A man walks in front of a sign that reads "Trump unblock Venezuela" in Caracas, Venezuela
Fausto Torrealba / Reuters

From its first weeks in office, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has been intent on dislodging Nicolás Maduro from power in Venezuela—resorting to everything from tough talk of “military options” and indictments of senior officials to hard-hitting sanctions and multilateral diplomacy. In January, after two years of effort, Washington seemed to be close to reaching its goal. With an uncharacteristic display of careful diplomatic coordination, the United States, along with several Latin American governments and other U.S. partners, announced that it would recognize Juan Guaidó, the then-35-year-old leader of the National Assembly, as the country’s interim president. And this move, the thinking went, would surely, before long, catalyze a military or popular uprising that would drive the dictatorial Maduro from power. When Guaidó, with the support of some military figures, launched a high-stakes attempt to seize power at the end of April, it seemed that Maduro’s end might finally have arrived.

Except it didn’t. The attempt failed, and since April, Venezuela has remained stuck in a purgatorial stalemate. Maduro presides over a collapsing state but remains entrenched in Caracas. Guaidó, the country’s most popular political figure, is too powerful to jail but wields little actual authority. And the United States continues to insist on its demands, gambling that “maximum pressure”—diplomatic isolation, intensifying sanctions, and threats of military force—will eventually bring Maduro down, despite its failure so far. Meanwhile, the humanitarian catastrophe in Venezuela, where by year’s end GDP will have fallen 62 percent since 2013 and six to eight million people don’t have enough to eat, goes on.

The United States must now reassess its approach. Washington shouldn’t give up its sustained focus on the crisis or its stated objective of restoring democracy and constitutional order, but it does have to accept the facts on the ground and recognize that maximalist demands are unhelpful. Rather than clinging to the fading hope that pressure alone will topple Maduro, Washington should reorient both its sanctions policy and its diplomatic engagement around the search for a negotiated pathway to elections. At the same time, it must reckon far more seriously with the humanitarian dimensions of Venezuela’s crisis—including the damage done by U.S. sanctions.

TOUGH TALKING

So far, Washington has stayed far away from negotiations—including the intermittent Norwegian-sponsored talks that began in May. The Trump administration has good reason to be skeptical of talks. Dialogue has become a dirty word for many in the Venezuelan opposition as well, thanks to Maduro’s record of using negotiations to buy time, consolidate his support, and splinter his adversaries.

The administration has instead publicly raised pressure on Maduro with new sanctions and tough talk from officials such as National Security Adviser John Bolton. Recent reports of contact between the Trump and Maduro teams, as well as the State Department’s pledge that the United States will not prosecute Maduro if he leaves power voluntarily, indicate some alternative views within the administration. But the need to sustain public hawkishness undercuts any private pragmatism. The result is a disjointed policy, with U.S. partners confused by Trump’s strategy and Guaidó surprised by some of the administration’s moves.

Given the dearth of other options, Washington should participate directly in the search for a negotiated solution, channeling its skepticism into shaping the conditions and agenda for talks rather than remaining on the sidelines. While the Norwegian-sponsored negotiations have identified the outlines of a potential deal (early presidential elections with measures to ensure a free and fair vote), without U.S. engagement, the chances the talks will succeed are slim.

The United States should take a more hands-on approach, similar to the one it adopted for the Colombian peace talks that concluded successfully in 2016. In that case, President Barack Obama’s administration appointed an envoy through whom the United States could protect its interests, incentivize progress, and make offers to resolve difficult issues. Venezuela has a different dynamic, but there, too, a direct link to the negotiations would demonstrate U.S. commitment to diplomacy and supply a real-time understanding of the issues at play. Trump already has an envoy for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, but he has kept the talks at arm’s length thus far. If Abrams and his colleagues fully engaged with negotiations, they could work more effectively with like-minded Latin American and European multilateral groups to set the stage for future talks, including by forging a joint sanctions strategy.

The United States must calibrate its sanctions policy more closely to its diplomatic agenda.

Sanctions still have an important role to play, and they provide Guaidó with his best source of leverage. But the United States must calibrate its sanctions policy more closely to its diplomatic agenda. In the current negotiations, Maduro’s team has made sanctions relief one of its principal demands. The United States’ current approach has been to vaguely promise lifting sanctions against individuals who shift their loyalty to Guaidó. Instead, the Trump administration needs to communicate precisely what relief it is prepared to offer in response to which positive steps on the part of the regime. In so doing, it will need to account for the interests of potential spoilers within the regime as well as the Venezuelan military and Maduro allies such as China, Russia, and Cuba. Their interests vary widely from personal to geopolitical, but in almost all cases the United States has leverage that can be deployed most effectively by being close to the negotiating table.  

For negotiations to be viable, the White House must be willing to swallow some bitter pills and even to incur the displeasure of the Guaidó coalition and Congress. Acknowledging Maduro as Venezuela’s de facto leader, even if Guaidó is the country’s legitimate leader, will be particularly difficult to stomach. But if there is to be any hope that talks will lead to democratic elections, Maduro must be allowed a seat at the table and a potential role in the transition, provided his powers are sufficiently constrained. 

Similarly, the administration must take military action off the table, or at the very least stop invoking the threat in public. That unilateral military intervention would be risky and expensive is so clear that official assertions that “all options are on the table” never resonated as more than an effort to spook the Venezuelan military into abandoning Maduro. But such statements have led members of Guaidó’s coalition to overestimate their leverage and created divisions and distractions in opposition circles. By quieting speculation about potential military action, the administration would help preserve the unity of the international and Venezuelan coalitions working to restore democracy.  

FIRST, DO NO HARM

Venezuela’s economic and humanitarian crisis will endure until Maduro’s regime ends and democracy is restored. But even as the United States pushes for a negotiated transition, it must work to alleviate the suffering of the Venezuelan people and those in neighboring countries.

The scale and toll of Venezuela’s collapse has been shocking. More than four million Venezuelans have fled their country to date; the number could grow to eight million by the end of next year. A report by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet paints a portrait of desperation: millions of Venezuelans are malnourished, and many lack medicine, electricity, water, and gasoline.

The Trump administration should elevate humanitarian considerations as a U.S. priority—including when it comes to the collateral impact of the maximum pressure campaign. The administration has allocated more than $200 million for humanitarian assistance, but Venezuela’s neighbors have shouldered a far greater cost by accepting millions of fleeing Venezuelans. The United States should lead by example by raising the refugee admissions cap and granting Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans, which would allow more Venezuelans to settle in the United States and protect those already here from deportation—a step that the administration opposes but the House of Representatives approved.

The administration would then have the standing to convene a humanitarian summit alongside the UN General Assembly this month, as the Obama administration did in response to the Syria refugee crisis, in order to secure concrete commitments from governments, multilateral institutions, and the private sector, with the aim of harmonizing policy toward Venezuelan migrants among principal destination countries. Colombia needs more money for humanitarian assistance, for example, but even more than that, it needs other countries to accept more refugees rather than harden their borders, as Chile, Peru, and Ecuador have done in recent months.

United States’ sanctions are harming ordinary Venezuelans more than Maduro and his henchmen.

At the same time, Washington needs to reflect on how its own policies might be worsening the plight of the Venezuelan people as Maduro clings to power. Sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector (which traditionally accounted for 95 percent of the country’s export revenue) risk doing just this and have been met with growing concern from UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Bachelet and others who are not Maduro’s friends. The United States introduced sanctions on the state-owned oil firm, PDVSA, in January, on the theory that this privation would finally break Maduro’s resistance. Collateral damage to the Venezuelan people was thereby justified as a short-term cost. Needless to say that theory was flawed, and as the standoff drags on, sanctions are harming ordinary Venezuelans more than Maduro and his henchmen: in April, Venezuelan imports dropped to $303 million, eight percent of 2012 figures.

Without question, the Maduro regime is itself responsible for the single largest economic collapse outside a war zone in at least 45 years. But U.S. actions are aggravating the consequences of this collapse while handing Maduro an easy scapegoat. The Trump administration might argue that economic sanctions need time to take full effect. But sanctions have a poor record of producing regime change, and the administration’s waiting game comes at a terrible human price. For Venezuelan society to resist Maduro, it must be able to eat. By one estimate, more than eight in ten Venezuelans now rely on food handouts from Maduro that are conditioned on political loyalty—hardly ripe conditions for a popular uprising. 

There is now a risk that sectoral sanctions on Venezuelan oil, gold, and other sources of revenue become an article of faith rather than a tool of foreign policy, as happened with Cuba, where a half-century embargo remains untouched despite its failure to dislodge the communist government. The Trump administration must find a way to avoid that outcome. One model is the UN’s oil-for-food program, which allowed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to sell oil in exchange for food and medicine, thereby shielding civilians from the damage of economic sanctions; though the program was corruption-ridden in practice, it was theoretically sound in concept. The administration should explore a similar scheme in Venezuela, one that would allow the United States to walk back its sectoral sanctions while channeling revenues toward humanitarian relief instead of the Maduro regime. Whether Maduro would accept such a scheme remains an open question, but it is a question he should be forced to answer. 

PREPARE FOR THE WORST

Even if Washington takes all of the above precautions—if it helps steer talks and works to mitigate the humanitarian crisis—the United States must prepare for the worst-case scenario, in which Maduro clings to power for years to come or is replaced in a palace coup by a similarly minded leader.  

If Maduro stays, then Venezuela will continue its descent into a shelter for criminals and an exporter of chaos. The regional spillover effects—millions more refugees, supercharged transnational crime networks, outbreaks of communicable diseases, cross-border attacks by guerrilla organizations operating from Venezuelan safe havens—could destabilize parts of South America and the Caribbean basin for a decade or more. U.S. agencies should help their regional counterparts plan for the foreseeable consequences of a long-term breakdown of Venezuelan state and society.

Should such a scenario come about, policymakers may be limited to containing the problem rather than resolving it. Few in Washington or Venezuela desire this outcome. But U.S. policymakers must reckon candidly with the staying power of the Maduro regime, even while redoubling their best diplomatic efforts to dislodge it. 

  • MICHAEL J. CAMILLERI is Director of the Peter D. Bell Rule of Law Program at the Inter-American Dialogue and a former Director for Andean Affairs at the National Security Council.
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