The Ukraine war is opening space for talks with Venezuela
The last few weeks have seen an important, yet still embryonic shift in U.S. policy towards Venezuela.
After a year of the administration rejecting the idea of direct, high-level engagement with Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro, a delegation of senior U.S. officials met with him in Caracas on March 5. While the specifics of the discussion are unclear, in the aftermath the Maduro government released two imprisoned Americans and signaled that it may be willing to return to negotiations with the Venezuelan opposition — five months after abandoning talks in Mexico City that were brokered by the Norwegian government.
In the days following the meeting, critics have painted the trip as a sign that President Biden is throwing in the towel on democracy and human rights in Venezuela. These early reactions, however, have been based more on speculation than on a broader understanding of the Biden administration’s position.
The U.S. government has shown no signs of lifting its comprehensive financial and secondary sanctions that have aggravated a preexisting humanitarian emergency. Instead, the White House has insisted that while sanctions relief was discussed with Maduro, this can only occur in the context of meaningful progress in negotiations with the opposition aimed at holding free and fair elections. According to a senior Biden administration official, the visit “laid out what would be possible in terms of alleviation of international pressure should talks produce ambitious, concrete, and irreversible outcomes.”
This position is essentially the same as before the visit. Biden officials have repeatedly said the administration is “willing to review sanctions policies based on meaningful progress in a comprehensive negotiation.” However, there is an important difference in context. In the wake of a U.S. decision to ban imports of Russian oil, U.S. refineries in the gulf states are looking for ways to fill the gap with heavy crude from Venezuela and elsewhere. Put differently, already seeking to move beyond the Trump administration’s policy on Venezuela, the Biden administration now has an added incentive to show to the Maduro regime that it is serious about offering sanctions relief in exchange for progress in negotiations.
While it may not have happened without the geopolitical shifts following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Washington’s demonstration of sanctions flexibility to Caracas could not have occurred at a better time. After Maduro walked away from the Mexico City negotiations in October 2021 following the extradition of regime ally Alex Saab, many in the opposition have been eager for incentives that can attract Maduro back to the negotiating table. Even Juan Guaidó, who the United States and other countries recognize as interim president of Venezuela, suggested in January that the Biden administration could lift some sanctions before negotiations resume as a way of incentivizing Maduro to return to talks.
Previous rounds of negotiations have been stymied by Maduro’s perception that the U.S. government is not actually willing or able to deliver on the things that the regime wants, namely international legitimacy and sanctions relief. This was, in fact, one of the main reasons why Venezuela negotiations fell through in 2019. While opposition negotiators claimed that an initial outline of a deal that would see early elections was starting to emerge from the dialogue, the Trump administration’s insistence that it would not lift sanctions until after Maduro resigned left this tentative deal dead in the water. This put the previous administration at odds with European efforts to pursue negotiations on electoral conditions, which were dismissed by U.S. diplomats as “cowboy diplomacy.”
Now, the situation is different. The U.S. government is clear that sanctions relief is available should Maduro make progress in negotiations with the opposition, and this position is backed by other governments in Europe and Latin America. Following a February 15 high-level coordination meeting between the United States, EU, and 19 other democratic governments, participants issued a statement to “reaffirm their commitment to a Venezuelan-led negotiated solution to restore democracy in Venezuela […and] reiterated their willingness to review sanctions policies based on meaningful progress in the framework of these Venezuela-led negotiations.”
Assuming negotiations resume, the international community will have to ensure that Venezuelan stakeholders have the right incentives. Scholarship on conflict resolution suggests the success of negotiations depends in large part on the participants’ perceived best alternative to a negotiated agreement, or BATNA. In other words, an actor with a plausible and attractive BATNA is unlikely to prioritize negotiating in good faith while someone with few alternatives is more likely to seek a deal.
For Maduro — and for the political, economic, and military elites who surround him — the BATNA is relatively straightforward. They believe they can simply wait out the international pressure. Eventually, they appear to be betting that the U.S., European, and Latin American governments will seek normalization without insisting on reforms that threaten the ruling party’s hold on power.
For this reason, it is positive that the Biden administration has continued to insist on democratic reforms as a precondition for sanctions relief. Maduro should have absolutely no reason to think that he can benefit by simply doubling down on a strategy of brutal repression that has led his government to become the first in the Americas to face a formal investigation into crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court.
It should be assumed that Maduro will seek to provide the smallest and most symbolic concessions imaginable, while simultaneously attempting to co-opt the opposition. In fact, the government has already begun to call for a “reformatting” of the negotiations, saying that it will not sit down with Guaidó.
Here the international community should act in a coordinated fashion. Any revision to the existing format should preserve one of the most promising elements of the Mexico City format: a commitment from both parties to create a “consultation mechanism” with civil society. Regardless of the terms in which future negotiations occur, the U.S. government and other international stakeholders should insist that space is given to civil society groups and victims, and reject any attempts from Maduro to avoid issues of human rights and justice.
Maduro’s demand of a “reformatting” does not mean that international stakeholders or the opposition are powerless to prevent Maduro from choosing who sits across from him. It may in fact be an opportunity for the opposition to broaden its appeal in an environment in which Guaidó is polling only a few points over Maduro. If carefully executed, a shakeup of the negotiations could rob Maduro of potential spoilers who could undercut opposition demands. While there are opposition figures in recent years who appear to have been successfully co-opted in exchange for favors or money, others have distanced themselves from the interim government out of sincere disagreements over strategy.
Here it is important to recognize that the opposition, or at least the segment of the opposition that remains linked to the interim government of Juan Guaidó, has its own BATNA. Being recognized as a legitimate government has been tremendously beneficial to this faction. It oversees public messaging and communications, and manages key relationships in Washington. Put differently, it has been punching above its weight for three years and most conceivable negotiated agreements would lead to a decline in its power and position within the opposition coalition.
For negotiations to succeed, the Biden administration will have to minimize its BATNA as well. This can be accomplished by making clear that support for the interim government is not unconditional. While so far this strategy has prevented Maduro from accessing tens of billions of dollars in frozen assets, there are ways for these funds to be placed in a trust and remain shielded. The U.S. and other governments should make clear that recognition of the interim government is conditioned on a good faith commitment to negotiations, and to potential sacrifice of the interim government’s current international influence for the greater good.
One of the reasons the 2019 negotiations failed was that the participants had international allies that provided better alternatives to a negotiated agreement — Maduro trusted that Russia would provide it with enough support to survive U.S. sanctions, and the interim government thought it could prod the Trump administration to intervene more forcefully. These geopolitical alternatives are changing for both sides, meaning a negotiated settlement could be more likely. All national and international stakeholders need to ensure that such an agreement prioritizes the rights of Venezuelans including their right to choose their leaders.