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Opinion How Biden can jump-start his stagnant Venezuela policy

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó in Caracas, Venezuela, on Nov. 22. (Reuters/Leonardo Fernandez Viloria)

Geoff Ramsey is the director for Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), an independent research and advocacy organization.

On Dec. 9, beleaguered Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó spoke at the Biden administration’s Summit for Democracy. In his trademark rapid-fire diction, he gave a three-minute update on Venezuela’s humanitarian tragedy, the virtues of democratic principles and the need for free elections in his crisis-stricken country. The prerecorded speech was remarkable, not for its content but for the way it seemed to have been incorporated into the summit at the last minute.

Guaidó’s participation was announced just days before the event, and he ended up being sandwiched in between a roundtable on covid-19 recovery and a panel on combating corruption. The anti-climactic speech and the way Biden administration officials pointed to Guaidó’s last-minute special appearance as a kind of victory illustrate the central problem with the White House’s approach to Venezuela: the lack of any kind of apparent strategy.

So far, President Biden has largely said the right things. The White House says it supports working with an international coalition to restore democracy and condemn Nicolás Maduro’s authoritarian rule. This rhetoric of multilateralism is a welcome shift from former president Donald Trump’s unilateral approach. But in its actions, the Biden administration appears to have kept the policy on autopilot.

After 11 months in office, the administration has not significantly altered U.S. policy. Indeed, in January 2022, Biden will almost certainly reemphasize the Trump administration’s recognition of the opposition coalition led by Guaidó as Venezuela’s legal government. Regardless of the constitutional questions at stake, it remains unclear how this will advance democracy in Venezuela, and members of Guaidó’s own circle have issued calls to revise this strategy.

In the absence of a clear plan, the broad strokes of U.S. policy toward Venezuela remain unchanged — with slightly more rhetorical emphasis on the need for a political solution. Neither the State Department nor the White House has detailed how the United States will actually ensure successful negotiations to resolve the country’s crisis.

Meanwhile, the Venezuelan opposition, with the support of Latin American and European governments and independent civil-society organizations on the ground, is mobilizing to reactivate negotiations that Maduro suspended in October. Representatives of the opposition visited Washington this month to encourage the Biden administration to help reactivate talks, urging the U.S. government to offer clearer incentives for Maduro to return to the negotiating table.

Coaxing the regime back to the talks, and to engage in good faith, could lead to important breakthroughs. Real progress in negotiations could facilitate the implementation of an initial accord already signed between the opposition and Maduro government, in which the parties agreed to divert frozen funds to address gaps in the deteriorated health sector. Partial agreements may, in turn, build momentum toward long overdue free and fair presidential elections.

But none of this will happen if the current Venezuela policy inertia continues.

To be fair, much of the initial delays in foreign policy were outside the administration’s control. The Senate’s slow-walk in confirming key officials is partially to blame. But the lack of fresh thinking on Venezuela seems increasingly due to a lack of interest.

Upon taking office in January, for instance, the Biden administration allowed the position of special representative for Venezuela to expire. Without an official responsible for high-level coordination, the Venezuela Affairs Unit at the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá has had to assume a larger role in conducting U.S. policy — a tall order for a small team of diplomats operating out of Colombia.

Moving forward, the Biden administration should give Venezuela’s crisis — and restoring talks to resolve it — the urgent attention it requires. Naming a high-level official who can coordinate initiatives across the U.S. government in Washington would streamline the policy process and help ensure a more rapid response to changing dynamics on the ground.

In parallel, the Biden administration needs to actively incentivize progress in the negotiations. The White House has rightly called for the release of political prisoners, strengthening the democratic process and an end to human rights abuses. But it needs to present the regime with a clear road map, a step-by-step process of specific democratic advances matched by offers of phased sanctions relief or other guarantees that Maduro and those around him might seek. U.S. diplomats presented just such a private road map to their Iranian counterparts in April and should consider the same in Venezuela. Of course, such a road map should be carefully coordinated with Venezuelan and international allies, and the White House should ensure it is not imposing its own agenda on a Venezuelan-led process.

On the campaign trail Biden criticized Trump for being, in his words, “more interested in using the Venezuelan crisis to rally domestic political support than in seeking practical ways to effect democratic change in Venezuela.” Indeed, changing course will require political capital and a commitment to creative solutions, and with midterms fast approaching, it may be tempting for the White House to try to play it safe. But continuing to make the same mistake as his predecessor and leaving Venezuela policy on autopilot would violate Biden’s campaign promises and fail the Venezuelan people.