U.S. Policy Options for Maduro’s Venezuela: Benign Engagement, Not Benign Neglect


There hasn’t been a U.S. ambassador to Venezuela since Patrick Duddy finished his assignment in Caracas in July 2010. Venezuela’s house on Washington’s Embassy Row has also sat empty since the United States expelled Bernardo Alvarez, the Venezuelan ambassador to the United States, that same year. Diplomatic relations between the two countries are now apparently maintained by the presidents themselves addressing each other in public forums: At last month’s U.N. General Assembly, President Donald Trump urged President Nicolas Maduro to “act more humanely,” while on Venezuelan state TV Maduro thanked Trump for U.S. sanctions, calling them an honor.

We arrived at this situation through a combination of diplomatic spats and “benign neglect,” the policy that characterized earlier decades of U.S. policy toward Latin America. First, President Evo Morales of Bolivia expelled the U.S. ambassador in 2008, alleging that he was plotting a coup. In retaliation, the United States declared the Bolivian ambassador persona non grata. In solidarity with Morales, President Hugo Chávez, Maduro’s predecessor, expelled Duddy from Venezuela. The United States, in turn, declared the Venezuelan ambassador persona non grata. When President Barack Obama came into office, Venezuela sent Alvarez back to Washington. Obama nominated Larry Palmer to be his ambassador to Venezuela, but Chávez rejected Palmer’s nomination and the United States responded by sending Alvarez back to Caracas. Then there were no ambassadors and benign neglect set in once again.

In this case, however, under neglect Venezuela went into a democratic backslide. In 2017, Freedom House designated Venezuela as “Not Free,” a dubious honor that no other nation in the region had received, except for Cuba. Alongside the political decline, the economy also deteriorated rapidly. The International Monetary Fund forecasts that inflation in Venezuela will surpass 1 million percent by the end of the year. Chronic food and medicine shortages continue to plague Venezuelans.

It is certainly in America’s interest to see a transition to democracy in Venezuela. Every U.S. president that has been in power since Chávez was elected has made an appeal for democratic institutions to be respected in the South American country. President George W. Bush urged Chávez to embrace democracy and address the concerns of protesters and called Chavez’s only electoral defeat in 2007 a “vote for democracy.” President Barack Obama referred to Venezuela as an “an unusual and extraordinary threat to national security” and imposed sanctions on a few key officials in 2015. Trump, for his part, said last year that the United States was “prepared to take further action if the government of Venezuela persists on its path to impose authoritarian rule.” More recently, he suggested that the regime could be “toppled very easily by a military coup.” Given that research suggests that coups tend to result in the replacement of the dictatorship with another dictatorship, calling for a coup, or worse, appearing to orchestrate one, might not be the best U.S. policy toward Venezuela. But there are other things the United States can do: It can raise the cost of staying for Maduro, help people who are exiting Venezuela, and engage with the democracies in the region.

First, the United States can continue to put pressure on Maduro to leave. Last year, the Treasury Department enacted sanctions against eight Venezuelan judges and against the country’s vice-president, Tareck El-Aissami. Most recently, the United States sanctioned the first lady and the president’s inner circle. The idea is to gradually make the status quo less viable for the ruler and less attractive to his supporters. An authoritarian regime like Maduro’s relies on payments to supporters to stay in power. If supporters fear that future payments are in doubt, they might be more likely to shift loyalty. So far no officials have defected from the regime since Luisa Ortega, the attorney general and a loyal chavista, did so at the end of 2017.

Targeted sanctions, however, serve a second purpose, as Michael Dempsey pointed out recently in War on the Rocks: They signal U.S. displeasure with Venezuelan officials rather than with the population as a whole. In that sense they are worth pursuing as they signal concern about the situation and represent a clear action against the regime. Venezuelan opposition leaders have expressed their support for U.S. sanctions of government officials. Likewise, a third of the population and nearly 60 percent of the Venezuelans who identify with the opposition agree with U.S. sanctions.

When the United States sanctioned 13 Venezuelan officials a year ago, Maduro congratulated the people named on the list and offered each of them a replica of Simon Bolivar’s sword. No more swords have been distributed since then; instead, Maduro lashed out after the United States announced sanctions on his wife, Cilia Flores. “Attack me, come after me,” he said, asking that the United States leave his wife alone.. There is no way to know for sure if the sanctions are causing defections from the regime or how quickly – if at all – defections will translate into regime change But we do know that not criticizing these officials and going after their ill-gotten gains in the past allowed Maduro plenty of room to establish an autocracy 1,000 miles from the United States.

In addition to targeted sanctions on officials, the United States also has the ability to limit the Maduro government’s access to new capital. It can do this by banning American citizens from buying and selling the petro, a cryptocurrency created by the Venezuelan government, and banning American companies from buying Venezuelan debt. Chávez maintained power partly through lavish spending programs, a tactic that his successor has had a hard time deploying given lower oil prices and higher debt. Restricting access to foreign capital limits the amount of money the government can distribute to supporters. Though sanctions also coincided with the collapse of oil output and further economic decline, less than 1 percent of the Venezuelan population blames the United States for the country’s deteriorating economy, while 45.6 percent place the blame on Maduro, according to a national poll by Datanalisis. If and when democracy returns to the country, financial sanction will have to be lifted: Venezuela will need capital to help address its debts, deliver health and education, and restore oil production capacity. For now, however, withholding capital from the regime may be one of the only ways to bring about change.

Second, the United States can increase its support for countries in the region affected by Venezuelan migration. Maduro’s government refuses to recognize the humanitarian emergency within its borders, so helping Venezuelans still in the country is all but impossible. But Venezuelan out-migration is the “fastest-escalating displacement of people across borders in Latin American history” according to the Migration Policy Institute. The International Organization for Migration warned that it is nearing a “crisis point.” International and U.S. aid has been directed at neighboring countries receiving refugees, especially Colombia, but more can be done. The United States can continue to pressure the Venezuelan government to accept emergency aid from the dozens of countries that have offered assistance, and it can increase its own contributions to the countries receiving migrants.

In Colombia, President Ivan Duque has only been in power for a couple of months and has to deliver on the promise of peace after the country’s settlement with the FARC. Addressing Venezuelan migration has cost Colombia an estimated 0.5 percent of its GDP, a number that all but guarantees that there will be backlash against the newcomers and the government that welcomed them. Duque explained in recent a speech that Colombia had “opted for fraternity” and urged Colombians to overcome the difficulties that this approach toward migrants might bring.. In Brazil, Venezuelan migrants are crossing through a porous border in the Amazon rainforest and into parts of the country where state capacity is limited. The influx of migrants has put a strain on the health and education systems in Brazil’s northernmost states. It is important that the United States continue to offer aid and assistance to both of these countries. Given that more generous immigration policies in the United States itself seem to be out of the question, the least Americans can do is offer their full support to countries that have embraced policies of solidarity.

Third, the United States should engage more deeply with democracies in the region. Perhaps the most promising partner is Ecuador. Last year, the country elected Lenin Moreno after Rafael Correa’s 10-year presidency ended. Under Moreno, the country has made important gains. While Ecuador once appeared to be headed in the same direction as Venezuela, Moreno has now sought to ban his predecessor from continuing to run for the presidency, thereby assuring that his won’t be a caretaker government as had been predicted. Engaging with Ecuador could deepen the gains made there and show that the United States is indeed the partner of choice for democratic countries in the Western Hemisphere. Ignoring Ecuador when it is doing well risks allowing these countries to backslide into the “low profile” policies that created space for authoritarianism to rise in the region. The United States has multiple tools through which to engage — including aid, economic diplomacy, and security cooperation — and it should work to make these available to Ecuador

Engagement doesn’t have to mean interventionism, as it did in the 1970s and 1980s. The United States need not run away from engagement and towards “benign neglect” again. Latin America is a region where most countries have achieved at least middle-income status, most have democratized, and there hasn’t been an interstate war since 1941. A more prosperous, more secure, and more collaborative Latin America has economic and security benefits for the United States: It expands its closest markets, limits opportunities for bad actors to use the region to get access to the United States, and increases the pool of partners that can assist the United States in other areas. America is lucky to have these countries as its neighbors. It’s important that it find a way to engage with them and that it not confuse non-interventionism with neglect.


Dr. Fabiana Sofia Perera is an assistant research fellow at the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies. She is a 2016 alumna of Bridging the Gap’s New Era Workshop and a Foreign Policy Interrupted fellow. The views expressed here do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government. 

Image: Joka Madruga/Flickr

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