The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden has limited options to foster change in Venezuela as Maduro remains firmly in power

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro speaks at a news conference at Miraflores Government Palace on March 12 in Caracas. He announced restrictions on travel and mass gatherings to try to stem the coronavirus. (Carolina Cabral/Getty Images)

In an October campaign pitch to Venezuelan American voters in Miami, presidential candidate Joe Biden called President Nicolás Maduro “a dictator, plain and simple,” vowed to continue U.S. sanctions against him, and said he would increase humanitarian spending for Venezuelans enduring “enormous suffering.”

It wasn’t enough to swing the Florida vote in his favor. After President Trump called Biden a “socialist” and said the Democrats would turn the United States into another Venezuela, Venezuelan and Cuban American votes helped Trump win the state.

But even though Trump has imposed “maximum pressure” sanctions on Maduro’s Venezuela, recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate leader, and hinted at various times that he would negotiate with Maduro or would use the U.S. military to oust him, his policies have accomplished little.

Maduro remains firmly in power, backed by Cuba, Iran, Russia and his own country’s military forces. The sanctions — along with years of domestic corruption and mismanagement — have helped destroy Venezuela’s once-rich economy. Venezuela has become a primary nexus for illegal narcotics flowing to the United States.

In the meantime, millions have fled the country. Those left behind live in a virtual police state where the level of violence is the highest in the hemisphere, and the level of access to sufficient food and health care is among the lowest.

The Biden administration will be limited in what it can do to change the situation in Venezuela anytime soon. Advisers have said that Biden does not plan to lift sanctions or U.S. indictments against Maduro and a long list of his cronies and officials.

Instead, he wants to increase pressure on Maduro by broadening the circle of countries seeking change in Venezuela. Trump has criticized European governments for insufficiently cracking down on Maduro; Biden hopes to enlist them in a more coordinated effort to support the opposition. He has said he will increase the United States’ profile in Latin America overall.

Biden’s policies on foreign relations

Biden aides have said he will not recognize the results of a Dec. 6 legislative election — arranged by Maduro to install his own lawmakers and replace Guaidó, whose claim to be “interim” president has been based on his position as elected head of the opposition-controlled Legislative Assembly.

Even before the election, Maduro had replaced the heads of several opposition factions by fiat, and Caracas is rife with rumors of senior opposition figures who have sold out to the regime.

Guaidó and his allies boycotted the vote, which they say was rigged, and called on Venezuelans to do the same. They have said they will remain in office after their terms expire on Jan. 5.

But nearly two years since Guaidó was first recognized by the United States and dozens of other countries in Latin America, his popularity has waned, as Maduro remained in power. The opposition has become so fractured that Guaidó’s days as its leader may be limited no matter what Maduro does, and it is not clear whether any one figure has the breadth of support to replace him.

One of Biden’s main priorities will be to try to unify the opposition — an uphill task that has frustrated the Trump administration — to better position it to confront Maduro and re-energize its appeal to weary and disillusioned Venezuelans. It is they who should be negotiating Maduro’s exit, Biden aides have said, not the United States.

Opposition leaders have said they hear the message, and are compiling a new agenda and structure that will pare back their presence overseas — where Guaidó has opened embassies and appointed representatives — and increase it in their own country. Among the challenges facing Biden is whether to release more money to the opposition from Venezuelan government assets frozen in this country.

Biden's policies on other topics

Biden has pledged to increase assistance to neighboring countries in Latin America that are hosting Venezuelan refugees, and to improve the situation of those in the United States. Although Trump has offered rhetorical support, he has refused to allow them the temporary protected status that would regularize their presence in this country and remove the threat of deportation.

Biden’s plan to improve U.S. relations with Cuba, reversing Trump’s own reversal of the Obama administration’s opening to Havana, could also leverage increased cooperation over Venezuela.

But neither Cuba, nor Russia or Iran, is considered as likely to release its Venezuelan foothold on the South American continent. In that regard, the situation may worsen before it improves, as Iranian ships and Russian planes carrying supplies to Venezuela continue to challenge U.S. sanctions.