The Trump administration’s bluster first approach backfired, driving the Maduro regime into closer alignment with Tehran, Moscow and Beijing. It also worsened a preexisting humanitarian crisis that has seen 5.5 million Venezuelans flee to neighboring countries. Repression isn’t just bad but also increasing: documented instances of harassment of human rights organizations rose 157 percent from 2019 to 2020. According to a recent Economist Intelligence Unit assessment, Venezuela is now more authoritarian than Cuba.
A new approach is needed.
The redemocratization of Venezuela is and must remain the ultimate policy goal. Its pursuit must be tempered with a coolheaded appreciation that, given current circumstances on the ground, it is unlikely it can be delivered in the short-to-medium term. For the next two years, the objective should be not to change the regime but to induce it to change its behavior.
The Venezuelan regime’s first and only ideological commitment is its own survival. Indeed, keeping itself in power is the only task at which it has proved competent. As the heir, by way of Havana, of the old Soviet mindset in international affairs, it is prepared to adapt to almost any arrangement so long as that arrangement is compatible with its continuation in power.
Such regimes can’t truly be engaged in genuine dialogue. The Maduro regime sees negotiations as just another weapon in its unending war against its enemies. It knows how to use paper-thin facsimiles of dialogue to divide opponents or play for time, but it does not know how to negotiate.
The United States should simply ignore the siren song of “talks.” Washington has already erred in immersing itself too deeply into Venezuela’s parochial politics. It’s a fool’s errand. The way to handle Chavistas is not to negotiate with them but to present them exclusively with, as George Kennan put it, “words backed up by facts of unchallengeable validity.”
As it happens, America has a great number of “facts of unchallengeable validity” it can bring to the table. Key Venezuelan state assets are domiciled in the United States — engineering know-how, industrial supplies and machinery remain irreplaceable in keeping Venezuela’s oil industry from grinding to a complete standstill. Access to U.S. capital markets and banking systems would be enormously valuable to the functioning of the regime, and the government has never found a workable alternative market for its energy exports. In that sense, Washington’s leverage is strong.
Rather than negotiating, the United States should present Maduro, privately, with a series of clear trade-offs, carefully structured to induce the regime to change behavior. Specifically, Washington should move to offer diplomatic goods the regime values against specific, verifiable improvements in its human rights practices.
The liberation of political prisoners should be at the top of the list of demands, alongside the dismantlement of the FAES police death squads that Maduro has used to terrorize the population. Full and unimpeded access for human rights investigators must be made the condition for specific economic cooperation measures.
Improvements on the Venezuelan side in terms of freedom of speech, assembly, habeas corpus and other aspects should be linked to specific policy outcomes. For this stance to be credible, the feedback loops between Venezuelan quids and American quos must be short, palpable and immediate. Even small measures on the Venezuelan side should bring immediate and proportional diplomatic rewards, while backsliding should bring immediate sanctions. Caracas should understand that there is a level of automaticity to the U.S. response and that there is no upside to trying to haggle on the margins. The United States is the superpower here: it should set out the terms of the quid pro quo and deliver its side of the bargain not only reliably and quickly but also unilaterally.
Graduating the demands and matching them to proportional diplomatic benefits for the Venezuelans is the core of this strategy. Washington must be mindful to avoid making demands that the regime will perceive as imperiling its hold on power. The goal is for regime hierarchs to perceive restoring fundamental human rights as being not just in their interest, but absolutely central to their survival.
Alas, this policy won’t rid Venezuela of the Maduro regime quickly, but it has a good chance of blunting the worst of its impact. Improving the regime’s human rights practices will preserve and enlarge the spaces left in Venezuelan society for political organizing and civil dialogue. Without them, democracy stands no chance.
The past four years have shown that forcing the regime out would require the kind of military actions no one is truly willing to contemplate. Democratization must remain the longer-term objective. But for right now, let’s focus on what can be delivered right away: cauterizing the wound through which Venezuela exports refugees and political instability to its neighbors and ending some of the worst horrors the regime perpetrates on its people.