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How Biden can clean up Trump’s Venezuela mess

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Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro is shown in a November 2018 file photo.

Among the many deep foreign policy messes that Donald Trump left for Joe Biden, Venezuela is the most serious in the Americas. Trump imposed crushing sanctions on Venezuela to try to strong-arm Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro into abandoning power. Maduro, however, was able to cling to power with the support of the military leadership, while ordinary Venezuelans were left paying the horrendous cost of years of economic collapse from a combination of domestic mismanagement and the U.S. sanctions.

The twin results of Trump’s sanctions are a massive humanitarian disaster and a foreign policy failure. These outcomes were predictable, as we explained in February 2019. The Biden administration should help Venezuela to move back to democracy and recover from economic disaster. The key is temporary power-sharing among the country’s contending political factions, thereby creating conditions to stabilize the economy, contain the COVID-19 pandemic, end extreme hunger, adopt democratic reforms, and then progress towards national elections.

Such a compromise is possible, since Venezuela wants and needs to get out of its crushing crisis.  Yet Trump consistently torpedoed any real attempts at a negotiated solution; his policies likely were aimed at his winning the Hispanic vote in Florida, not reform for Venezuela. Indeed, by repeatedly suggesting that a military option was on the table, Trump emboldened a hardline faction of the opposition to reject political compromises, contributing to a stalemate. 

Trump’s approach to Venezuela was explained to the U.S. public on the basis of several false assumptions: that the Venezuelan military was on the verge of changing sides, that Maduro lacked popular support, and that Maduro’s allies — notably China, Cuba and Russia — lacked the interest, will and means to support their ally. All these assumptions were demonstrably wrong, then and now.

Now, because of the U.S. sanctions on top of the homegrown economic mismanagement under Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s economy is in complete collapse, having suffered the deepest contraction in Latin America’s entire economic history. Hunger is widespread. The health system faces disastrous conditions. And millions of Venezuelans have fled the country, many to neighboring Colombia. 

U.S. unilateral economic sanctions don’t spark regime change; on the contrary, they typically convince autocrats that they have no option but to hold on to power, while the sanctions weaken the opposition and civil society. The more desperate that people are to survive, the more dependent they will be on the government.

Biden’s approach to Venezuela policy should start from fundamentally different premises. First, the role of the international community should be to foster a negotiated solution in which the parties to the country’s conflict agree on peaceful democratic reforms to resolve their differences. Second, addressing the country’s humanitarian crisis is urgent. Third, a multilateral approach that engages not only our European allies but also China and Russia, Maduro’s financial backers, will deliver a stable solution for the best interests of all countries, including Venezuela and the United States.

Fostering democratic reforms in Venezuela is not at all the same thing as demanding Maduro’s immediate resignation or calling for immediate presidential elections. In deeply divided societies marked by high levels of polarization, economic instability and winner-takes-all presidential politics, hastily-called elections often create far more problems and unrest than they solve. Elections are only one component of Venezuela’s return to stable democracy, and they will be of little use until Venezuela is out of the current economic chaos and until both sides have agreed on rules for running elections, counting votes and honoring the results. results. The U.S. by now should appreciate the importance of such considerations.

The Biden administration should support an international effort to push for incremental reforms designed to restore transparency and credibility to the country’s broken electoral system. The appointment of new electoral authorities and the participation of credible international electoral monitors in this year’s gubernatorial and mayoral elections would be an important first step in getting the country’s political factions to agree on basic democratic ground rules for resolving their differences. The credibility of these new electoral institutions would be progressively strengthened through next year’s elections for state and municipal legislatures, leading up to presidential elections, currently scheduled for 2024.

In promoting this agenda, the U.S. should offer not just sanctions relief, but also U.S. support for a multilateral assistance program to enable Venezuela to stabilize its economy and begin the long work of economic recovery. In such a scenario, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) would cooperate on a plan to fix the damage done by years of misguided populist economic policies in Venezuela and the burden of U.S. sanctions. 

A major multilateral support effort would require a credible economic team in Venezuela. Such a team — which should include top technical experts and have the backing of both the government and opposition — would give confidence to Venezuelans and international institutions that new financial help will be used for recovery, not for one or another political faction. 

A stabilization and recovery plan, backed by the U.S., European Union, Russia and China through the IMF and World Bank, would serve as a crucial step toward the political transition to future elections. Such a step-by-step solution to Venezuela’s political crisis will be possible when the country’s dueling political factions learn to live with each other, rather than seek ways to annihilate the other. That, indeed, would be a good lesson for America’s politics as well. 

Francisco Rodríguez is a visiting fellow with the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, University of Notre Dame and founding director of the nonprofit Oil for Venezuela, which advocates for solutions to Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis.

Jeffrey Sachs is University Professor at Columbia University and its former director of The Earth Institute.

Tags Crisis in Venezuela Donald Trump Joe Biden Nicolas Maduro Politics of Venezuela US sanctions

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