Russia's War Has Given Biden A Chance To Ditch Trump's Failed Venezuela Policy

·10 min read

Amid climbing gas prices that are likely to increase in the coming days, the Biden administration pushed to reengage one of the United States’ staunchest geopolitical foes this week: the Venezuelan government of President Nicolás Maduro, an authoritarian leader the United States has targeted with increasing rounds of sanctions for the last half-decade.

The White House confirmed on Monday that Biden had sent a group of U.S. officials to Caracas for renewed talks last weekend. White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that the “ongoing” discussions included dialogue about “energy security” — a suggestion that the U.S. had discussed potentially easing the de facto embargo it placed on Venezuela’s oil industry in 2019.

The attempt to reengage Maduro is the latest sign that the U.S. is reassessing its foreign policy in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine to mitigate the effects of isolating Russian President Vladimir Putin — including potential fuel shortages that have pushed domestic gas prices to record highs.

U.S. overtures to Venezuela sparked bipartisan criticism, particularly from hawkish foreign policy voices that have egged on an aggressive approach to Maduro. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) criticizedthe White House on Monday for placating a human rights abuser who has overseen disputed elections and dismantled Venezuelan democracy in exchange for domestic political relief that may not materialize.

But many others have welcomed the potential shift, and not just because Venezuelan oil may help reduce gas prices that reached $4.17 per gallon across the United States on Tuesday even before Biden announced a new ban on Russian oil imports.

The United States’ approach to Venezuela, which has spent the last five years mired in economic, political and migration crises, has been disastrous: It has failed to mitigate the humanitarian damage of those crises, and perhaps even helped make it worse.

Now, Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine may have provided just enough space for a much-needed reset to finally begin.

“The puzzle we’ve all had for the past several months is: Why doesn’t the Biden administration do something to change course from the Trump policy?” said David Smilde, a University of Tulane professor and Venezuela expert at the Washington Office on Latin America. “It took the conflict in Ukraine to provide the straw that broke the camel’s back, to get Biden to change things around a bit.”

Biden administration officials met with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro over the weekend for discussions that could spark a reset in relations between the U.S. and Venezuela, which has been subject to heavy sanctions from the U.S. for the last five years.  (Photo: via Associated Press)
Biden administration officials met with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro over the weekend for discussions that could spark a reset in relations between the U.S. and Venezuela, which has been subject to heavy sanctions from the U.S. for the last five years. (Photo: via Associated Press)

The U.S. and Venezuela have sparred for two decades, ever since socialist President Hugo Chávez won his first election in 1999. Maduro, who assumed the presidency upon Chávez’s 2013 death, has been a thorn in the side of Biden’s two immediate predecessors.

In 2015, President Barack Obama sanctioned seven Venezuelan government officials amid concerns that Maduro’s government had engaged in widespread corruption, as well as crackdowns on political opponents. President Donald Trump followed with new sanctions in both 2017 and 2018, when Maduro emerged victorious from elections that his opponents, the United States and many international organizations alleged were rife with fraud.

In 2019, the U.S. (along with dozens of other countries) recognized Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate leader and launched a “maximum pressure” campaign meant to dislodge Maduro from power.

Trump’s approach to Venezuela, while popular in some quarters, was quickly exposed as nakedly political and broadly impractical. He empowered hard-line appointees whose saber-rattling toward Maduro included repeated refusals to take implausible military actions off the table. This was primarily meant to shore up support among Venezuelan voters in South Florida, the fastest-growing Latino population in the swing state, and among large populations of Cuban American voters who see Maduro as an extension of Cuba’s Communist government.

From that standpoint, Trump’s approach was successful: It helped him gain massive ground among Latino voters in the Miami area and easily win Florida in the 2020 election. But by nearly every other measure, the maximum pressure campaign toward Venezuela has been an abject, andsometimestragicomic, failure.

The U.S. pressure campaign further brutalized Venezuela’s economy, which had already experienced hyperinflation and severe energy, food and medicine shortages. But it largely failed to hit Maduro and top government officials.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s weaponization of humanitarian assistance for political purposes, along with its decision to undermine negotiations between Maduro and the Venezuelan opposition, cratered any hope of real progress and did almost nothing to alleviate a humanitarian crisis that had driven millions of Venezuelans into extreme poverty or out of the country.

The maximum pressure campaign toward Venezuela has been an abject, and sometimes tragicomic, failure.

By the time Trump left office, Guaidó was largely impotent at home and losing support abroad, and his opposition movement deeply splintered. Maduro, by contrast, was by most accounts stronger and more stable than he was when the campaign kicked off, free to continue to crack down on political opponents, dissenters and human rights.

Ties between Caracas and Moscow had also deepened: As the U.S. ramped up pressure on Caracas, Russia expanded its oil holdings in Venezuela and helped Maduro and his government evade American sanctions.

The policy was, in sum, the exact catastrophe many experts had warned it would become.

“Sanctions without a more comprehensive strategy are an absolute waste of time,” said Brian Fonseca, a foreign affairs professor at Florida International University and former analyst at the United States Southern Command. “Sanctions are an instrument meant to encourage discussion, but there’s got to be discussion.”

Still, Biden maintained the broad tenets of the maximum pressure strategy upon taking office in 2021. He continued to recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader and left the aggressive sanctions regime in place. Despite growing calls for change from foreign policy officials, members of Congress and some members of the Venezuelan opposition, a strategic shift seemed unlikely to materialize before the 2022 elections, especially as Democrats fretted about further erosion of support among South Florida voters.

But then, the Russian invasion of Ukraine shifted American priorities both domestically and internationally. Abroad, Biden’s efforts to thwart Putin have taken foreign policy precedence over hard-line tactics toward countries like Venezuela. At home, political concerns over modest engagement with Maduro have taken a backseat to a much bigger worry: that rising gas prices, which Biden desperately attempted to characterize as “Russia’s fault” on Tuesday, might crater Democrats in upcoming midterm elections that already seem likely to generate sizable Democratic losses.

Engagement with Maduro still makes for a touchy political subject in Florida, but Latino voters there may be open to a course change as well.

A majority of Venezuelan American voters in Florida said that foreign policy is somewhat or very important to their voting decisions in a recent poll conducted by the Latino Public Opinion Forum at Florida International University. Roughly 45% said they disapprove of Biden’s continuation of Trump’s maximum pressure approach to Maduro, compared to just 37% who support it, and nearly two-thirds said the sanctions had either fallen short of their expectations or “failed completely” to meet their expectations of change in Venezuela.

Roughly 60% of Venezuelan American voters — and an even larger share of Cuban American voters — said they could support an easing of oil sanctions if Maduro didn’t manage new oil revenues and they were directed toward the country’s humanitarian crisis, the poll found.

“The findings suggested that the diaspora would be open to lifting things like oil sanctions,” Fonseca said. “When you look at priorities, they don’t think the sanctions are having an effect, and they see the humanitarian crisis as more important than beating the [Maduro] government.”

That atmosphere has provided a natural backdrop for a shift in relations.

Nicolás Maduro and Venezuela have deepened ties to Russia and Vladimir Putin since the U.S. imposed heavy sanctions on the South American country, which have also benefited Russia's oil industry. (Photo: Valery Sharifulin via Getty Images)
Nicolás Maduro and Venezuela have deepened ties to Russia and Vladimir Putin since the U.S. imposed heavy sanctions on the South American country, which have also benefited Russia's oil industry. (Photo: Valery Sharifulin via Getty Images)

Venezuela likely can’t produce enough oil to fully offset Russian imports. But, like much of the oil the U.S. buys from Russia, Venezuelan oil is of the heavy crude variety, making it a natural replacement at U.S. refineries along the Gulf and East coasts that were specifically built to turn heavy crude into gasoline.

It will likely take months for Venezuela to ramp up its oil production to previous capacities if sanctions are eased, but even an immediate injection could help dampen price spikes in the U.S. over the coming months.

From a foreign policy standpoint, engaging Maduro now could have multiple benefits as the U.S. and Europe seek new ways to counter Putin’s aggression. U.S. sanctions on Venezuela increased U.S. dependence on Russia: American imports of Russian oil have doubled since the U.S. placed sanctions on Venezuelan oil in 2019.

Easing the sanctions on Venezuela now could both weaken Russia’s oil industry and its overall ties with its strongest ally in the Americas.

That could limit Russia’s power in the Western Hemisphere, a region the U.S. still paternalistically views as its own backyard. But it may also make it easier for Biden to place new and alternative sanctions on Putin and Rosneft — Russia’s largest oil company, a subsidiary of which the U.S. has already sanctioned in Venezuela — if he chooses to, Fonseca said, providing the U.S. with another potential way to combat Putin’s advances in Europe.

Eased sanctions could also lead to renewed diplomatic negotiations with Maduro and advances toward a resolution to Venezuela’s democratic, economic and humanitarian crises.

The U.S. and Venezuela appear to have made little progress during the initial round of discussions. But on Monday, Maduro signaled his openness to more talks with the U.S. — and pledged to restart negotiations with the Venezuelan opposition. Previous rounds of talks stalled in October when Maduro abruptly backed out.

Easing the sanctions on Venezuela now could both weaken Russia’s oil industry and its overall ties with its strongest ally in the Americas.

The path forward is difficult and full of caveats. The U.S. and the Venezuelan opposition still want a pledge for new rounds of “free and fair elections,” while Maduro wants the U.S. to lift sanctions completely. Maduro, Smilde said, has used past negotiations as a stall tactic to maintain or consolidate his domestic power, and the Venezuelan opposition has already expressed concerns that he’s preparing to do so again.

But some progress does seem possible: On Tuesday night, Venezuela released two of the six former Citgo executives it had detained in October after the U.S. secured the extradition of a key Maduro ally in Colombia. Five of the six detainees, who had been serving house arrest sentences, are American citizens; the other is a U.S. permanent resident.

The release of two prisoners may not yet mark a return to the pre-October status quo, but it’s at least a suggestion that further talks could achieve more if the U.S. presses Maduro for substantive democratic and human rights reforms.

As part of the ongoing talks, the U.S. “needs to require a commitment that actual progress is made,” Smilde said. “They need to get some actual commitments from Maduro, and work on actual democratic issues.”

“There’s a lot of space for improvement this year in terms of electoral institutions and electoral democracy, so it’d be great if they focus on that and not just on U.S. citizens that are prisoners in Venezuela,” Smilde added. “The ironing out or forging of some actual commitments on human rights is something that could make this go in the right direction.”

The alternative is continuing a strategy that has paid little dividend. On Monday, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) opined that the only thing Biden should negotiate with Maduro is “the time of his resignation,” the sort of empty rhetoric U.S. officials have aimed south for three years with no real plan to back it up.

“The bottom line,” Fonseca said, “is that our policy has done little to move the needle. And so this may be an opportunity for us to rethink and recalibrate our policy towards Venezuela.”

This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.