Last week I spoke with Venezuelan journalist Vladimir Villegas on his streaming platform, Vladimir a la Carta (see video above). As I told him, and as subsequent media like El Universal reported, a peaceful and democratic solution in Venezuela is unlikely without some significant, public concessions from Maduro in the short term.
This is in part due to domestic political realities in Washington. While WOLA and many civil society organizations that we work with are critical of U.S. sectoral sanctions due to their impact on the public, and will continue to press the administration on this issue, Biden is not in a strong domestic political position to ease them unilaterally. The razor-thin majority in the Senate affords significant influence to senators like Bob Menendez and Marco Rubio, who have the ability to block the White House’s preferred nominations if they perceive a “softening” in Biden’s approach. And the upcoming mid-term legislative election in 2022 (in which Rubio is up for re-election and Florida will elect a new governor) creates further disincentives to a dramatic shift in Venezuela policy. Actors like WOLA who believe in a more flexible policy that could encourage a negotiated transition will continue to advocate for a clearer emphasis on negotiations. But any shift would come with domestic political costs for the administration. For this reason, White House officials like the NSC’s Juan Gonzalez seem to be signaling that the ball is in Maduro’s court.
As I told Villegas, however, this could change if Biden is able to use early victories as political cover to invest greater capital in a negotiations strategy. Maduro would need to demonstrate good faith (or something like it) to make this happen. There are at least three ways he might be able to do this:
1. Naming a more credible National Electoral Council (CNE). There have been negotiations underway around a new CNE in Venezuela since February. Notably, these talks are said to involve opposition actors outside of the PSUV-dominated National Assembly like Henrique Capriles and Stalin Gonzalez, as well as Juan Guaido. The new CNE is expected to be announced in April, and elections specialists point out that auditing the entire electoral process may be even more important than the makeup of the CNE. In private, U.S. officials tell WOLA that they are following these negotiations closely, though there is mixed enthusiasm regarding their potential for success.
2. Agreeing to come to terms with the opposition on COVAX. While the Maduro government has agreed in principal to create a joint technical committee with the Guaido opposition in order to come up with a mass vaccination plan in line with humanitarian principles, the future of this mechanism remains unclear. While the Pan-American Health Organization had reportedly reserved enough AstraZeneca vaccines via COVAX for between 700,000 and 1.2 million Venezuelans, Maduro refused to authorize the vaccine. This is almost certainly a political decision, as he seems to prefer to seek Russian and Chinese vaccines rather than allow the opposition an early win. COVAX talks are ongoing, however, and a potential compromise to import Johnson and Johnson vaccines via the mechanism could breathe new life into negotiations—and could save the lives of thousands of Venezuelans. On March 29, an anonymous State Department official told Reuters that they hoped these talks could succeed, saying, “We took it as a positive sign that all sides agreed to grapple with the challenge.[…]They can only do so successfully if all participants engage in these talks in good faith.”
3. Broadening access to humanitarian assistance, including for the World Food Programme (WFP). In late 2019 Maduro permitted the WFP to carry out an in-country humanitarian assessment, which estimated that one out of three Venezuelans (32.3%) was food insecure and in need of assistance. But as WOLA and other organizations in the humanitarian space have noted, the WFP has so far been unable to broaden its activities in the country. Quiet talks regarding access and the specifics of the agency’s mandate are ongoing, and a green light for WFP to carry out work that allows for impartial, apolitical access to food aid could make a big difference to vulnerable Venezuelans. This has been a key demand of the Guaido opposition, and it is very likely that the U.S. government would support such an arrangement.
On their own, none of these partial agreements will restore democracy in Venezuela. But concessions from Maduro on one or all three of these points could allow the Biden administration to justify taking a bigger policy risk—like offering partial sanctions relief in return for a starting broader, credible negotiations to advance a democratic solution. Considering reports that Norwegian diplomats recently spent several days in Venezuela to meet with all political actors, it is likely that there is renewed international interest in such a negotiations process. The question is whether Maduro, or those around him, can take the first step.