Will the Next Administration Take a New Track on Venezuela Policy?
Either Trump or Biden would face a stalled diplomatic situation when it comes to Venezuela.
As U.S. President Donald Trump and the Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, enter the final stretch in their campaigns for the White House, both have been openly courting the votes and support of Venezuelan Americans, particularly in Florida. But while talking points on socialism and dictatorships may mobilize voters in the short term, simplistic rhetoric about Venezuela will quickly run up against its limits. Indeed, few foreign-policy issues will be knottier in the immediate aftermath of the election.
Neither candidate will inherit a clear road map on how to lead an international coalition in restoring Venezuelan democracy, or even exacting any meaningful concessions from the regime of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. As it stands, the U.S. stance is that Maduro should step down, but his power remains firmly entrenched in Caracas while the country continues on a disastrous socioeconomic decline.
Venezuela is in dire straits. Despite boasting the largest proven oil reserves on the planet, lines at gas stations across the country snake for miles. Protests broke out, primarily in the country’s interior, in September as people grew desperate for fuel, and they only let up when Iran sent tankers loaded with gasoline to Venezuelan shores. The episode was yet more evidence of the South American country’s fall from a powerful petrostate to a country increasingly reliant on other unsavory regimes. Meanwhile, hyperinflation continues to wrack the economy, rendering the local bolívar banknotes even more worthless. Shortages in everything from basic foodstuffs to medical supplies are widespread. Power and water outages are most easily counted by the days in which they don’t occur. A country that, during its oil-fueled heyday, attracted immigrant workers is now seeing people go the other way. Over 4 million have left the country, whose population peaked in 2015 at over 30 million, often for neighboring countries such as Colombia and Brazil, which are ill-equipped to receive them.
Yet solutions from Washington and its allies have hardly been forthcoming. A moment in early 2019 brought a flicker of hope, with the arrival on the national stage of opposition leader Juan Guaidó, the president of Venezuela’s democratically elected National Assembly. He, with the backing of the United States and over 50 allies, enacted a clause of the constitution granting him the presidency on an interim basis, until free and fair elections could be held. Those elections have not yet happened—and Guaidó’s constitutional mandate could end with December’s parliamentary elections, which most observers have already deemed susceptible to fraud. Guaidó was a guest at this year’s State of the Union address, but the United States’ strategy of unilateral sanctions and criminal indictments has done little to dislodge Maduro or any of his cronies, largely due to the unwavering support of the military for Maduro, despite Guaidó’s multiple attempts to recruit military leaders onto its side.
Despite the stalling of Venezuela policy, the issue has resurged during the U.S. election. “Joe Biden is a PUPPET of CASTRO-CHAVISTAS,” Trump tweeted earlier this month in reference to Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez—both the late and combative architects of their countries’ current left-wing status quo. This rhetoric is likely to play well with Venezuelan, Cuban, and Colombian immigrants who are wary of socialism, particularly in Florida, a state Trump sees as key to any Electoral College victory. But still, should he win reelection, regional analysts are unsure of what a second-term set of Venezuela policies would look like.
“President Trump’s policy towards Venezuela can only be understood through the prism of Florida politics and his reelection strategy,” Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue, said. “There’s been a lot of tough talk, threats, and saber-rattling, along with harsh economic sanctions, but nothing to show for it. By any measure, the country is in worse shape than ever.”
If Trump manages to win reelection, Shifter suggests his stance could quickly shift, perhaps even mimicking his solicitous policy toward North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. In June of this year, Trump said he would be open to meeting with Maduro, before walking the comments back. “Most likely, he would just be indifferent, and Venezuela could become a second-tier issue,” Shifter said. “None of these possibilities augurs well for a more successful and productive U.S. Venezuela policy than what we have seen over the last four years.”
Trump, freed from the campaign trail, may also change tack on his strict sanctions regime, according to Raúl Gallegos, a director for Control Risks, a consulting firm, in the Andean region. “Trump is likely to maintain a confrontational stance with the Maduro regime. But faced with the need to revive the U.S. economy and support the profitable forays of U.S. companies weakened by COVID-19, he is likely to take an easier approach against Venezuela,” Gallegos said, predicting that in the event of a Trump victory, many companies will double down on their lobbying for sanctions relief. Some companies in the oil sphere would stand to benefit. “This also means the Trump administration will likely cease protecting Citgo assets from the seizure of creditors if and when he gets reelected,” the analyst said, in reference to Venezuela’s U.S. refining subsidiary.
Biden, on the other hand, while never hesitant to call Maduro a “dictator” and recognize Guaidó’s legitimacy in February last year, has not given many specifics, beyond focusing on international diplomacy and the plight of refugees from the regime. In an 2019 statement in response to questions from the Council on Foreign Relations, while he was still campaigning for the nomination, Biden said that “the overriding goal in Venezuela must be to hold free and fair elections so that the Venezuelan people may recover their democracy and rebuild their country.” Biden said that the United States should push for stronger multilateral sanctions—rather than the unilateral ones announced by the incumbent—and should grant Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans who have fled their home country.
Answering the same set of questions from the Council on Foreign Relations, Biden’s now-running mate Kamala Harris said the United States should provide additional aid to humanitarian organizations supporting Venezuelan refugees and extend Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans in the United States. “Finally, we should take U.S. military intervention off the table,” Harris said, in reference to the Trump administration’s repeated and thinly veiled threat that “all options are on the table.”
One thing likely to continue no matter who wins in November would be the ongoing attempt at coalition-building in Latin America. Biden would continue to coordinate, as the Trump administration has, with the Lima Group—the intergovernmental organization of 14 countries in the Americas working to resolve the crisis in Venezuela. But on regional cooperation, he may face new difficulties from countries including Colombia and Brazil, and continued difficulty with Mexico and Argentina. He may butt heads with leaders from Colombia and Brazil, where ruling politicians are supportive of Trump and issues including corruption and the environment may lead to conflict with a Biden administration.
“Unlike Trump, Biden would also coordinate with European powers, whose obvious dislike and mistrust of Trump has complicated U.S. efforts to synchronize sanctions and diplomatic tactics,” said Benjamin Gedan, the deputy director of the Latin America program at the Wilson Center. “And though he would be far more admired than Trump in Latin America, he would not succeed in persuading Mexico or Argentina to return to their hardline positions on Venezuela under their previous governments.”
The leaders in Venezuela, both the opposition and Maduro himself, will also be paying keen attention to the results of the election in November. While the assumption may be that a Trump victory would upset Maduro, it could be the case that a Biden foreign policy based “first and foremost on democracy,” as Amanda Mattingly— a former foreign affairs officer at the State Department—wrote last month in a series of recommendations for U.S. policy on Venezuela, would be equally if not more unsettling for the strongman.
“I actually think Maduro would prefer Trump, who is easy to demonize, and a lightning rod for other maligned forces,” Ray Walser, a historian and former foreign service officer, said, adding that the Guaidó-led opposition too may enjoy a new tack from Washington. “After 2 years under Trump, the opposition might just be open to some fresh thinking and a new diplomatic team on the playing field.”
But regardless of who takes office in January, obstacles continue to develop as the situation on the ground in Venezuela continues to change. When Leopoldo López, a prominent and combative opposition leader and mentor to Guaidó, fled the country in late October, it was yet another sign that political space continues to shrink. Either a Trump or a Biden administration would face continuing challenges on Venezuela policy.