The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s bluster failed Venezuela. Biden must use diplomatic and economic levers to address the crisis.

President Trump welcomed the Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó to the White House last year. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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David Smilde is professor of sociology at Tulane University and a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America.

Few of the Trump administration’s policies were as arrogant and ill-conceived as its alleged push to topple Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro. And few failed as resoundingly.

Two years after the Trump administration recognized the president of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, as the interim president, levied oil sanctions, issued threats of military action, undermined mediation efforts, indicted Maduro and other top officials on drug charges, imposed more sanctions that restrict the population’s access to fuel, and undercut efforts to negotiate free and fair elections, Maduro is stronger than he’s ever been, and the democratic opposition movement is in pieces.

Why did this maximum pressure strategy fail?

The threat of military action and drug indictments worked to unify Maduro officials and the armed forces against outside enemies or a future in prison. Economic sanctions impacted the Venezuelan people more than government officials; gasoline shortages further diminished their ability to resist. Pulling the rug out from negotiations undermined Guaidó’s representatives just when they had Maduro’s negotiating team on the defensive. And pushing for a boycott of the December legislative elections, however unfair, led the Guaidó coalition to lose its voice, its platform, its mobilization capacity and what little political space it had, just as most analysts warned.

Behind the opposition coalition’s willingness to abstain from politics was the mirage of a well-funded, government-in-exile in perpetuity, given that Guaidó’s international recognition as president potentially gave him control of considerable assets in the United States and abroad, including CITGO, the Venezuelan Central Bank’s accounts in the United States and gold in the Bank of England.

In December, the Guaidó-led assembly put forward an agreement establishing the administrative continuity of the National Assembly on vague constitutional grounds. An important part of the opposition coalition declined to support the initiative. And while the Trump administration and the U.K. recognized it, both the Lima Group — consisting of 12 countries in the hemisphere advocating for democracy in Venezuela — and the European Union put forth statements suggesting they would work with Venezuela’s democratic opposition and civil society, but they did not refer to Guaidó as interim president.

The Biden administration should likewise expand the range of democratic actors it engages in Venezuela. Maduro presides over an abusive dictatorship, and the United States and other countries should press for a return to the democracy that the great majority of Venezuelans want. But this does not mean unconditional support for one faction of the opposition. The long-term core problem of Venezuela’s democratic opposition has precisely been internal conflict and divisions, and Guaidó no longer represents the unifying factor he did two years ago. Polling makes clear that while Maduro has less than 15 percent support, Guaidó barely surpasses 25 percent. The majority of Venezuelans are disaffected from politics and say they support no one.

The collapse of the political class over the past year has led to the rise of other forms of opposition in the country, which are less tied to political institutions but have deep roots in Venezuelan society and have been spurred by the humanitarian crisis. Civil society organizations have become more unified than at any time in the past 20 years and are committed to a peaceful, political solution. What is more, Venezuelan entrepreneurial associations, organized labor, as well as religious groups, have also been mobilized. There have long been alternative oppositions — some of them arguably co-opted by the Maduro government — but they are joined by ever more politicians who are clear that the democratic opposition needs to pivot.

The Biden administration will also need to engage the Maduro government. It should change directions and make clear that a return to democratic institutions is the goal, not the installation of U.S. allies or the vanquishing of Chavismo. While secondary sanctions affecting fuel supplies should be lifted immediately, it should negotiate broader sanctions relief in exchange for democratic openings.

Perhaps the most important change would be for the Biden administration to return to multilateral diplomacy, coordinating pressure and engagement with other countries in the hemisphere and the European Union. Stepping back from unilateral action and rhetorical bluster could make Venezuela less of a chip in geopolitical rivalry and more of a space where pragmatic coordination could develop. The strategic goals of Russia, China and Cuba, should be acknowledged but not overstated. They, too, are interested in a stable, internationally-recognized Venezuela.

The goal should not be for outside powers to determine the fate of Venezuela, but for them to facilitate a solution instead of impeding it. The Venezuelan opposition will be much more likely to negotiate if they are obliged to forget the chimera of U.S. intervention. By the same token, Maduro will be more interested in seeking a deal if he is firmly encouraged to do so by the international allies he depends on.

Of course the immediate reaction of some Democratic strategists will be to suggest changing course with respect to Venezuela would be political suicide in Florida ahead of the 2022 midterms and the 2024 presidential race. However, both Republicans and Democrats would be well advised to treat U.S. Latinos as the socially, culturally and politically diverse population that they are — which can be engaged by a positive and thoughtful foreign policy. In the end, Latino immigrants want to see well-being in their countries of origin, and they will reward a clear strategy and signs of progress.

Read more:

Francisco Toro: In Venezuela, the torturers have won

Geoff Ramsey: The Trump administration’s intransigence is holding back Venezuela’s opposition

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

Juan Guaidó: Maduro is a usurper. It’s time to restore democracy in Venezuela.