President Biden administration’s Venezuela policy is in flux

Laura Kelly & Rafael Bernal

The Biden administration’s Venezuela policy is in flux after the country’s US-backed opposition leader was ousted late last month amid political infighting within the Venezuelan democratic political coalition.
Juan Guaidó’s ouster throws a wrench in U.S. and European policy toward the country, as most Western democracies recognized Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela.
That ousting now threatens to upend the Biden administration’s delicately laid plans to support democracy in Venezuela while carefully engaging with Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro to inject the country’s substantial oil supplies into the global economy.
President Biden’s strategy marked a reversal from the former Trump administration, which sought a maximum pressure campaign of sanctions and isolation against Maduro, and has drawn pushback from Republicans hawkish on Venezuela.
The administration secured the release last year of seven Americans in a prisoner exchange with Maduro; however, at least four Americans are still detained in the country.
“It seems that for now, for this phase, for this round, Maduro, of course, is gaining legitimacy, gaining leverage again,” said Diego Area, the deputy director for strategic development at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.
Maduro’s legitimacy has been under attack for nearly a decade, since the 2015 Venezuelan parliamentary election.
That election is widely regarded as the last fully democratic election in the country.
The assembly members seated in that election in 2018 named Guaidó as acting president of the country during a constitutional crisis in 2018.
The Biden administration eased restrictions on Venezuela’s oil sector in November following tentative progress achieved in Mexico City between the Maduro government and the political opposition, called the Unitary Platform, representing the 2015 National Assembly.
That was part of a White House strategy to encourage Maduro to take steps toward democratic reforms. The sanctions relief — valid for only six months — allows Chevron to ship oil from Venezuela to the U.S., and the proceeds are not expected to directly benefit Venezuela’s state-owned oil company or the Maduro government.
While the oil exports add to the U.S. supplies — with the global energy market under strain amid efforts to squeeze Moscow’s oil exports and bankrupt its ability to wage war on Ukraine — American officials and experts have said the Venezuelan supply is not expected to make a huge difference in supplementing Russian oil on the market.
“It’s too early to tell how fast Chevron will be able to move to get things up and running again, because this is a significant change at the operational level of how things functionally come together at the level of the oil fields,” said Michael McCarthy, a professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs.
Still, the careful opening to Maduro was aimed at encouraging the dictator to take more steps toward compromise with the political opposition.
But follow-up Mexico City talks have yet to materialize.
Critical of the Biden strategy, Sens. James Risch (R-Idaho), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and senior committee member Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced legislation that would make any sanctions relief on Venezuela contingent on Maduro carrying out concrete democratic reforms.
“Any change in U.S. policy toward Venezuela must be contingent on a transfer of power from the Maduro regime to a democratically elected government,” Risch said in a statement last month when introducing the legislation.
“As such, my legislation would condition the removal of U.S. sanctions on the Maduro regime on a standards-based transition to democratic order in Venezuela,” he said.
Area, of the Atlantic Council, said that while the infighting among the opposition and its rejection of Guaidó is concerning in the short term, it could pave the way for strengthening support among the Venezuelan people that has fallen over the National Assembly’s inability to subvert Maduro.
“The opposition, if it would have decided to maintain Guaidó in power, nothing would have changed. It was a lose-lose dynamic,” Area said.
“They decided, the majority of the democratic, political parties, didn’t want to continue with Guaidó, overall, because they are now in the electoral agenda again, they think that elections will eventually and progressively bring democratic institutions again in the country, etc.
And the same with the European Union and U.S. is also aligned with that position,” he said.
Still, the vote doesn’t mean Guaidó’s political career is over, although the end of his de jure presidency was essentially set in stone months ago.
Guaidó puzzled some observers by clinging to his post, apparently betting the farm on his powerful network of support outside Venezuela that includes top U.S. officials such as Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), both of whom tweeted in support of Guaidó on Tuesday.
“Maybe the Guaidó side was hoping that come December, the Durbins, Menendezes, the others who have been strong public backers of his leadership as well as folks inside the State Department in the Biden administration would have to back him,” said McCarthy.
That support failed to materialize, but Guaidó remains the most visible member of a Venezuelan opposition that for decades has failed to fully coalesce behind a single leader.
The Biden administration appears to be transferring its support of Guaidó to the National Assembly as a whole.
“We continue to recognize the authority of the 2015 National Assembly, and we recognize it as the last remaining democratic institution there,” national security spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Wednesday.
“Mr. Guaidó remains a member of that 2015 National Assembly, and we’re going to continue to coordinate with him and other like-minded democratic leaders and actors there in Venezuela to support the Venezuelan people.”
Key to the National Assembly’s power is that it is entrusted with approximately $3 billion in overseas Venezuelan assets frozen by the U.S. and its partners.
State Department spokesman Ned Price on Tuesday said that the administration is going to continue to have discussions with members of the National Assembly on how they will oversee such overseas assets.
Those assets, which include multibillion-dollar investments such as U.S.-based oil company Citgo, will likely be key to future negotiations between the Biden and Maduro camps.
While Guaidó’s interim government had a clear claim to control overseas assets such as Citgo, the Maduro government will now have a new legal claim in its fight to recover control.
“My understanding is that the legal studies that have been done within the U.S. government conclude that the U.S. will still be able to help protect those assets from Maduro, at least for another year, while negotiations are ongoing,” said McCarthy.
And the end of the Guaidó presidency will likely come with few immediate effects either for Venezuelan citizens or for the foreign policy and domestic power dynamics of the country.
“This event … is not a very impactful political event in the daily lives of the Venezuelan citizenry right now. This has not been something that the public has been seized with. And that speaks to the broader and deeper crisis of representation in the opposition, quite frankly,” said McCarthy.