersecretary of state in the Obama and Trump administrations, with long experience in Venezuela, told me that the Biden administration’s first priority should be to encourage Latin American countries with left-leaning presidents—a group that also includes Argentina, Chile, and Mexico—to take the lead in seeking a solution to the impasse in Venezuela. He said that the process could get an important push when Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the new Brazilian president, comes to Washington to meet with Biden, as is expected later this month.

“We would want to ensure that whoever is bringing pressure to bear on Maduro can do so absent yanquí imperialism, and can also be in a position to argue for sanctions relief,” Shannon said. (Shannon is a senior adviser for a law firm that represented Guaidó’s interim government, but he said that he was not involved in that work.)

The White House should take additional measures, including steps to relieve Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis. Although the devastated Venezuelan economy has begun to grow again after years of free fall, the incipient recovery is fragile and uneven. The punishing U.S. sanctions in place, which were part of the maximum-pressure approach favored by Trump, make that recovery harder to sustain. The flood of Venezuelan refugees to the U.S. southern border last year has a number of causes, but the root one is the country’s economic collapse. The fullest way to address that is to loosen or lift sanctions.

The Biden administration did recently ease a Trump-imposed ban on Venezuelan oil sales to allow limited shipments to the U.S. and Europe. The State Department says that further relief will come only in exchange for meaningful concessions from Maduro in his government’s negotiations with the opposition, which recently restarted in Mexico. Those could include steps to guarantee a fairer presidential election in 2024 and the release of political prisoners.

The White House must understand that sanctions—like the ill-conceived Guaidó experiment itself—have done much harm without producing the desired results. The best thing it can do is unwind them as soon as possible.

The U.S. also needs to reestablish diplomatic relations with the Maduro government, perhaps through the opening of interest sections, in an arrangement like the one the U.S. maintained with Cuba, or through offices to handle consular services. The closing of the U.S. embassy in Caracas in March 2019 was a major error. It hampered America’s ability to influence the Maduro government, maintain ties with a broader swath of the opposition, and understand the situation inside the country.

Ordinary Venezuelans were also hurt, because they could no longer obtain visas to the U.S. without traveling to an embassy in another country. Venezuelans living in the U.S. suffered, too, because they could not renew passports or carry out other routine business. The Venezuelan embassy in Washington, when it was under Guaidó’s control, had no power to do those things.

“I haven’t seen my mom in years,” Ade Ferro, a Venezuelan American activist who lives in Miami, told me. She said that her 75-year-old mother, who lives in Caracas, can’t visit her, because her mother’s U.S. visa expired in 2019. And Ferro can’t go see her mother, because her Venezuelan passport is also expired. (Although Ferro could enter Venezuela, she would be unable to leave without first renewing her passport, and she couldn’t be sure that a renewal would be approved in a timely manner once she got there.)

Ferro, the executive director of the Venezuelan American Caucus, an advocacy group allied with the Democratic Party, also wants to find a way for some of the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans living in the U.S. to vote in Venezuela’s upcoming presidential election. Although Maduro is unlikely to want to make casting ballots easy for expatriate voters sympathetic to the opposition, there’s little chance that would happen without some form of diplomatic representation for his government in the U.S., such as consulates where the voting could take place.

Finally, the U.S. needs to support the opposition without trying to pick winners, as it did by backing the Guaidó-López faction. This will demand patience from U.S. policy makers who would have to stand back as the opposition tries to redefine itself—which is sure to be a messy process.

“We got ourselves wrapped around an axle here,” Caleb McCarry, a former Senate aide, told me, referring to the U.S. involvement in Venezuela’s Guaidó interlude and the sanctions-heavy approach that accompanied it. McCarry has deep experience in Venezuela and now works for PAX sapiens, a foundation that promotes global peace. He expressed hope that a normally cautious White House would be bold enough to take full advantage of the new circumstances. “Because the other approach was so thoroughly demonstrated to have failed,” McCarry said, “they have more room [to maneuver] than they may think.”