The Maduro regime’s announcement last week that it has barred the presidential candidacy of Maria Corina Machado (the leading candidate in the polls) was—or should have been—a turning point for U.S. policy toward Venezuela.
When the Biden administration entered office, it inherited a Venezuela policy that was both very tough and entirely bipartisan. The policy included comprehensive sanctions and a broad diplomatic effort to isolate Maduro and build support for the democratic opposition forces then led by interim president Juan Guaidó.
In the last two years, the administration has changed the policy. Sanctions were weakened, allowing first Chevron and then European oil companies to lift oil in Venezuela. Venezuela’s increased oil sales suggest that buyers, shippers, insurers, and others in the oil industry now see a much diminished U.S. effort to stop enforcing the sanctions that are on the books. U.S. support for the Venezuelan opposition was reduced, and anyone who speaks with opposition figures will be told that they feel almost abandoned. To take one example, the top White House official on Latin America and the then U.S. ambassador visited Caracas to see Maduro regime leaders. More recently, the hostage negotiator for the U.S. government visited Caracas again—which is appropriate given his responsibilities. But it was not appropriate that the opposition leadership learned of the visit only from Reuters.
When the Trump administration left office, there was a structure that gave considerable attention to Venezuela. At the State Department there was a Special Representative for Venezuela (my position in 2019 and 2020) with a staff, a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Western Hemisphere bureau for Venezuela and Cuba, and a U.S. ambassador to Venezuela located in Bogota and leading the Venezuela Affairs Unit at the U.S. embassy there. All of that infrastructure is now gone, so the amount of attention being dedicated to Venezuela in the U.S. embassy in Bogota and in the State Department is very much reduced.
It is sometimes argued that what really happened is not an administration failure, but rather its reaction to weakness or collapse in the democratic opposition. It is true that opposition members of the National Assembly voted to replace Guaidó with a triumvirate of unknown figures, a terrible mistake. And there are, as is always the case in democratic oppositions under regime pressure (jailings, arrests, expulsions, killings, seizures of property, daily threats), other failings and divisions among them, because they are human beings with much at risk. But that’s all the more reason why U.S. moral, political, diplomatic, and material support has been and remains critical and why the administration’s substantial withdrawal of that support has been so harmful.
One can forgive Venezuelan democrats for feeling the Biden administration just wants them to go away, so that the problem of Venezuela can be sidelined. They also believe that what’s really important to Washington today is stopping the migration of Venezuelans to the United States, not returning that nation to democracy. But it should be clear that as long as Maduro rules, the criminal, kleptocratic nature of the regime means economic recovery and an end to migration is impossible.
Of course there’s plenty of good rhetoric about democracy from administration officials, but the policy does not reflect—thus far—making democracy central. Instead the administration has engaged in a wish-based policy that does not reflect Venezuelan reality. Policymakers decided that negotiations with Maduro were the key goal, and made it clear that political concessions from him would win sanctions relief.
Instead, we have seen U.S. concessions and zero political change. In no way whatsoever is Venezuela today freer than it was two and a half years ago. The move against Maria Corina Machado clarifies completely that Maduro is not even considering allowing a free presidential in 2024 or even a partly free election. Instead he is following the lead of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, simply barring all serious opponents from running at all. His next step after preventing Machado from running may well be to outlaw the opposition's planned primaries altogether. The much-vaunted negotiations between the regime and democratic forces, held in Mexico, are impossible to take seriously now, after the move against Machado. The regime is not interested in negotiations or compromises. So the Biden policy, which has been built around negotiating with the regime for elections, is dead.
Or should be. We do not really know yet how the administration will react to Machado’s expulsion from the race. The proper reaction is to rally democrats around the world, from EU governments to Latin American democracies to human rights and democracy groups, against the regime’s worsening oppression and to support Venezuela’s democrats. And to tighten U.S. sanctions on the regime once again.
Administration figures have said that the previous (Trump) policy failed, but the new policy has a worse record. Under this administration, the broad international coalition supporting Venezuela’s democrats has frayed badly while the regime has become even more repressive and killed the remaining hopes for a decent election in 2024. Instead, the United States should abandon hope that Maduro will negotiate a free election or will leave power if he loses the vote. His criminal activities—including theft of public funds, killings of opposition figures, exile and jailings and torture of opposition leaders, illicit gold trafficking, human trafficking, drug trafficking, and support for the Colombian guerrilla groups—mean that he knows leaving power may mean long years in prison, and he will never voluntarily risk it.
U.S. policy should not be based on a belief that negotiations under the Biden administration can solve Venezuela’s problems or that there is a short-term solution. The Venezuelan people likely have a long struggle ahead of them. But as long as Venezuelans continue that struggle to bring democracy back to their country, they should have our full support. They do not believe they have it today, and for reasons of both principle and statecraft that must change.