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President Biden, don’t miss your last chance in Venezuela

It is imperative that the United States administration look beyond sanctions and focus its efforts on catalyzing the rebirth of democracy in Venezuela

Joe Biden
U.S. President Joe Biden arriving in Florida on Tuesday.KEVIN LAMARQUE (REUTERS)

Joe Biden came to power in the United States three years ago with a complex but very clear mission: to get his country out of the coronavirus pandemic, kickstart an economy hit by a global crisis, and protect the democratic system from the attack of its internal and external enemies. His government has had incontrovertible successes on the first two points. The pandemic is behind us and the coronavirus is today treated like a severe flu for which there is medication. Inflation has been tamed: after a peak of 9% in 2022, the latest reports place it at a moderate 3.4%. On the third point, however, its success is unclear and hangs by a thread. Democracy is under threat like never before.

Although Biden defeated Trump decisively in 2020, the populist leader is the almost certain Republican candidate for a rematch on November 5. Following the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, Trump has moved (fast and furious) to dispatch Nikki Haley, his only remaining rival, and secure his candidacy. If Trump were to win the presidency — and right now he has a good chance of doing so — we know what is coming: an unprecedented attack on American democracy from within, starting with changes to the Constitution, continuing with the purge of the government (dubbed by Trumpists as the “deep state”) and ending with the closure of the southern border to contain immigration.

Inside and outside the United States, democracy is at its lowest point in the last three decades following the great democratic wave resulting from the fall of the Berlin Wall. From Ukraine to Taiwan, many democracies are being held in check by expansionist powers. Others, like El Salvador, have begun to be dismantled with the old “salami tactic,” that is, one slice at a time. It is Latin America that presents the greatest democratic regression, as Jorge Sahd K., Daniel Zovatto and Diego Rojas, from the Center for International Studies (CEIUC), note in their research work Political Risk in Latin America 2024.

Biden is aware that the unstoppable flow of immigration is one of the most vulnerable points of his administration. It is estimated that in December 2023 alone, 300,000 migrants tried to enter the United States from Mexico. Some surveys already show it as one of the main concerns of voters along with the economic situation, and it has become a hot topic in the fight to the death that is already being waged with Trump. That is why recovering and strengthening democracy as a tool to begin to stop migration should be the number one priority on his agenda for Latin America for the remainder of his term in office.

Venezuela, the largest exporter of migrants in the hemisphere, is testing this goal like no other country in the Americas, because in that South American nation, a crossroads has materialized where U.S. domestic politics is intertwined with the migration crisis.

The recent disqualification of María Corina Machado poses a threat to the hopes of free and fair elections, agreed upon in the Barbados agreements between the Unitary Platform of the Venezuelan opposition and the Chavista dictatorship. Meanwhile, the U.S. government lifted the oil sanctions imposed by Trump in exchange for restoring the supply of Venezuelan crude oil to the United States, the release of political prisoners — among them a dozen Americans — and the vague promise of a democratic change; its fundamental commitment lies in the resolution of the immigration problem.

Although Biden complied with the agreement, Maduro’s response has been a stab in the back. Few were surprised after so many negotiations violated by Chavismo in the past. But the State Department’s response is clear: “The United States is currently reviewing its sanctions policy against Venezuela, based on these events and the recent political persecution of candidates from the democratic opposition and civil society.” The White House concluded: that all those who want to run for president should have the opportunity to do so, and have the right to equal electoral conditions, freedom of movement, and guarantees for their physical safety.

Hours before the measure against Machado was announced, a Venezuelan opposition politician familiar with the negotiations and disappointments prior to Barbados told me: “Maduro has already obtained a good part of what he wanted, as evidenced by the return of the oil companies, the release of Alex Saab — Maduro’s alleged front man — and previously of the narco-nephews. In return he has given very little. He only needs to obtain international legitimacy and to do so he will continue to play with the elections. He is not going to negotiate because there is no credible threat from the United States and because he is convinced that they are not going to take away what they have already given him. But since both are interested in maintaining the agreements, with or without María Corina Machado as a candidate, the Biden administration will continue to feed the perception that it is doing important things in Venezuela, even if it knows that it cannot resolve the situation.”

As [philosopher Emil] Ciorán wrote, “all lucidity is the consequence of a loss.” It would be foolish to refuse to see the objective fact: the possibilities of democracy in Venezuela have just been dealt a new blow. But, in this case, Biden must say enough is enough and show that he will not allow himself to be fooled by Maduro. To do this, it is imperative that his administration look beyond sanctions and focus its efforts on catalyzing the rebirth of democracy in Venezuela. Machado’s disqualification only shows that freeing the dictatorship from its economic shackles is not enough to stop the Venezuelan diaspora.

The eight million Venezuelans who have fled Maduro are a significant factor in the instability of many of the transit and host countries, including the United States. Without mentioning their nationality, Trump has turned them into cannon fodder for his xenophobic discourse: they are the ones who come to steal, kill and poison white blood. So promoting the Venezuelan democratic cause would be a decisive step to help alleviate immigration pressure and would detract from Trump’s attacks in the presidential campaign. Returning Venezuela to the democratic path would also have a tectonic effect in the region and would send waves of change and hope to Cuba and Nicaragua, whose societies live crushed under authoritarianism. If he were to achieve the democratic transition in Venezuela, Biden could receive a popularity bonus among Latino voters, many of whom have lost affection for him.

Diplomacy is the key word for all this. It is no secret that the strategy used by Washington with Maduro has been that of carrot and stick. In this case, both are the same thing: sanctions. But the lifting of sanctions and the prisoner exchange that followed have mostly been gifts to Maduro. And there is no time to continue getting dizzy with vague promises from Chavismo.

A pattern of action to follow is in Guatemala. As Ben Gedan, director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program, pointed out in a recent article in Project Syndicate, in order to dissuade the “pacto de corruptos” or corrupt elites from attempting to prevent Arévalo from becoming president on January 15, the Biden administration orchestrated a two-tier strategy. In the first, it imposed sanctions and withdrew the travel visas of 300 legislators and oligarchs affiliated with the government of Alejandro Giammattei. A second phase consisted of a clear endorsement of Arévalo — who visited the White House — accompanied by firm pronouncements from officials of American diplomacy, with the Undersecretary of State for Latin America, Brian Nichols, at the helm.

To deal with Maduro we have to go further. First, Biden must support the opponent María Corina Machado in a public, unequivocal and forceful manner. Second, it has to add Latin American democratic leaders, starting with Arévalo and Boric and ending with Lula and Petro, to a campaign for fair elections in Venezuela. In exchange for this, he must offer a carrot. How about agreeing to Maduro’s departure from the country, the regime’s nomenklatura and his relatives, as discussed in previous negotiations?

It is a controversial point, when millions of Venezuelans dream of the day when justice will arrive. It is a harsh, terrible, disgusting and even obscene option. But it is also the most realistic possibility to dislodge the autocracy from power. Otherwise, Biden will lose his best opportunity to shore up democracy in Latin America and Venezuelans will continue fleeing the endless horror of the Chavista nightmare.

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