When I interviewed leading Venezuelan opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez a few days ago, he sounded pretty optimistic that President-elect Joe Biden will not only keep up U.S. pressure on Venezuela’s dictatorship, but may broaden it.
Lopez, who is in Madrid after a daring escape from his refuge at the Spanish Embassy in Caracas last month, stressed that Biden himself has vowed to pursue a more multinational approach to force Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro to allow free elections.
That could mean, among other things, a greater coordination between Washington, Latin American countries and the 28-nation European Union to impose joint sanctions on the Maduro regime, Lopez said. Unlike the United States, European and Latin American countries have imposed relatively few individual sanctions on Maduro regime officials. And when they have, the sanctions have been weaker.
“Venezuela is one of the very few issues in which there’s a bipartisan consensus in the United States,” Lopez told me. “Obviously, every administration has its own approach. But I don’t foresee a scenario in which a Biden administration would recognize Maduro, or lessen the pressure on the dictatorship.”
Biden has referred to Maduro as a “dictator,” and Democrats in Congress have supported the Trump administration’s decision to recognize Venezuela’s National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó — a Lopez political protege — as the country’s interim president, Lopez noted. Also, Democrats and Republicans in Congress are expected to reject Maduro’s fraudulent Dec. 6. legislative elections to replace the opposition-controlled National Assembly that Guaidó. leads.
Lopez told me there is a concrete step the Biden administration could take in its first days in office: Team up with European countries to deny entry visas to, and freeze the assets of, 46 Venezuelan officials named by a recent United Nations fact-finding mission as serious human-rights abusers. The U.N.’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela report names judges, prosecutors and police chiefs, among others.
“This would be a great opportunity for immediate, effective collaboration between the United States and Europe,” Lopez told me. “It would send a very clear message to the Maduro dictatorship, and it would help discourage Venezuelan human-rights abusers going forward.”
In addition, Biden should encourage a coordination of efforts between the 34-country Organization of American States (OAS) and the European Union to bring about free elections in Venezuela, Lopez said. Until now, international pressures on Venezuela have been carried out separately by the U.S. government, Latin America’s “Lima Group” and the European-led “Contact Group” on Venezuela.
“The OAS and the European Union should work together,” Lopez told me. “Instead of creating new sub-groups, Europe and the OAS should jointly demand free and credible presidential and legislative electins in Venezuela.”
Europe is a key player in Venezuela’s political crisis because,, among other things, many top Maduro regime officials have their children and luxury homes in Spain and other countries on the continent.
Lopez, who met with Spanish president Pedro Sanchez on Oct. 27, did not want to elaborate when I asked him why European countries have been reluctant to cooperate with the Trump administration on joint sanctions against Venezuelan officials and their relatives.
But you don’t have to be a European-affairs expert to figure it out: Trump’s isolationist policies and frequent insults against European leaders have poisoned U.S-European ties over the past four years.
Other Venezuelan opposition leaders tell me that they are somewhat worried that Biden may pay less attention to Venezuela than Trump, who was eager to win Venezuelan and Cuban-American votes in Florida. Biden aides have cited the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic recovery, climate change, China and Iran as their top priorities.
One senior member of Guaido’s interim government told me that Biden should appoint a special envoy for Venezuela, much like the Clinton administration had a special envoy for the Americas. That quasi-cabinet position, if filled by somebody close to Biden, could help the incoming president stay in close touch with the Venezuelan crisis.
The bottom line is that, with 96 percent of Venezuelans living in poverty according to a recent study by Venezuela’s independent ENCOVI survey, 5.4 million exiles and more than 7,000 political murders documented by the United Nations in recent years, Venezuela is one of the world’s biggest humanitarian and political crises.
Biden should have a plan ready for Day One of his administration. The proposals I heard from Lopez and Guaidó’s close aide would be a good place to start.
Don’t miss the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show at 8 p.m. E.T. Sunday on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera