Amid the chaotic final days of Donald Trump’s presidency, there’s one little corner of his administration that is not in flames: His Venezuela policy team has met with President-elect Joe Biden’s advisers to ensure a smooth transition of U.S. policy toward Venezuela’s dictatorship.
Elliott Abrams, Trump’s special representative for Venezuelan affairs, held at least one meeting in December with a group of Biden transition team officials. Abrams himself confirmed this to me in an extensive interview this week. The four-member Biden team was led by Roberta Jacobson, the former U.S. State Department’s Western Hemisphere chief and recent ambassador to Mexico.
Abrams, a hard-line conservative Republican who will leave government service on Jan. 20, told me that it was a “long” and “pleasant” meeting. He added that he came out of it with the impression that the Biden administration will maintain a firm support for the Venezuelan opposition.
When I asked Abrams whether he believes Biden will continue the current U.S. policy of recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the leader of Venezuela’s National Assembly and the country’s interim president, he responded, “Yes, I think so. I don’t think we will see major changes in U.S. policy. And I think that they understand that the face of the opposition, the opposition’s leader, is Juan Guaidó.”
Abrams added that there is significant bipartisan support for Guaidó in Congress, including top Democrats such as Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, who is likely to become chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Abrams said that Menendez has been “a great supporter of our policy toward Venezuela, and other Democrats as well.” He also said, “President-elect Biden has said that [Venezuela’s president Nicolás] Maduro is a dictator.”
Abrams forecast about the Biden administration’s Venezuela policy is interesting because, among other things, it flies the face of Trump’s ridiculous claims — repeated by legislators such as Carlos Gimenez and María Elvira Salazar, among others — that Biden would lead a “socialist” administration that would befriend Maduro.
Truth is, Trump, who has embraced the dictators of North Korea, Russia and China without showing concern for their human-rights abuses, never cared much about Venezuela’s democracy, his former national security adviser John Bolton and other former aides have told me. Trump was only interested in sounding tough on Maduro to win Cuban-American and Venezuelan-American votes in Florida, they’ve said.
Biden has said little about Venezuela, beyond stating that he will re-insert the United States into the global diplomatic community and seek to team up with European countries to increase the pressure on Maduro to convene free elections.
But there are other signs that Biden will not withdraw U.S. support for Guaidó — among them, the incoming administration has invited Guaidó’s ambassador to the United States, Carlos Vecchio, to attend Biden’s inaugural ceremony on Jan. 20, a source with knowledge of the matter told me.
In addition, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, met Monday via Zoom with Tony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for secretary of State, and they discussed among other things “supporting Venezuelan Interim-President Juan Guaidó and democracy in Venezuela,” according to a statement that Durbin issued after the meeting.
After talking with Abrams and previous interviews with Biden’s Latin America advisers, my conclusion is that the incoming administration will seek to mount an international offensive to press Maduro to allow free elections, perhaps starting with municipal elections that the dictatorship is considering holding in August.
Also, following the Trump administration’s failure to get Cuba to help find a peaceful transition in Venezuela, the Biden administration is likely to focus its efforts on getting Russia to do that. The Trump administration tried to negotiate a deal with Cuba, exploring approaches such as promising Cuba third-country oil supplies in exchange for its help on Venezuela, but the Cubans turned the offer down, officials close to the talks say.
The bottom line is, I don’t foresee major changes in U.S. policy toward Venezuela. On the contrary, we may see a rare — and welcome — instance of bipartisanship on Latin America’s biggest humanitarian and political crisis.
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