Biden signals no rush to reverse Trump policy on Venezuela
President Biden is in no rush to lift former President Trump’s maximum pressure campaign on Venezuela.
The president’s decision to extend protective status for Venezuelans in the U.S. followed through on a key campaign promise – an issue Trump only addressed on his final day in office and failed to fully deliver.
But senior Biden officials are signaling they are not looking to immediately lift an array of severe sanctions imposed by the former Trump administration and aimed at punishing the regime of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
“No new administration comes to office shouting the battle cry, ‘we should continue all the policies of our predecessor.’ The Biden administration is no exception to that rule,” said Bill Brownfield, who served as ambassador to Venezuela during the Bush administration.
“Having said that, they’ve also been fairly clear, that they have not rushed into making major decisions.”
How Biden approaches Venezuela is also likely to set up Democrats’ strategy to reach Latino voters ahead of the 2022 elections, with experts saying Venezuelan-Americans in Florida are a key voice in a strategic swing state won by Trump in two presidential elections in a row.
“In a state like Florida, I think that there is a concentration of Venezuelan voters that can be pretty impactful,” said Nathalie Rayes, president and CEO of the Latino Victory Fund, a group that endorses and promotes progressive Hispanic candidates.
She called the extension of Temporary Protective Status (TPS) a big victory. The move granted an estimated 320,000 Venezuelans already in the U.S. the ability to stay for up to 18 months.
“This shows that when politicians say something, they do need to deliver, Latinos do pay attention to that.”
By contrast, Trump’s order offered deferred deportations to Venezuelans, kicking it to the Biden administration to implement the policy and grant work authorizations. The former president signed the order on his last day in office — a nod to the political considerations both parties weigh when contemplating such extensions.
Still, some are doubtful Biden’s TPS effort will move the needle in either Florida or in Venezuela.
Fulton Armstrong, an American University professor and former director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council, said granting TPS is generally viewed as being a help to the other country, not a punishment.
“The pressure to deal with the Venezuela problem slows down and it lessens pressure on people returning to save the homeland,” he said.
He views the decision as a political move more than a policy one, though not one that is likely to pay dividends.
“It’s a little naive of the Biden people to think that throwing TPS at 300,000 Venezuelans is going to significantly change electoral and political dynamics in Florida,” he said.
Venezuela, which is home to the world’s largest oil reserves, has spiraled into an economic and political crisis that has spurred one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the region, if not globally.
More than five million Venezuelan’s have fled the country over lack of food, medicine and political repression, in one of the largest exodus of refugees in Latin America, in particular, and the world.
Instability in Venezuela is a key national security concern for the U.S., with the humanitarian crisis impacting the hemisphere and a corrupt regime allowing for terrorism, criminal groups and American adversaries like China, Russia and Iran to thrive.
“Is Venezuela at risk of destabilizing huge chunks of South America, either by intent or just by having an impact in terms of flows of people, yes, for sure,” said Brownfield, who also served as assistant secretary for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs during the Obama administration.
“To find that both the Russian and Chinese governments are dumping weapons systems, supporting the security apparatus that is being used by the least democratic, most autocratic, authoritarian and totalitarian and corrupt regime in all of the western hemisphere, we as a nation have a right to express some concern about that.”
The former Trump administration sought to counter Venezuela’s threat by imposing a maximum pressure campaign of sanctions, targeting individuals for corruption, criminal behavior, violating human rights and blacklisting entire sectors of the economy, in particular its state oil company, central bank and government.
Blinken, during his confirmation hearing, said the Biden administration would look to more “effectively target the sanctions” and work with partners in the region to pressure the Maduro regime.
“There are some things about our Venezuela policy that are not up for review, and that is a fact,” State Department Spokesperson Ned Price told The Hill, saying that the U.S. views Maduro’s reign as illegitimate, corrupt and directly responsible for the humanitarian crisis in the country.
“We continue to seek to find ways to address humanitarian concerns of millions of Venezuelans with international partners. We continue to look to target regime officials and their cronies involved in the corruption and human rights abuses that we have spoken to. And we continue to look for ways to aid and restore a peaceful, stable and democratic future for Venezuelans in the region through, importantly, free and fair elections, and a long-term economic recovery.”
A White House official told Reuters that the Biden administration was in “no rush” to lift sanctions imposed during the Trump years, but would consider easing them if Maduro takes confidence-building steps showing he is ready to negotiate with the opposition.
U.S. policy towards Venezuela is a key focus for both Republican and Democratic lawmakers from Florida.
Trump won Florida largely based on support he received from voters in Miami-Dade County, where Cuban- and Venezuelan-Americans are most concentrated. Republicans also defeated two incumbent House Democrats in this county, part of a wider gain GOP candidates made during the 2020 elections.
“We can’t say that all Latinos are Democrats, but we can expect that 20 to 30 percent will vote Republican. We’re not a monolith,” said Rayes, of the Latino Victory Fund.
Jason Marczak, director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, said understanding attitudes of Venezuelan- and Cuban-American voters in Florida is important when thinking about U.S. policy towards Venezuela.
“Florida’s politics… especially politics towards Latin America, are often reflected by the sentiments in these two very engaged, politically active diasporas,” he said.
House Republican and Democratic lawmakers have called on the secretary to appoint a special envoy for Venezuela, but the State Department has not announced any plans to do so.
They’ve also put pressure on the Biden administration to expand pressure on the Maduro government by roping in allies.
“We have to work with the EU and particularly our European allies to get to our ultimate goal, which is free and fair elections in Venezuela, to finally get rid of the Maduro regime. It’s going to really take partnerships with Europe. Some countries in Europe are still doing business with the Maduro regime that has to stop,” Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.) said at a press conference earlier this week.
“But it’s not going to be bilateral negotiations that are going to do it. It’s going to take multilateral, complex negotiations and building coalitions.”