What’s Ahead for Venezuela If Joe Biden Wins

This week, we share part of the analysis published in our Political Risk Report with our view on how a Biden administration would deal with Venezuela—and how the Maduro regime would react.

Photo: AP

In our July 31st report, we shared our view regarding the upcoming U.S. presidential election on November 3rd, highlighting that a victory by Joe Biden, which already looked likely then and looks even more likely now, would be welcomed by the Maduro government, and could also open new opportunities for the opposition.

As we explained in July, if the foreign policy of the Obama-Biden administration is any indication, the regime has reasons to believe that it could negotiate a deal with Biden that—unlike the current stance of the Trump administration—doesn’t call for Maduro to step down from power immediately. During and after the Obama years, there were multiple reports that painted Biden as one of the more moderate and cautious foreign policy voices in the administration, arguing against U.S. intervention in Libya and in favor of the Cuba and Iran deals. However, he’s not opposed to using sanctions as a foreign policy tool, and supported them as a pressure mechanism on Iran.

Biden’s stance towards Venezuela is no doubt going to be influenced by whoever he chooses to be his Secretary of State and National Security Advisor. While those persons are unlikely to be foreign policy hawks, some of the rumored candidates for Secretary of State have a history of tough stances towards rogue regimes. Susan Rice, Obama’s National Security Advisor and Ambassador to the UN, pushed for tough sanctions against Iran and North Korea. Another candidate, Samantha Power, a former foreign policy advisor to Obama and successor of Rice as Ambassador to the UN, literally wrote the book on the Responsibility to Protect principle favored by Juan Guaidó in the past months, and is considered one of its main architects and supporters. Rice and Power were instrumental in convincing Obama to send military assets to Libya over the opposition of Biden and Hillary Clinton.

Maduro & Co., long accustomed to using negotiations to gain time, would certainly welcome a chance to do so again. However, unlike in previous negotiations attempts, they need more than delays if a new dialogue with the U.S. happens after a Biden win. For the first time in 22 years of rule, there’s something they need from the other side: sanctions relief. While a Biden administration would probably agree to some limited form of that, as a gesture of goodwill in the opening rounds, any real change in the sanctions regime would require tangible and actionable concessions from Maduro, including free and fair elections.

We remain skeptical the regime can, or wants, to deliver on those needed concessions, which would represent a development without precedent in 22 years. The regime has sat down with the opposition numerous times, with all types of mediators and facilitators, and has in some instances agreed to some concessions only to later turn their backs on the agreement. Most of the time it has agreed to nothing. This is especially true of the Maduro regime, which has limited their concessions to the opposition to occasionally releasing political prisoners to appease European countries, only to then arrest them again, or replace them with others. It has failed to deliver on any promises to improve electoral conditions beyond bland statements that are later trampled by the reality on the ground during campaigns and elections: barred opposition candidates and parties, abuse of state funds, media and resources, complete disregard for voting regulations and blatant changes of electoral results.

The chavista regime is no doubt looking at the deals signed by the Obama administration with Cuba and Iran, which provided sanctions relief without putting in jeopardy these regime’s hold on power.

However, as we explained in July, “Venezuela is quite different from both Cuba and Iran in one key aspect: in those countries there’s no opposition to speak of; just a few constantly persecuted dissidents remain, and whatever opposition movement there was, it was mostly killed, arrested, or exiled decades ago. The Venezuelan opposition is too large, noisy, and has enough international support to make sure they can’t be left out of any deal between the hypothetical Biden administration and Maduro, and reject any deal that leaves no actionable route towards a transition.”

For the opposition, a Biden administration would provide a chance for a fresh start in the role of the U.S. in the Venezuelan crisis. In the past year, the caretaker government has spent considerable time trying to convince the Trump administration—which carries the baggage of years of bluster about “all options being on the table”—to move from their all-or-nothing stance and support a negotiated solution. The Trump administration finally agreed, and even released a framework for a negotiated transition, but hasn’t shown any willingness to get fully involved in the kind of complex, drawn-out negotiation process likely required for the two parts to agree to a workable deal that provides at least hope of a transition to the opposition.

The U.S. stance has been more of “let me know if you agree to something, and we’ll see”, while occasionally pursuing quick-fixes, such as the offer to Maduro to step down from power gracefully, extended by a Trump envoy in Mexico to Maduro’s Communications minister and chief negotiator, Jorge Rodríguez. For the opposition to get the regime to agree to free and fair elections, they need a U.S. administration that is willing to get more involved. The increased involvement of the European Union as a facilitator—for both the opposition and the government—in the past months is a direct result of the U.S. unwillingness to engage.

A Biden administration would be unshackled by years of bluster, and would be free to pursue the “smart pressure and effective diplomacy” strategy on Venezuela that’s the Democratic party’s official platform (the party platform, it bears noting, also states that “financial and economic sanctions are an effective way to advance many core U.S. national security objectives”). A negotiation process that uses U.S. sanctions as a pressure mechanism would likely sound pretty appealing to the Biden foreign policy team, while to the Trump administration it would involve an embarrassing climb down from their years-long public stance.

We would also expect some multilateralism from a Biden administration diplomacy, in contrast with Trump denouncing the Paris Agreement and leaving the World Health Organization.

For the Venezuelan dossier, this means more teamwork with Canada, a wider array of Latin American governments, and the European Union, among which are several voices prone to resume talks with chavismo. If Biden restarts Obama’s process of approaching Havana, that would help as well, and we can also expect that the Democrats would have a more confrontational stance with two close allies of Maduro, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayipp Erdogan.

While some voices from the right-leaning Venezuelan opposition would no doubt raise a ruckus if the opposition sits down with the regime again, they have every incentive to remain on the good graces of the U.S. government, or they could find themselves without any allies abroad, as countries in the region—and even the OAS, under the leadership of chavismo’s sworn enemy, Luis Almagro—are likely to align themselves with U.S. policy and not with the more radical voices in the Venezuelan opposition. At this point, Venezuelan neighbors would much more prefer an imperfect negotiated solution than to keep waiting for a complete removal of chavismo from power.

Were Trump to win on November 3rd, we don’t expect much to change in their stance towards Venezuela. In his first four years in power, Trump hasn’t gotten the U.S. involved in new military conflicts, and has shown no signs of wanting to do so in Venezuela. Whoever wins on Tuesday, the military option is off the table, as neither Trump nor Biden would want to take that route. There are rumors about Trump being unhappy with his current Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, but it’s unclear if any changes in that office would result in significant changes in their position on Venezuela. Furthermore, his reelection would free Trump from caring about winning Florida, which has been the main cause of his interest in Venezuelan affairs. As for the regime, a Trump win would likely lead to an entrenchment: with no sanctions relief in the horizon, all that’s left from them is strengthen their hold on power, accept that the days of 100-billion oil income are long gone, prepare to live under sanctions for the foreseeable future and rule over a poorer country (the Cuba model), while they distribute state-owned companies among themselves (the Russian model).

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