Venezuela is the perfect test case for Biden’s promised return to multilateralism
Recent scenes of chaos in the U.S. Capitol will no doubt become fused with President Donald Trump’s political legacy. While the event was a wholly American phenomenon, certain images are familiar to Venezuela watchers. Two-and-a-half years prior, in July 2017, armed government supporters mobbed the legislative palace in Caracas, attacking lawmakers and members of the press as security forces and the government of Nicolas Maduro turned a blind eye.
What sets these incidents apart, however, was the fact that Maduro ultimately won where Trump’s supporters failed. The incident in Caracas was part of a larger push by Maduro to sideline the opposition-controlled legislature elected in 2015, and to substitute for his lack of popular support by undermining democratic institutions.
On January 5, 2021, this project succeeded. A new National Assembly, which was selected through a fundamentally flawed electoral process that saw historic levels of abstention, took office. The previous legislature presided by Juan Guaido — formerly recognized by the United States and 50 countries as interim president after Maduro assumed a new term based on a separate rigged vote — has lost a clear institutional mandate.
While the U.S. government is likely to continue to recognize Guaido, the European Union has made clear that the bloc now sees him as simply another “member of the outgoing National Assembly.” Latin American members of the Lima Group say they will reject the legitimacy of the results of the recent legislative election, but appear divided over the validity of Guaido’s constitutional mandate moving forward.
Enter Joe Biden. When the president-elect takes office, he will have to contend with a long list of foreign policy priorities. If Venezuela is not near the top of that list, it should be. Venezuela represents a fundamental opportunity for the Biden administration to apply its stated goal of reasserting multilateralism.
As my co-author David Smilde and I explain in a new policy memo from the Washington Office on Latin America, there are ways that Biden can provide relief to the Venezuelan people while defending democratic space.
To succeed, Biden should lean into his stated support for multilateralism. One of the biggest failures of the Trump administration was its increasingly unilateral approach to Venezuela. Notable progress was made with the emergence of the 14-member Lima Group of Latin American nations in 2017, which showcased regional consensus and achieved important diplomatic victories in denouncing the deterioration of Venezuela’s democracy in the Organization of American States.
The importance of this Latin America-led response was eroded in early 2018, however, after Mike Pompeo took over as Secretary of State. Pompeo, an open critic of what he has derided as “multilateralism just for the sake of it,” broke from previous efforts to emphasize Latin American autonomy by directly participating in a Lima Group meeting — a first for a U.S. official — after just two weeks on the job. By November 2018, then-national security adviser John Bolton had framed the struggle for democracy in Venezuela as a U.S.-led battle against the “poisonous ideologies” of the “Troika of Tyranny.”
When Biden takes office, he should return to an approach that emphasizes respect for Latin American autonomy and highlights the importance of regional countries in responding effectively to the Venezuela crisis. In addition to supporting the Lima Group, in practice this could mean taking advantage of certain leaders’ closer proximity to Maduro. Rather than demonizing Mexico, Argentina, or other countries for maintaining ties with the government in Caracas, the Biden administration should appreciate that other countries may be better positioned than the U.S. to engage with Maduro and his inner circle in ways that open opportunities for diplomacy.
Serious efforts should be made to explore exactly what Maduro is willing to concede, and which elements of U.S. pressure can be leveraged to get him to the negotiating table. While Cuba cannot be expected to simply throw Maduro under the bus, the fact that Biden advisers have suggested the United States will return to a policy of strategic engagement with Havana is positive news with regard to addressing the Venezuela crisis.
Press reports suggest that Cuba played a key role in the 2019 Venezuela negotiations mediated by Norwegian diplomats, hosting initial conversations between the Maduro government and opposition actors in Havana, a gesture that helped jumpstart credible negotiations that were eventually relocated to Oslo. Given the right incentives, the Cubans may be able to help jumpstart these talks once again.
A more multilateral approach to Venezuela would also fit well with the incoming administration’s aim of repairing damage to U.S -European relations. Doing so may require the Biden administration to adopt a more flexible strategy for Venezuela, similar to that of the European Union. Two years after Juan Guaido claimed a mandate as Venezuela’s interim president, Europe appears to have cooled on him and is instead engaging with a wider set of opposition and civil society actors, perhaps recognizing that Guaido’s domestic support has plummeted from over 60 percent approval to around 25 percent.
Its skepticism of Guaido is not the only thing that sets Brussels apart from Washington. Europe has been clear that, while it has joined in issuing targeted sanctions against individuals accused of corruption and human rights violations, it will not join the United States in adopting sectoral economic sanctions that affect the broader population.
The EU has also encouraged a greater emphasis on negotiation. In September, after an opposition faction succeeded in getting Maduro to pardon over 100 political prisoners and dissidents, and to agree to request international observation, the EU sent a mission to Caracas to encourage this deal. Unfortunately, the Trump White House undercut these efforts and officials attacked European diplomats, with Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams accusing the EU of engaging in “cowboy diplomacy.” With the United States acting against them, the negotiations fell through and Maduro walked away from the table with little incentive to change course.
As Biden and his team move to reconstruct the transatlantic relationship, a convergence of U.S. and European Union approaches would be a good place to start. Targeted, multilateral pressure must be paired with strategic engagement. Rather than letting Venezuela fall into a slow-burning proxy conflict, both Brussels and Washington can work to improve communication with geopolitical rivals like China and Russia. A key opportunity to unveil this new approach could be the revival of the 2019 Stockholm summit, an effort to bring together EU and other international actors to discuss areas of mutual interest in Venezuela which the United States unwisely decided to boycott.
Ultimately, international efforts must be met with progress on the ground inside Venezuela. While a comprehensive political solution appears distant, the Biden administration can work to improve conditions inside Venezuela and broaden democratic space by supporting progress towards initial, partial agreements as a way of building momentum towards a larger deal. The United States can and should offer to unfreeze Venezuelan assets being held abroad to address the country’s humanitarian crisis, with necessary transparency.
A June 2020 agreement between Maduro and the opposition to fund COVID-19 tests and protective equipment for health professionals, coordinated by the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), shows that this kind of agreement is possible. Expanding this agreement should be a priority. Venezuela’s inability to turn the page on its deep humanitarian crisis without foreign assistance could provide a way to mitigate suffering while at the same time advancing negotiation towards a broader political solution.