After a year and a half of diminishing returns since recognizing Juan Guaido as interim president and imposing crippling oil sanctions, U.S. strategy in Venezuela has reached a crossroads. Policymakers in Washington have two paths before them: they can either continue down the path of “maximum pressure” and saber-rattling, or they can choose a path of pragmatism, supporting more flexible negotiations towards a democratic transition.
The current path has been disastrous. Since January 2019 the Trump administration has refused to lift broad oil or financial sanctions on Venezuela until de facto Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro either resigns or is overthrown. The U.S. government has steadily escalated those sanctions to limit other countries from engaging with Venezuela’s state oil company, a policy that has exacerbated already widespread shortages of fuel, medicine, food, and other essential goods. Now the White House is threatening to impose further sanctions that could limit the importation of diesel to the country, which would have devastating consequences for bulk transport, public transportation, and electricity generation.
Meanwhile, Maduro appears more firmly in control than at any point since August 2017, when the first sectoral sanctions were imposed on Venezuela. His government has succeeded in putting down a series of mass protests in recent years, and the military leadership has stood behind him each time they have been tested. The deterioration in living conditions — which predates sanctions and occurred due to the government’s own mismanagement and corruption — has left the vast majority of Venezuelan people with scarce access to food, medicine, and other basics. Nonetheless, military and political elites in the country remain largely shielded from the economic crisis, and will remain comfortable even as U.S. sanctions continue to block access to the credit and investment needed to spur an economic recovery.
Perhaps in recognition of the lack of impact through sanctions policy, the Trump administration has begun to adopt the language of supporting a negotiated transition — but its red lines remain the same. When the opposition attempted to negotiate an electoral solution in mid-2019, for example, the White House trashed the deliberations and undercut opposition negotiators by refusing to back a deal that would require a lifting of sanctions ahead of new presidential elections. Today, the Trump administration claims to support a negotiated solution, but the text of the State Department’s Democratic Transition Framework and the Treasury Department’s regulations explicitly state that its fundamental position has not changed. The Trump administration is not willing to provide relief from sanctions in exchange for anything other than Maduro’s immediate resignation.
Meanwhile, there are few incentives for Maduro and his inner circle to get behind a plan for a negotiated transition. In March, the Department of Justice unsealed indictments against the head of every single government institution controlled by the ruling United Socialist Party. This was a significant break from the previous U.S. strategy, which sought to drive a wedge between Maduro and members of his inner circle. The indictments helped cement a situation in which Maduro’s inner circle now have little reason to break away and support regime change.
Past experience shows that the existing U.S. approach in Venezuela will only deepen the current stalemate. Washington has imposed a trade embargo on Cuba for over 50 years, yet the Cuban government remains in place and the Cuban people are those most affected. On top of worsening human suffering, the history of broad economic sanctions shows sanctions are simply not an effective way of promoting democratic transitions. In fact, the literature suggests that they fail to meet their stated objective over two-thirds of the time, and can actually weaken the ability of civil society to mobilize against target regimes.
Fortunately, it is not too late to change course. After the dust settles from U.S. presidential elections in November and the deeply flawed Venezuelan legislative elections scheduled for early December, policymakers in Washington will have an opportunity to press the reset button. Whoever occupies the White House on January 21, whether a second Trump administration or a Biden administration, will be able to guide policy in a more positive direction.
A more productive path would start by recognizing that pressure alone is not a strategy. To be effective, international pressure on the Maduro government should be smart, focused, and tethered to more realistic and concrete outcomes.
While sectoral sanctions have aggravated the crisis and had a documented negative impact on the work of independent NGOs, there is evidence that targeted sanctions against individuals have had more impact inside the Maduro government. The U.S. government should continue to use these individual sanctions to build internal pressure for change, but abandon a failed strategy of relying on sanctions as a direct tool to force regime change. Instead, U.S. policymakers should consider lifting them in exchange for more immediate concessions like an improvement in electoral conditions, restoring opposition parties, allowing international observation, and freeing all remaining political prisoners.
This will require a more flexible approach to the White House’s “red lines.” Rather than weighing in on internal tactical debates, the United States should consider letting the opposition work things out for themselves. Instead of insisting on the impossibility of negotiating anything other than Maduro’s resignation, the State Department should focus on supporting the implementation of partial agreements between the Maduro government and the opposition, such as a recently-announced deal to address the health crisis in partnership with the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO).
Further agreements between Venezuelan actors will be needed to address the scale of the humanitarian emergency, and U.S. diplomats should work to ensure that these partial accords help build momentum for a broader political negotiation.
Finally, the U.S. should recognize that it cannot embark on a new path alone. A more effective approach starts by rebuilding a multilateral consensus on the need for a negotiated democratic transition in the country. The failed mercenary coup in April and the occasional stray remarks from U.S. officials floating a reckless—and highly unlikely—“military option” have damaged diplomatic consensus in Latin America and Europe. U.S. policymakers need to explicitly reject a unilateral approach, and work with international partners to emphasize a peaceful solution to the crisis.
Despite the advance of authoritarianism in Venezuela, the fact that there is continued civil resistance in the country shows that Maduro has not yet succeeded in consolidating total control. Washington can help prevent a deeper descent into authoritarianism in Venezuela, but it will require charting a new course, one that does not repeat the same mistakes of “maximum pressure” regime change strategies that have failed elsewhere.