The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Trump administration’s intransigence is holding back Venezuela’s opposition

A mural of Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro is seen in Caracas on July 22. (Ariana Cubillos/AP)
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Geoff Ramsey is the director for Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), an independent research and advocacy organization.

On Aug. 2, Venezuela’s diverse opposition coalition issued a bold proposal. In the face of efforts by Nicolás Maduro, who holds de facto power as a result of rigged presidental elections in 2018, to advance another rigged vote — this time for legislative elections — the coalition of 26 parties across the ideological spectrum laid out 10 key conditions. If met, the parties would consider the process free and fair. Because Maduro has failed to meet these standards, the opposition has announced it will not participate.

The opposition’s demands include essential prerequisites for credible elections: international and domestic observation, a review of the electoral registry, an independent electoral authority, and allowing all opposition parties and leaders to present candidates. But there was one condition that didn’t make the list: Maduro’s immediate resignation.

The omission highlights a persistent gap between U.S. policy and the demands of the democratic opposition on the ground: the Trump administration has rejected any deal that involves new elections with Maduro still in the presidential palace.

One year ago, Maduro was on the ropes. Through a combination of international pressure and domestic mobilization, the regime had been forced to the negotiating table — where the democratic opposition hashed out a deal to hold free and fair elections so that Venezuelans themselves could elect their own leaders.

The negotiations were rocky. It took three months of careful mediation for Norwegian diplomats to advance talks in spite of deep mistrust between the representatives of the democratic opposition and the Maduro regime. At long last, in August 2019, negotiators were closing in on a deal: in exchange for relief from sanctions that have aggravated an already deep economic crisis since 2017, Maduro would concede to new presidential elections in 2020.

There was just one problem: the Trump administration didn’t back the deal. “The government officially accepted going to elections, but in exchange for lifting of sanctions and Maduro staying,” one opposition official close to the negotiations told The Post at the time. “The U.S. doesn’t want that.”

This was predictable. From the outset, the United States placed limits on the opposition’s leeway to negotiate. Elliott Abrams, the U.S. special representative for Venezuela, made this explicit, saying: “We don’t, in a sense, care what deal is made. If Nicolás Maduro is in power, we are not lifting our sanctions.”

The Trump administration’s sabotage of opposition negotiators came to a head on Aug. 6, 2019, just after the opposition team arrived in Barbados for an eighth round of talks. That day, then-national security adviser John Bolton unveiled a new round of punishing oil sanctions and sent reporters a prepared statement claiming that the “time for dialogue is over.” While diplomats scrambled to emphasize that Bolton did not ultimately say those words in a final version of his speech, the damage was already done. The United States had undermined the very people it claimed to support.

Efforts to advance talks continued behind the scenes, but the negotiations process was mortally wounded. Maduro’s negotiators announced they would skip a round of talks in protest of the new U.S. sanctions. On Sept. 15, National Assembly President Juan Guaidó announced that the negotiating table had been definitively “exhausted.”

One year later, things seem different at first glance. Bolton has moved on to peddling an insider tell-all, and the State Department has embraced a renewed emphasis on a negotiated solution.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s red lines remain the same. Despite the fact that Abrams has continued to encourage a role for Norwegian mediators, the U.S. government’s position appears unchanged. Both the State Department’s Transitional Framework and the Treasury Department’s regulations explicitly state there can be no relief from oil and financial sanctions until there is a new executive authority in place.

This leaves Maduro with no clear incentive to negotiate, and it shows. Despite widespread condemnation of irregularities in the upcoming December election — which make clear it will be neither free nor fair — the regime is moving full speed ahead to hold a rigged legislative vote. The opposition is scrambling to mobilize a suffering population that has been demoralized by years of repression and economic chaos, both of which have accelerated amid the deadly covid-19 pandemic. Maduro’s goal is clear: Once the current mandate of the National Assembly expires on Jan. 5, the two-thirds opposition majority will be replaced by a combination of party faithful and a co-opted opposition minority.

Publicly, the Maduro regime has made no move to agree to free and fair conditions for legislative elections in December, let alone signaled that it might be willing to return to its offer of new presidential elections.

But this may change. U.S. insistence on a return to the negotiating table, with a greater emphasis on flexibility, may yet lead the regime to alter its calculations. If this happens, and if the opposition succeeds once more in forcing Maduro to offer free and fair presidential elections in exchange for the prior lifting of sanctions, there are ways to ensure a favorable outcome. International pressure need not be all or nothing. Prior sanctions relief could be conditioned on compliance with verifiable, specific electoral conditions sought by the opposition, with the threat of re-application if these conditions are violated in the lead up to the vote. Polls show there is widespread popular support for an electoral agreement, and it could serve as a lightning rod to mobilize the struggling opposition.

Unless the regime is coaxed back to the negotiating table, any such agreement remains hypothetical. But if the democratic opposition in Venezuela succeeds in getting Maduro back to the offer made in 2019, the U.S. government should take the deal — either under President Trump or a future administration.

Read more:

Francisco Toro: The endless story of Venezuela’s lonely, heartbreaking decline

Geoff Ramsey: By indicting Maduro, Trump is kneecapping a transition in Venezuela

Kathleen Page and Tamara Taraciuk Broner: A new deal could ease Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis. The international community must get behind it.

The Post’s View: Maduro’s new consolidation strategy seeks to eliminate the opposition — and will hurt Venezuela

Anne Applebaum: Venezuela is how ‘illiberal democracy’ ends