Paul J. Angelo is a fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
In this year’s Preventive Priorities Survey, experts ranked “accelerating economic collapse and political instability in Venezuela, leading to further violent unrest and increased refugee outflows” as one of the top conflict risks to watch in 2021. Policymakers from both sides of the aisle continue to view Venezuela as a U.S. foreign policy priority with humanitarian conditions in the Andean nation continuing to deteriorate against a backdrop of political conflict and public health crisis. By income, 96 percent of the Venezuelan population live in poverty. The World Food Program estimates that one in three Venezuelans is food insecure. With a homicide rate around 60 per 100,000 inhabitants, Venezuela is one of the most violent countries in the world. It is no wonder that Venezuela is the source of the largest refugee crisis in the modern history of the Western Hemisphere, with some 5 million Venezuelans fleeing their homeland in recent years.
Sitting atop the world’s largest oil reserves, Venezuela was once the richest country in South America. However, years of corruption, malfeasance, and cronyism by the Nicolás Maduro regime have decimated the country’s productive capacity and gutted social welfare programs. Since claiming victory in a May 2018 presidential election largely viewed as illegitimate, Maduro has cracked down on political dissent and consolidated control over the country’s judiciary and legislature. In December 2020, Maduro loyalists won 91 percent of seats in the country’s National Assembly, the last bastion of opposition power in the country. Most opposition parties pointed to the impossibility of a free and fair contest and boycotted the election, which led to a low turnout of just 31 percent.
Opposition lawmakers, led by Interim President Juan Guaidó, continue to insist on the legitimacy of their existing mandate, even as Maduro’s new legislature takes office in January 2021. However, Maduro has stepped up his harassment and intimidation of civil society groups. In the absence of parliamentary privileges, opposition leaders could also face increased repression, forcing them into hiding or exile. Likewise, longstanding rivalries within the opposition coalition could resurface; some party leaders have publicly questioned Guaidó’s leadership and the opposition’s strategy going forward.
The influx of migrants and refugees will continue to strain neighboring countries, which have struggled to accommodate so many Venezuelans during an unprecedented economic contraction and the COVID-19 pandemic. Transnational organized crime, including drug trafficking and unregulated gold mining, run rampant in Venezuela, corrupting state institutions and providing a critical source of financing to the heavily sanctioned regime. Additionally, the country has become an arena for U.S. adversaries like Russia, China, Cuba, and Iran to undermine democracy, regional stability, and U.S. interests through diplomatic, economic, and military support for Maduro.
The U.S. government has long called for free and fair elections in Venezuela, but the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, including the threat of force, failed to unseat Maduro and restore democracy. The incoming Biden administration would do well to focus on attainable goals that ease the suffering of the Venezuelan people and leverage the United States’ network of partnerships to advocate for human rights and democracy in Venezuela through international organizations. Likewise, coordination with Europe on targeted sanctions, combined with incentives such as transitional justice guarantees, could increase pressure on regime officials to engage in dialogue to resolve the political impasse. Subnational elections are due to take place in 2021, affording oppositionists a renewed opportunity to secure free and fair conditions, including international electoral monitoring. Although addressing Venezuela’s economic freefall and political polarization will require massive international support for the country’s reconstruction, empowering the Venezuelan people to reclaim their democracy will be an essential first step in reversing the country’s meltdown.