Bipartisan consensus on Venezuela talks
Amid a flurry of end-of-session activity, the U.S. Congress passed a little-noticed but potentially important provision on Venezuela. Venezuela policy is an issue that regularly polarizes Florida, our nation’s largest swing state, but at this moment, with the passage of this provision, support for a negotiated solution to the crisis in Venezuela is an issue that enjoys bipartisan unity and interest in Congress.
Now, it’s up to the Trump administration to support future talks between Venezuelan actors; to not merely tolerate them, but to strive for their success as the first best option. And to do so with urgency.
It may seem mundane for Congress to assert that negotiations “represent the best opportunity to reach a solution to the Venezuelan crisis,” but the statement in the bill is meaningful because it is a dramatic departure from the warmongering tweets and saber-rattling provocations, which only months ago characterized the congressional debate on Venezuela.
The bill text, authored by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking member, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), and ultimately included in an omnibus spending package, demands U.S. efforts to advance a negotiated and peaceful solution in Venezuela. Even Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who wields outsized influence in executive policy considerations, and other south Florida members of Congress, whose districts President Trump covets in his 2020 electoral bid, are on board.
Now the ball is in the Trump administration’s court. This White House has a rocky track record in Venezuela, and President Trump reportedly is frustrated that early 2019 assurance of a quick win did not pan out. Senior officials convened this month to discuss policy options, and 2020 could bring a new approach.
For the White House to demonstrate its full commitment to negotiations toward elections in Venezuela, it must put sanctions relief on the table.
For its part, the State Department has demonstrated some willingness to consider sanctions flexibility. Just last week, U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams said of negotiations toward free and fair elections, “The sooner the better … that’s the way out.” In October, in public remarks, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Carrie Filipetti stated, “Sanctions are why [Nicolás] Maduro came to the table in the first place. And they continue to be a negotiating point, as we are committed to removing sanctions in exchange for concrete and meaningful actions to restore the democratic order, end human rights abuses, and combat corruption in Venezuela.”
But when pressed, officials indicate interim carrots will come in the form of individual sanctions relief, and assert broad-based sanctions flexibility will be reserved for such time when Maduro leaves office.
In fact, some senior U.S. officials balk at any form of engagement with Venezuela. Recently, upon learning that one of Maduro’s ministers would be present at the inauguration ceremony of Argentina’s President Alberto Fernandez, a top National Security Council aide on Western Hemisphere affairs refused to attend and cut short his trip.
The U.S. continues to squeeze Maduro, but his hold on power is not diminishing. Instead, the crisis is at risk of becoming normalized. We are almost one year into an acute political impasse — with two men claiming the presidency — and several years into severe humanitarian, economic and migratory crises. The Venezuelan opposition, led by Juan Guaidó, who surged to international prominence a year ago, is weakened. Despite claims of unity, cracks are beginning to show; the coalition suffers from scandal and division. And the Venezuelan economy, although still in shambles, is showing some signs of stabilizing.
As time passes, it becomes clear that the only way forward is for Venezuela’s parties to negotiate a path toward new elections. It’s true. Several rounds of negotiations between Venezuela’s two main factions have ended without agreement, but the Trump administration could effectuate the bipartisan congressional goal of successful negotiations between Maduro and Guaidó by making clear that it would consider partial sanctions relief if conditions for free and fair elections are agreed upon.
Congress unequivocally has signaled its bipartisan support for negotiations and for an active, productive U.S. role. Now, action rests with the Trump administration.
Emily Mendrala is a former National Security Council and State Department official in the Obama administration. She is the executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, where she promotes U.S. policies of engagement toward the Americas. Follow her on Twitter @EMendrala.