The U.S. Needs a New Strategy in Venezuela
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- A year and a half since protesters took to the streets of Caracas, and U.S. President Donald Trump warned that “all options are on the table” if Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro refused to step down, the fortunes of the two leaders have reversed. While Trump is recovering from Covid-19 and facing defeat at the polls, Maduro’s grip on power has grown more secure. With Venezuela’s main opposition parties planning a boycott of parliamentary elections on Dec. 6, Maduro is poised to consolidate control over all three branches of government.
An electoral victory for the regime promises more misery for the Venezuelan people, who are already suffering from the pandemic and one of the world’s worst food crises. To avert further disaster, U.S. policy needs a change of course. That involves building international support for a democratic transition and persuading members of Maduro’s government not to stand in the way.
The Trump administration has imposed a host of sanctions targeting Maduro, members of his family, dozens of senior officials and Venezuela’s state oil company. In an effort to undermine Maduro’s legitimacy, the U.S. and 57 other countries recognized Juan Guaido, head of the National Assembly, as the country’s rightful president. While those policies have earned Trump favor among Venezuelan-American voters in Florida, they’ve failed to boost grass-roots support for Guaido, whose approval rating has plummeted to less than 30%. The re-emergence of Henrique Capriles, a moderate who narrowly lost the 2013 presidential election to Maduro, has further weakened Guaido’s claim to be the leader of the resistance.
The fragmenting of the opposition, along with the coronavirus emergency and a failed coup attempt last spring, have emboldened Maduro. Security forces have been deployed to quarantine and detain citizens suspected of being exposed to Covid, including tens of thousands of emigres who’ve recently returned home. State-sanctioned attacks against journalists and political dissidents have also increased.
All the while, the country’s human calamity deepens. The economy is projected to shrink by 15% this year. Close to 80% of the population is living in extreme poverty. The United Nations estimates that due to malnutrition, 13% of Venezuelan children under 5 will experience stunted growth.
As destructive as Maduro’s rule has been, overthrowing him by force would be even more destabilizing, setting off a struggle for power and exacerbating Latin America’s refugee crisis. The U.S. has moral and strategic interests in promoting peaceful, democratic change — but Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” against the regime has failed to bring it about. While the U.S. should maintain sanctions against Maduro and members of his inner circle involved in human-rights abuses, it should offer to lift its blockade on fuel shipments, which has disproportionately hurt the poor, if the government holds elections judged to be free and fair.
U.S. diplomats should also restart talks involving regional actors and the government’s main backers — Russia, China, Iran and Cuba — with the aim of convincing high-ranking military and intelligence officials to endorse a transition that would lead to Maduro’s departure. Together with the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, Washington should prepare a generous humanitarian and financial assistance package as an incentive for Venezuelan elites to break with the regime. While not abandoning Guaido, the U.S. should make clear it will provide support to any government freely chosen by the Venezuelan people.
Above all, resolving Venezuela’s crisis requires rigorous, consistent U.S. engagement, the sort that’s been lacking during the pandemic and presidential campaign. The next administration should renew America’s commitment to the restoration of Venezuelan democracy. Doing so is critical not just to the Western Hemisphere’s stability but also to the recovery of a proud nation brought to ruin by its leaders.
Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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