David Smilde is professor of sociology at Tulane University and a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America. Abraham F. Lowenthal is professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, and the founding director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Latin American Program and the Inter-American Dialogue.
In the midst of preoccupation with covid-19, the U.S. government has announced three major initiatives regarding Venezuela, unveiled within a week. On March 26, the Justice Department presented indictments on charges of corruption, money laundering and drug trafficking against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and 14 other current and former officials of his government, including the heads of every major institution of Maduro’s government, including Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López, as well as the chief justice of the Supreme Court and the president of the National Constituent Assembly (set up by Maduro to undermine and attempt to replace the democratically elected National Assembly). The Justice Department also offered a $15 million bounty for information leading to Maduro’s arrest.
On March 31, the State Department released a “Democratic Transition Framework for Venezuela,” setting forth U.S. views on how a peaceful regime change should be accomplished. The framework builds on proposals made by Venezuela’s democratic opposition during discussions last summer, mediated by Norway. It stipulates that a negotiated agreement is needed between the chavista forces and the opposition to establish a transitional “council of state” — including allies of both Maduro and Juan Guaidó, the interim president who is recognized by the United States and more than 50 other governments, but excluding both leaders from participation. The plan offers assurances to Venezuela’s armed forces, including maintaining Padrino López as defense minister, despite his indictment, and provides a pathway to arrange new, free and fair elections; it also provides for gradual lifting of international sanctions on Venezuela as various phases of the transition are achieved.
One day later, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper announced a massive U.S. anti-narcotics initiative involving a substantial presence of U.S. naval forces stationed off the coast of Venezuela. The announcement was broadly interpreted as a show of force, intended to raise the pressure on Maduro, and as a way to satisfy domestic demands, especially in Florida, for a tougher stance.
On their face, the U.S. policy moves seem contradictory. They push for negotiation while diminishing the incentives for Maduro and his senior colleagues to compromise; call for cooperation to produce a democratic transition while menacingly rattling sabers; and indict top Venezuelan officials while leaving some in place throughout a transition process. Some of these contradictions probably reflect differences about how to handle Venezuela.
Hard-line activists inside and outside the Trump administration want to oust Maduro and his entourage completely and exact revenge against Cuba — for some, their primary concern. Trump’s political team wants to solidify his electoral prospects in Florida by standing tall against Maduro without risking casualties. The Defense Department wants to minimize the likelihood of engaging in a costly land war against a large army and an armed civilian population. Some U.S. diplomats, intelligence officials, policy experts, NGO leaders and members of Congress believe that a negotiated transition in Venezuela is possible, because both sides in Venezuela see their positions as deteriorating.
We see positive signs in the State Department’s framework, however. It makes it clear, as never before, that the United States would accept a transitional authority that includes chavista elements; and that Washington will not veto a Maduro candidacy in new national elections. These indications send powerful signals to hard-line opposition factions who want Chavismo eliminated by external fiat. The framework also offers negotiations to provide relief from U.S. economic sanctions, a concession that Guaidó’s negotiating team could not credibly extend in last year’s discussions. The State Department has also made clear that the plan is a starting point for discussion and could be modified.
Two further steps are necessary to make the State Department’s proposal viable. First, credible plans should be prepared that provide guarantees for indicted officials. The Venezuelan constitution prohibits extradition, which might provide them some protection. But after a transition, there would be pushes to revise or replace it, so that assurance alone would probably not be enough.
Second, the chances for a successful negotiated transition in Venezuela would greatly improve if international cooperation can be achieved to support the negotiations and a compromise outcome. Up to now, the U.S. government and Russia have each provided their respective Venezuelan allies with a better alternative than a negotiated agreement. If the United States and Russia were to align on Venezuela, it would be virtually impossible for either side to resist meaningful compromise.
Last June, Sweden organized a meeting in Stockholm of governments concerned with Venezuela, but the U.S. government did not attend. If a second Stockholm meeting is arranged, the Trump administration would do well to participate actively and help forge an international compromise on how to support a transition in Venezuela. International consensus could possibly lay the foundation for Venezuelans to undertake the difficult but desperately needed turn to national reconciliation and reconstruction.