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Joe Biden Should Not Try to Out-Hawk Trump on Venezuela

The first task for a Biden administration would be to take military intervention off the table.

Thousands gather in Caracas to protest Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. April 2019 (Photo: Helena1 / Shutterstock.com)

Thousands gather in Caracas to protest Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. April 2019 (Photo: Helena1 / Shutterstock.com)

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s recent tweet regarding President Trump’s Venezuela policy has received some attention in the last week. Trump’s suggestion in an interview with Axios that he would be open to meeting with Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro led Biden to suggest that Trump “admires thugs and dictators like Nicolas Maduro,” but that he [Biden] “will stand with the Venezuelan people and for democracy.” The tweet raised concern that Biden might be undertaking a strategic effort at triangulation, burnishing his foreign policy credentials by trying to out-hawk Trump on Venezuela.

It is not a negligible fear as the Venezuela tragedy fits well with the liberal internationalism that has served to justify military interventions by Democratic administrations in the past. The Maduro government has presided over a governance disaster that has forced over 5 million Venezuelans to leave and which could get dramatically worse if the COVID-19 pandemic surges out of control.

Maduro has not only undermined democratic institutions, he has repressed protestors, and jailed, tortured and disappeared opponents in what could qualify as “crimes against humanity.” As such, Venezuela might seem ripe for an intervention justified in terms of the "responsibility to protect."

But whether it is animated by a revived Monroe doctrine or liberal internationalism, military intervention in Venezuela would be disastrous, looking more like Iraq or Libya than Panama or Kosovo. Venezuela’s well-equipped armed forces, wide array of non-state armed actors, and a small but dedicated core of Maduro supporters would almost certainly guarantee a long and bloody insurgent conflict.

So what would be a more productive policy direction for a Biden administration to take? The “hands off” approach that some advocate is not responsible. The foundation of sovereignty in democracies is the vote, facilitated by and aggregated through independent electoral mechanisms. It is through elections that citizens can control their government — choosing the leaders they want, throwing out those they don’t. Venezuelans would love to solve this crisis on their own at the voting booth; but they can’t because their country’s electoral institutions have been undermined by the Maduro government.

It is precisely because the Venezuelan people have lost sovereignty over their government that they need international support. On this point the Trump administration has been correct; but its “maximum pressure” approach has made U.S. policy itself part of the problem, rather than the solution.

U.S.-imposed sectoral economic sanctions are doing more harm than good.

The first task for a Biden administration would be to take military intervention off the table. While the idea that negotiation needs to be backed up by a credible threat of force seems intuitive, in practice it divides the Venezuelan opposition and undermines their commitment to negotiation and politics more broadly. When government opponents think there is a military option available, a significant segment of them will see engaging in political mobilization of any kind as imprudent at best, as treason at worst. As long as the military option is on the table, the Venezuelan opposition will be divided and unable to put unified pressure on the Maduro regime.

This is an iteration on a theme. One of the most important impacts of U.S. interventions in Latin America over the twentieth century was to reduce state responsiveness to the region’s radical inequalities. With confidence that the U.S. would intervene if they were threatened by the impoverished masses or politicians who mobilized them, Latin America’s political elites have been obstinately resistant to demands for change. The same thing is happening today. While polls consistently show that the majority of Venezuelans support a negotiated settlement, opposition leaders are not fully committed.

U.S.-imposed sectoral economic sanctions are doing more harm than good. While these sanctions pinch the Maduro government, they bludgeon the Venezuelan people, reducing their ratio of power vis-à-vis the government. While economic sanctions reduce the income the Maduro government has at its disposal, they also grind the Venezuelan people into even greater misery and weaken their ability to resist.

The country’s disastrous economic decline began long before these sanctions were imposed, but the data is quite clear that they have dramatically reduced oil production and ipso facto imports in an economy totally dependent on oil revenue. Moreover, the financial sanctions in place since August 2017 have prevented joint ventures that have reduced oil production and Venezuela’s ability to maintain its electrical grid. A Biden administration could negotiate sanctions relief in exchange for some real concessions, such as new electoral authorities or a referendum.

Targeted sanctions on Maduro regime officials should continue. While their effectiveness is limited, they at least provide some restriction on the officials who have undermined Venezuela’s democracy. Perhaps the biggest impediment to negotiation now is the set of indictments hanging over the heads of Nicolás Maduro and his closest officials. Why would any of them want to negotiate an exit if it would mean an entrance into a U.S. federal prison? Indictments cannot be rolled back, but in Colombia’s peace agreement, for example, the Colombian government assured FARC leaders they would not be extradited to the U.S. for any crimes committed before the signing of the agreement. However, they would be subject to extradition for future crimes. Venezuelan leaders could be offered hearings within Venezuela, or a negotiated exit from the country.

Perhaps most important would be a robust reconstruction of U.S. diplomacy. A Biden administration would need to begin with the assumption that the United States is simply not in a good position to lead a solution to the Venezuela crisis, and seek to work with allies who are. More closely coordinating with the European Union and Latin American members of the International Contact Group, and seeking to facilitate Norway and other international and regional actors with a track record in conflict resolution, could make future efforts more successful.

Changing the geometry of U.S. foreign relations could lead to new possibilities. Given the Trump administration’s existential threats against it, Cuba has become a stronger ally to Maduro than ever. Re-thawing with Cuba and recognizing that it has a logical interest in access to oil and other supplies, would make it more likely to facilitate a transition. While Russia has been involved for years, when Venezuela became a focus of U.S. regime change efforts it gave Venezuela added value. If the U.S. were to give Venezuela a different valence, that could alter its place in Russia’s foreign policies as well. Lowering hostilities with China would do the same.

Finally, undergirding whatever policies a Biden administration might take should be a change in discourse. Behind the Trump administration’s miscalculations has been an assumption that the Maduro government’s fall is imminent and that a sharp push would provide a quick foreign policy victory. A Biden administration would need to assume that Venezuela is beset by a complex, long-term crisis that will not be “solved,” but which could be re-channeled into democratic mechanisms that will allow the Venezuelan people to exercise actual sovereignty over their government.

David Smilde

David Smilde is the Charles A. and Leo M. Favrot Professor of Human Relations at Tulane University and Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, for whom he curates the blog Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights.

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