On March 7th, Colombian president Ivan Duque declared that any solution to Venezuela’s humanitarian and political crises must come through transparent presidential elections. The announcement came as the U.S. began bilateral talks with Caracas to discuss the possibility of easing oil sanctions. Venezuela possesses the largest oil reserves in the world and could help the U.S. transition away from Russian oil. President Duque did not explicitly condemn the talks, but argued that the U.S. should push for elections instead of smaller political demands.
Venezuela’s condition has been worsening over the past decade. Falling oil prices and increasing repression have driven human rights violations and created a burgeoning refugee crisis. The Inter-Agency Co-Ordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela estimates that there are over six million Venezuelan migrants and refugees as of February 2022. The National Survey of Living Conditions, meanwhile, reports that 79% of Venezuelan households live in extreme poverty. The political upheaval increased in 2018 with President Nicolás Maduro’s victory in what has been widely viewed as a sham election. Both Maduro’s supporters and his opponents have made maximalist demands of each other, and the international divide surrounding Maduro has only exacerbated the polarization. In January 2019, the U.S. responded to concerns about the election by recognizing opposition candidate Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president. But Maduro’s supporters in Cuba, China, Russia, Turkey, and Iran have all helped Venezuela evade sanctions and maintain a minimum of economic activity. With their assistance, Maduro has been able to hold onto power even as ordinary Venezuelans’ economic situation deteriorates.
Caracas’s relations with Washington have been tense for years, but grew much worse with the Trump administration’s imposition of sanctions and attendant break in diplomatic relations with Maduro. Donald Trump exerted maximum pressure and implied that all of the United States’ to oust Maduro, including military intervention, were on the table. Moisés Naim and Francisco Toro note in Foreign Affairs that some of Venezuela’s more radical opposition politicians called for U.S. military intervention as well. Colombia, which has struggled to handle large amounts of Venezuelan refugees and to deal with skirmishes with drug cartels along its border with Venezuela, also staunchly opposes Maduro. President Duque’s comments on Monday reflect Bogota’s resistance to easing sanctions on Maduro’s regime.
Maduro and opposition leaders have attempted negotiations before with talks facilitated by Norway. However, the main opposition leadership walked away from the talks in September 2019. Both sides seem unwilling to compromise, but according to the International Crisis Group, there have been hopeful signs. When civil society groups and a minor opposition faction met with the Maduro government, the government was willing to discuss concessions on electoral policies and humanitarian assistance. Maduro allowed the opposition two seats on the five-person National Electoral Council. Guaidó’s opposition has since resumed talks with Maduro as well, but progress frequently stalls.
Ironically, sanctions intended to weaken Maduro seem to have weakened his opposition instead. President Maduro has blamed Venezuela’s economic problems on U.S. interference rather than his own government’s actions. According to a poll conducted by Datanálisis, 71% of Venezuelans oppose U.S. oil sanctions. The Venezuelan opposition has lost support as it struggles to justify the need for tough sanctions to citizens. The Datanálisis poll further revealed that Guaidó’s approval ratings stood at over 60% in February 2019, but by May 2020 his approval rating had dropped precipitously to 25%. Maximum pressure has failed to oust Maduro so far, and Guaidó does not seem to have a chance for success if this strategy continues.
President Duque is correct: the goal should be free and fair elections in Venezuela. Unfortunately, Guaidó’s supporters are unlikely to achieve this goal any time soon. The Venezuelan opposition has already tried to make dramatic demands in negotiations and achieved little success. While compromise and partial gains are not as satisfying, they are the best way to move forward. With public support for the opposition faltering, it is time to push for more manageable goals.
The opposition and its allies in the U.S. could offer to ease oil sanctions in return for smaller improvements in elections, human rights, or humanitarian assistance. Maduro may resist relinquishing any of his power, but the U.S. should encourage Guaidó’s allies to remain at the negotiating table. Even minor wins may increase the opposition’s popularity and power.
Advancements in human rights and humanitarian assistance will also improve the situation for ordinary Venezuelans. The opposition and Maduro previously discussed social welfare options at the Norwegian-led negotiations. These conversations should resume with more urgency; with high inflation, gas shortages, and rising malnutrition, Venezuelans need assistance. Funds from oil exports could go towards improving daily life for citizens, but the U.S. and Venezuelan opposition must persuade Maduro to pass on some of the profit. The current situation is untenable, and citizens cannot wait for a change in government to relieve the crisis.
The climate for negotiations is more favorable now than in previous years. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created a wedge between Russia and Maduro. The Biden administration is more open to talks than the previous administration, and is actively searching for new sources of oil. The U.S. should take advantage of its leverage and work with Guaidó to bargain for reasonable, meaningful improvements in Venezuela.
Maduro’s government is authoritarian and criminal, but continued demands for free elections and regime change have accomplished nothing. A new strategy focused on feasible change must take the place of all-or-nothing ultimatums. The U.S. and Venezuelan opposition should not let perfect be the enemy of good.