Paul J. Angelo is a fellow for Latin America Studies at CFR and is the author of a new Council Special Report on security and justice in a post-Maduro Venezuela.
As the COVID-19 pandemic ravages Latin America and plunges regional economies into a downward spiral, the Nicolas Maduro regime in Venezuela has maintained its grip on power against these considerable odds. To his benefit, cleavages have resurfaced among the democratic opposition, most recently over the decision whether or not the coalition should participate in the upcoming National Assembly elections in December 2020, despite expected irregularities. Regardless of whether some members of the opposition participate, unrest is all but guaranteed in the aftermath of the December contest, which Colombian President Ivan Duque called a “prefabricated orchestra” in his recent speech at the UN General Assembly.
Washington, for its part, has tied its hands by insisting on Maduro’s ouster as a precondition to any meaningful interaction with the incumbent regime in Venezuela. The task too great to undertake alone, the Donald J. Trump administration should instead work multilaterally, redoubling its efforts to harmonize policy with the European Union and to develop a carrot-and-stick approach to foster the return of democracy to Venezuela.
In my new Council on Foreign Relations Council Special Report, “The Day After in Venezuela,” I highlight ways that the United States could work with international partners, like the United Nations, Organization of American States (OAS), and European Union (EU), to stabilize the security environment and implement transitional justice in the event that Maduro leaves power. While the United States and its European allies appear to be in sync on certain issues—such as the legitimacy of Venezuela's National Assembly and Juan Guaido's claim to the interim Presidency—recent events suggest that the trans-Atlantic consensus on Venezuela is rockier than one might think.
Last month, the United States released a joint declaration with twenty-eight other countries that criticized Maduro’s decision to proceed with a new round of National Assembly elections and called for the establishment of a transitional government. Conspicuously absent from its signatories were most of the United States’ European allies, with the exception of the Baltic nations, the United Kingdom, Ukraine, and Hungary. This lack of unity is not lost upon the Maduro regime, which sees the disconnect as an opportunity to skirt sanctions and crack down on domestic dissent.
The United States and EU have also taken divergent views on elections. When opposition leaders Henrique Capriles and Ivan Stalin Gonzalez publicly broke with Guaido and entertained participating in the legislative contest earlier this month, EU emissaries encouraged Capriles to continue negotiating with Maduro over the terms of the elections. The EU even conditionally offered an election-monitoring mission if Maduro could assure fair electoral conditions. EU leaders continue to push for a postponement of the elections to help foster a free and fair process, but meanwhile, the United States preemptively declared the election fraudulent and vowed to ignore any results. EU Foreign Minister Josep Borrell’s decision to dispatch an envoy to liaise with Maduro about the election was met with harsh criticism from the Trump administration and further soured the potential for cooperation, as U.S. Special Envoy for Venezuela Elliot Abrams referred to the EU’s move as “cowboy diplomacy.”
The return to democratic governance and the end of the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela are in the interests of both the United States and the EU. Going forward, both parties should be in lock step in responding to developments on the ground in Venezuela, because a unified strategy of cooperation is more effective than disjointed policies toward Venezuela that Maduro has successfully exploited to date. For instance, while the United States has implemented harsh sanctions against Maduro’s cronies and Venezuela’s oil and defense sectors, Europe has been more cautious in the application of sanctions, enfeebling a multilateral response. This is particularly true in the targeting of Maduro’s military and other senior officials, many of whom have family members in Europe. In addition to taking the Maduro regime to task, increased sanctions cooperation from European partners could reduce international anxiety about a unilateral, bellicose response from the United States aimed at removing Maduro by force.
The United States should likewise pursue a more realistic approach to achieving a democratic transition in Venezuela. As a sixty-year U.S. embargo against another Latin American autocracy, Cuba, has laid bare, unilateral sanctions have failed to secure democratic governance in Havana. Instead, where the threat of punitive action fails, the United States and EU—in conjunction with OAS partners—could incentivize concessions from the Maduro regime. Coordinated sanctions relief should be used to elicit reforms not only limited to elections transparency but also tackling organized crime and ending crimes against humanity. These kinds of overtures could create the breathing room necessary to press for a negotiated solution to the country’s political impasse. At a minimum, some sanctions relief could open the door to the deeper involvement of international organizations, including the World Food Program, to help alleviate the humanitarian fallout of Venezuela’s economic and political distress.
As I underscore in my Council Special Report, reestablishing democracy in Venezuela will be a monumental effort, one that the United States cannot hope to undertake alone. To this end, the United States should ensure that its policy responses now do not constrain its options in the future. Harmonizing U.S. and EU policies toward Venezuela will require a newfound flexibility on part of the United States and, disagreeably, a de facto recognition of the power Maduro still wields. In the absence of such adaptability, however, the specter of Cuba looms as a cautionary tale of the risks of stubborn diplomacy and of the limits of U.S. power.