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Biden Sidelines Venezuelan Democracy at Summit of the Americas

The administration wants to support human rights, but it doesn’t have the courage of its convictions.

By , a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Juan Guaidó in the Venezuelan parliament in Caracas
Juan Guaidó in the Venezuelan parliament in Caracas
Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó presides over the Venezuelan National Parliament in Caracas on Jan. 5. PEDRO RANCES MATTEY/AFP via Getty Images

This week, U.S. President Joe Biden is hosting the leaders of nearly two dozen Latin American and Caribbean countries at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, the first time the United States has hosted the event since 1994. Much has been made of Biden’s absolutely correct decision not to invite the hemisphere’s three brutal dictators: Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, and Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel. That decision should not be controversial, and any opprobrium should be reserved for the decisions by the leaders of Mexico and Bolivia to boycott the summit in protest.

But Biden has left himself in an indefensible position on Venezuela. Although he has rightly denounced Maduro as an illegitimate ruler, he has refused to support—and, until recently, even speak to—Juan Guaidó, the country’s acting president and titular leader of the opposition. Why did Biden speak to Guaidó for the first time only this week—after more than 16 months in the White House? And why not invite Guaidó, whom the United States and dozens of other countries recognize as the legitimate president of Venezuela, to the summit?

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters that the decision to keep Guaidó off the guest list was a tactical one that would lead to “a better future for the Venezuelan people” by encouraging negotiations between Maduro and his opponents. That tactical decision is very hard to understand. As Sullivan well knows, Maduro continues to refuse negotiations, breaking the promises he made to the Biden administration to return to talks with the opposition, which had been launched in August 2021 in Mexico.

This week, U.S. President Joe Biden is hosting the leaders of nearly two dozen Latin American and Caribbean countries at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, the first time the United States has hosted the event since 1994. Much has been made of Biden’s absolutely correct decision not to invite the hemisphere’s three brutal dictators: Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, and Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel. That decision should not be controversial, and any opprobrium should be reserved for the decisions by the leaders of Mexico and Bolivia to boycott the summit in protest.

But Biden has left himself in an indefensible position on Venezuela. Although he has rightly denounced Maduro as an illegitimate ruler, he has refused to support—and, until recently, even speak to—Juan Guaidó, the country’s acting president and titular leader of the opposition. Why did Biden speak to Guaidó for the first time only this week—after more than 16 months in the White House? And why not invite Guaidó, whom the United States and dozens of other countries recognize as the legitimate president of Venezuela, to the summit?

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters that the decision to keep Guaidó off the guest list was a tactical one that would lead to “a better future for the Venezuelan people” by encouraging negotiations between Maduro and his opponents. That tactical decision is very hard to understand. As Sullivan well knows, Maduro continues to refuse negotiations, breaking the promises he made to the Biden administration to return to talks with the opposition, which had been launched in August 2021 in Mexico.

What were the other considerations for Biden? Part of the reason may have been horse-trading as the administration attempted to corral other leaders into attending the summit. According to the Associated Press, a request to exclude Guaidó came from the Mexican government as Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was mulling whether or not to boycott the summit. But once it became clear that the horse trade failed and the Mexican leader would not attend, why did Washington not then invite Guaidó?

Then there is oil, where the Biden administration is worried about skyrocketing fuel prices, not least because of their effect on the Democrats’ chances in the U.S. midterm elections. And so, instead of going to friendly producers like Canada, Biden has been working to loosen the ban on Venezuelan oil. In March, two U.S. officials went to Caracas to meet with Maduro, and since then, sanctions on the Venezuelan oil sector have been relaxed.

The role the United States is actually playing today is weakening Guaidó and the entire Venezuelan democratic opposition.

And what has that produced? The U.S. team did not meet with Guaidó while it was in Caracas, which, like his exclusion from the summit, weakens Venezuela’s democrats. Since the trip, Maduro has not returned to negotiations—nor has political repression been reduced by one iota. And the notion that Venezuelan oil production could quickly be ramped up to help the world replace Russian oil was a non-starter, given the decrepit condition of Venezuela’s oil patch after decades of government mismanagement and neglect.

The official White House account of the conversation between Biden and Guaidó said, “They discussed the role the United States and other international partners can play to support a negotiated solution to Venezuela’s crisis.” But the role the United States is actually playing today is weakening Guaidó and the entire Venezuelan democratic opposition in the vain hopes of seducing Maduro into serious negotiations and getting a lot more Venezuelan oil onto its markets.

Venezuela’s crisis is an awful one for its people, and there are no easy and obvious steps the United States can take to resolve it. That is because Venezuela is in the grip of a vicious criminal regime. In this situation, the United States should be resolutely supporting and strengthening democratic opposition forces. The administration should never negotiate with Maduro for steps the opposition thinks are unrealistic or damaging, and it should never bypass the opposition to engage in so-called tactical steps that end up helping the Maduro regime.

Biden was right to exclude the hemisphere’s dictators from Los Angeles. It is tragic that he did not take the logical next step and support the democrats fighting the dictatorship in Venezuela by inviting its legitimate president. Biden’s stated policy to support democracy and human rights will fail unless he shows the courage of his convictions.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the former U.S. State Department special representative for Venezuela during the Trump administration.

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