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Biden’s new foreign policy strategy for Venezuela:

Biden’s new foreign policy strategy for Venezuela

On January 20, Biden was sworn in as the new President of United States of America after weeks of intense social and political revolt. The siege of the Capitol, democrats winning the Senate and Trump’s second impeachment have set the tone of the incoming year. The new Administration will face big challenges at home and abroad. Venezuela will be one of the hardest challenges on foreign policy: Biden has to design a new strategy that features tools not used by Trump, in a political environment unfavourable to the democratic forces.

The Maduro regime has recovered the initiative by imposing a new National Assembly not recognized by the international community, and resuming his chase on the opposition and civil society. The Venezuelan context is discouraging: social and humanitarian crisis is getting worse, emigration continues and affects the region, and the regime has managed to survive with the assistance of his international allies. Meanwhile, the leadership of Juan Guaidó as Interim President has taken hits after the domestic and international questioning on his legitimacy after the National Assembly ruled his own continuity using a dubious legal resort, adding the noticeable decrease of the popular support and the corruption scandals related to the Interim Government. In this political context, what strategy adjustments will Biden do in his policy towards Venezuela? Will it represent a paradigm shift?

Foreign policy agenda of the new administration

Biden’s arrival has signalled the return of multilateralism in US foreign affairs. The democratic candidate promised in the campaign that the US would reenter the WHO, UN Council of Human Rights and the Paris Accord, among others. Nonetheless, his approach will defer from Obama’s because it will focus on favouring American citizens and companies first, as well as consolidate an alliance between democracies to oppose Russian opportunism and Chinese assertiveness.

Along those lines, the new President already hinted his intention of reconstructing the relationship with the allies that have been questioned by Trump, especially Europe, who has to resolve their dilemma with the Chinese technology and investment; and, of course, other countries like Australia, India and Japan that are indispensable for the coalition to balance Beijing’s hegemonic ambitions in Asia.

Will Venezuela be one of the foreign policy priorities of Biden? Yes, it will be a relevant issue when it comes to the challenges and worries in the region. However, it will be far behind from the security competition with the great powers: China and Russia; reestablishing the nuclear deal with Iran, handling North Korea, and even the threat of climate change, which has been defined by the Obama Administration as the biggest threat of this generation. Moreover, the foreign policy agenda will be subordinated to the domestic agenda that will have, for obvious reasons, predilection on the availability of resources and attention from the Administration.

Who is part of Biden’s foreign affairs team?

Tony Blinken has been confirmed as the new Secretary of State, Linda Thomas-Greenfield as the US ambassador to the UN, Jack Sullivan is the National Security Advisor and Juan Gonzalez the National Security Council Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere. These government officials were part of the Obama Administration, they have made very clear that democracy and human rights are indisputable values that are part of America’s foreign policy. Even though they were part of the previous Democratic Administration, that doesn’t mean we have to expect the exactly same approach: Biden’s foreign policy will differentiate in several ways from Obama’s, the domestic political, economic and social context is very different, and above all, the international context pose new priorities, challenges and threats.

A new strategy towards Venezuela

Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” towards Maduro’s regime didn’t work. They tried to cut the regime’s irregular incomes, offer a flexible statute for transition and they backed up Guaidó as Interim President. Now Trump is gone and Maduro is trying to get an appeasement from the Biden Administration.

Biden has to design a new strategy towards Venezuela, bearing in mind that the political situation in the South American country has changed. The wear and tear of the opposition leadership and the cohesion of the Chavismo forces has open a new chapter in the political crisis. Maduro’s grip in power has consolidated and now a democratic transition seems improbable in the short run.

The end of the National Assembly’s period has been a major problem to the democratic forces; they argued that the illegitimate elections made by Maduro left the legislative power in a situation of absentee, so the only democratically elect Assembly should continue to operate until free and fair elections are held in the country. This move was criticized domestically and internationally. The European Union, an US partner, has been debating over this situation. The European Council doesn’t recognize Guaidó as Interim President or as President of the National Assembly, whereas the European Parliament voted to maintain the support on Guaido as Interim President. At the end, the UE Council has the final word in foreign affairs issues, meaning that the legitimacy of the Interim Government in Venezuela is at stake. The possibility of Guaido’s exile or incarceration is real, and the US and his allies have to contain the Maduro regime diplomatically to prevent this to happen. The opposition weakness is blood in the ocean for the dictatorship forces.

What is the most likely approach Biden will have for Venezuela? He will push for free and fair elections that channel the path towards democracy in exchange of sanctions relief and political guarantees for the chavismo. Additionally, he will try to negotiate a framework to ease the humanitarian crisis.

These objectives have been mentioned by Blinken in his Senate confirmation hearings last week. He also said that the Administration will review the current sanctions and change them in a way to maximize pressure on Maduro’s allies in the government coalition (smart sanctions). A coordinated effort by the European Union and South American countries would make the sanctions more effective. On the other hand, the National Security Advisor, Jack Sullivan, has mentioned a while ago that the Trump Administration didn’t do enough to pressure Russia, China, Iran and Cuba, the main international allies of the Maduro regime. This coalition has helped the regime survive. The technical, financial and political assistance they provided is crucial to Maduro. Trying to figure out a settlement with these countries would make it easier to picture a transition of power in Venezuela. How could Biden persuade or compel them? It’s not an easy task but is a realistic approach to address the problem.

In order for Biden’s strategy to work, he has to convince his European and South American allies to join him. A multilateral coordinated coalition would be ideal. Nevertheless, the UE has a different perspective of the Venezuelan situation and the South American countries are skeptical of the odds of a regime change. In much the same way, an international coalition to intervene militarily in Venezuela seems unlikely: US interventions abroad are highly unpopular domestically and very expensive, even so, Iraq and Afghanistan experiences have exposed that state building efforts are bloodletting situations. In recent years, several people in Venezuela have had their hopes in a foreign military intervention lead by the United States of America; this has not happened and probably never will. The expectation of a military intervention rose because of the rhetoric of former President Trump, but it was all bluffing.

There is not going to be an easy and magical solution. The democratic forces, led by Guaidó, have to re-articulate internally and gain momentum to pressure besides the international community for free and fair elections or negotiate a democratic transition of power. It’s easier said than done. The opposition is at his worse situation in recent years and the Chavismo appears to have found the formula to consolidate in power. Biden’s diplomatic action is not the panacea that will eventually solve all problems in Venezuela, but the articulation of a new strategy maybe can help to create a favourable context for the opposition to make the final push.

Written by: Francisco Miranda