First, the Biden administration and the Maduro government signed a deal exchanging democratic guarantees for sanctions relief on oil, natural gas, and gold mining — some of Venezuela’s largest industries. With the sanctions lifted, Maduro allowed the opposition’s primary election to go ahead.
María Corina Machado, a classical liberal who calls herself the “Iron Lady of Venezuela” and went through the same Yale program as Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, won the election with an astounding 93 percent of the vote. Venezuelans overwhelmingly showed up to vote, doubling the expected turnout of 1 million ballots.
Maduro quickly declared the election illegitimate and labeled Machado a puppet of U.S. interests, going directly against the sanctions relief deal.
The U.S. and Machado have expressed little intention beyond rhetoric to reinstate sanctions. After all, the U.S. is in desperate need of oil, and Venezuela has plenty to offer. Unless the U.S. can establish direct incentives for Maduro and his regime to make democratic reforms, a peaceful path to democratization is highly unlikely.
If anything, Maduro has shown his willingness to keep sanctions on to push for specific geopolitical demands while maintaining his domestic anti-U.S. message. In 2021, Maduro suspended all negotiations with the U.S. over the imprisonment of Colombian financier Alex Saab. Despite that, the U.S. went ahead with some sanctions relief soon after.
Maduro has created an alternative economy for Venezuela, where illicit markets make up for over one fifth of all of the country’s GDP. With oil revenues currently standing at $9.3 billion annually, sanctions relief would only lead to “a moderate increase in Venezuelan oil production,” according to Dr. Francisco Monaldi of the Baker Institute. Alternatively, the Maduro regime has increasingly looked to other economic opportunities to ensure its permanency.
After being pushed out of the international financial system, Venezuela has grown its commercial, financial, diplomatic, political, and security relationship with other sanctioned regimes, including Iran, China, Russia, Nicaragua, and Cuba, which have themselves contested the results of the opposition election and reiterated support for Maduro.
More states with a nominally anti-Western posture, such as Bolivia, South Africa, Turkey, and Ethiopia, are also providing some support given that some of their interests align with Maduro’s. These relationships lead to a circle of mutual assistance wherein the leaders’ political survival is ensured through a permanent flow of commerce and cash between these regimes.
These states now have a vested interest in preventing an adversary to their interests from entering the Palacio de Miraflores, and Maduro knows it. Sanctions are much less harmful to the regime than they were years ago.
Maduro’s calculation is simple: Whether he decides to hold a fully democratic election against Machado, a sham election like in 2018, or to fully overtake the country through military force, Maduro will have sufficient support on his side. Credible polls show Maduro has the backingt of 58 percent of voting intentions (compared to Machado’s 23 percent), with many in the resistance, particularly those with the financial capability to organize contestation efforts, having already left the country.
Whether the U.S. foreign policy establishment likes it or not, Maduro, like his predecessor Hugo Chávez, will use any foreign pressure the U.S. decides to undertake to his political advantage. If sanctions are lifted, Maduro will keep attacking the opposition while boasting about his negotiating genius. If sanctions are put back on, Maduro will parade as a martyr again to his crowd of adoring supporters, meanwhile using the tried-and-tested alternative global order offered by sanctioned regimes to ensure the regime’s security.
The regime also has the added benefit of violent support from the colectivos (pro-Maduro thugs who intimidate the opposition), the military and intelligence services, drug cartels, the state media apparatus, and a number of foreign governments. On the off-chance that Maduro ultimately loses the election, these interests might collectively ensure that a peaceful transition of power is impossible without significant military involvement from the West — cooperation that the West is likely unwilling or unable to offer.
Maduro’s rise to power demonstrates how difficult he will be to unseat. Illiberal and dictatorial regimes do not simply relinquish power under popular and external pressure, and Maduro has proven his ability to disregard opposition in favor of his interests. To foster democratic reforms, regime change must start from within the regime itself.
In the non-Western world, some dictatorships have survived domestic and foreign coup attempts, debilitating sanctions, continuous opposition, and meager political support. If those conditions were sufficient for a transition to popular rule, democracy would have blossomed in countries with dictatorships facing heavy internal and external pressure, like Belarus, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Egypt. In these cases, we can see how immense pressure, instead of spurring democratic reforms, can lead to further repression from the regime.
Unfortunately, it may take a conflict for Maduro to leave power, and such a conflict would leave thousands or millions dead and displaced, with only a failed state in its wake. However, there is a better, less bloody option. Instead of imposing foreign military power over Maduro’s regime, Western allies can privately encourage democratic ideals within the regime itself by creating incentives and providing the regime a nonviolent alternative.
There is precedent for this. During the Cold War, authoritarian dictators ruled with support from either the West or the rest. Right-wing dictatorships in Latin America enjoyed the support of the U.S.
In Brazil, Chile, and Paraguay, there were intense debates among the military government about how and when the military would cede power back to the people. Ultimately, due to the prevalent view that holding onto power too harshly and lengthily could result in a failed state, the countries all held elections on their own accord a few years later, with the military progressively regaining a relatively apolitical role in their countries.
After long attempts at reform from various political and military groups outside the countries, the Central Intelligence Agency and its allies, which helped put many of these dictatorships in power in the first place, encouraged democratic reforms through private pressure and dialogue by ensuring the regime leaders would not face persecution.
To prevent a return to dictatorship or conflict, Western powers or the new democratic regimes offered some protection to political and military leaders associated with dictatorship. Without some kind of civil or internationalized conflict, it is ultimately up to the regimes themselves to decide when democracy is restored, and they will only do so if they believe they will still hold some power and their interests protected.
Unless his own security is guaranteed, Maduro will have no impulse to leave power. Reform won’t happen until the regime, or Maduro himself, is willing to change.
Joseph Bouchard is a freelance journalist covering geopolitics in the Americas, with reporting experience in Colombia, Brazil, and Bolivia. His articles have appeared in The Diplomat, Mongabay, The National Interest, and RealClearWorld. He is a contributor with Young Voices.
Maria Corina Machado Political Rally in Maracaibo, Venezuela Maracaibo, Venezuela. Copyright: xHumbertoxMatheusxxEyepixxGroupx via Reuters
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.