The regime of Nicolás Maduro nevertheless may have succeeded in its principal aim in staging the election: to deal a final blow to the U.S.-backed campaign to force its ouster through economic strangulation, a popular uprising or a military coup. Nearly two years after the Trump administration and dozens of other governments recognized the leader of the previous, opposition-controlled National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, as Venezuela’s legitimate president, the hope that he would supplant the Maduro regime has crumbled. Both Venezuela’s opposition and its international supporters, including the incoming Biden administration, are in need of a new strategy.
Betting that “maximum pressure” would force a government collapse, President Trump ordered crushing economic sanctions in 2019, including a block on Venezuelan oil exports. Mr. Guaidó organized mass demonstrations in Caracas and attempted to spark a military uprising; he even briefly cooperated with an abortive invasion plan by a force of Venezuelan exiles. None of it worked. The protests were crushed by force, and the military revolt flopped. With the help of Russia and Iran, the regime managed to market enough oil to stay afloat. While Venezuelans literally starved — and about 5 million fled the country — the elite lived on profits from narcotics and gold smuggling.
It might be argued that the U.S. strategy was too aggressive. But attempts by opposition leaders and the European Union to negotiate with the regime also repeatedly failed. The Maduro clique allowed Venezuela to suffer the most extreme economic collapse in modern history by a country not at war rather than yield power or agree to free and fair elections. There isn’t much reason to believe that its intransigence will change once the new National Assembly is installed; on the contrary, the regime may step up repression of the opposition.
That leaves Mr. Guaidó’s movement and its allies with some difficult choices. It seems clear that the opposition must now organize new structures to carry on its fight and try to overcome its divisions. The Biden team has said it will not recognize the new National Assembly, but it will have to formulate a longer-term strategy that accepts the likelihood that the Maduro regime may endure for some time. Sanctions, such as the oil embargo, that were meant to bring about change in the short term should be reconsidered; pressure should be better focused on the regime and its foreign enablers, and better coordinated with allies.
U.S. support for Venezuelan civil society should be stepped up and more ways found to deliver humanitarian aid to a population still suffering from severe shortages of food, fuel and medicine. Then there are the thousands of Venezuelan refugees who have reached the United States: They should be granted temporary protected status, allowing them to safely remain in this country. Mr. Trump’s bid for a big victory in Venezuela was a big failure. The Biden administration should aim for some smaller wins.