Decision Point for Venezuela Sanctions

Monday, 27 November 2023


By P. Michael McKinley and Patrick Duddy - November 17, 2023

Venezuela is at a crossroads. The carefully choreographed announcement on October 17 of an agreement between the Maduro government and the opposition Unitary Platform on a roadmap for democratic presidential elections in 2024, accompanied the next day by an easing of US sanctions, unraveled in less than two weeks.

Despite government efforts to derail the vote, María Corina Machado overwhelmingly won the Oct. 22 primary. The regime did not wait 24 hours before questioning the legitimacy of the primaries. On October 30, the Supreme Court announced it had invalidated the results. Hopes that Nicolás Maduro would respond positively to the US sanctions decision have all but vanished.

The question is what the United States should do now.

The Biden administration’s effort to negotiate democratic elections in Venezuela was a reasonable response to a prolonged crisis that has led more than seven million Venezuelans to flee their country. After all, almost three years of intensifying sanctions had not dislodged Maduro’s autocratic regime. Neither an economic collapse of epic proportions that preceded sanctions, nor an unprecedented international coalition of almost 60 countries that recognized a parallel government headed by Juan Guaidó, shifted the balance of political power.

Maduro survived the sanctions and diplomatic pressure. By 2023, most governments in Latin America had restored diplomatic recognition, and Maduro’s envoys were once again welcome in European capitals. Venezuela’s ties to China and Russia never frayed, but the two countries recently began investing again in Venezuela. Meanwhile, Venezuela’s economy started to recover.

It was in this context that the new strategy was implemented, including sanctions relief, to promote dialogue between the regime and the opposition and to pursue the possibility of a modestly free and fair presidential election. Initially, the approach made progress, resulting in freedom for several US citizens arbitrarily detained in Venezuela. 

Later, secret negotiations, including in Qatar, led to an apparent breakthrough in Barbados in October: an agreement on democratic elections and the easing of US sanctions.

There are suggestions that the U.S. agreement to relax sanctions was also motivated by an interest in increasing Venezuelan oil output to help address a global energy crisis brought about by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. There was also the hope that the prospect of a more functional Venezuelan economy might reduce the number of migrants headed to the United States. 

The agreement, however, also included strict conditions related to Venezuela’s re-democratization, including an electoral timetable and the removal of barriers to opposition participation in the political process. The White House explicitly tied sanctions relief to measurable steps to permit a genuine electoral challenge to Maduro.

The turnout for the opposition primary and the enormity of Machado’s victory clearly alarmed Maduro, apparently leading him to conclude that a free and fair election would lead to his removal from office. Polling has shown that 84% of Venezuelans want a change of government. As soon as the primary results trickled out, Maduro began walking away from the commitments he made in Barbados, signaling that Machado would not be permitted to compete in 2024. 

For the United States and democratic opposition, the question now is how to respond. 

Machado, a center-right politician who has sacrificed much in challenging the government, is appealing to voters across the spectrum and navigating the vanishing democratic space. Critically, she is beholden to no outside power, including the United States, where she was long viewed as outside the mainstream opposition. She is the standard bearer for any hope for a democratic transition in Venezuela. 

Amid questions about the prohibition on Machado’s candidacy, the Biden administration has repeatedly emphasized that it is prepared to reimpose sanctions if the Maduro government violates the Barbados agreement. For his part, Maduro is betting Washington will be unwilling to abandon the agreement despite the regime’s noncompliance. 

With wars raging in Europe and the Middle East, the latest Venezuela drama is playing out in the background. That said, the stakes are high and the window to salvage the 2024 election is small. The end of November is the deadline for Maduro to comply with the Barbados agreement, including lifting the ban on Machado’s candidacy. Otherwise, US policy makers will have no choice but to reimpose sanctions and support without equivocation Machado as the opposition presidential candidate for the 2024 election, or risk jeopardizing American credibility on democracy promotion throughout Latin America.


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