The US and Venezuela opposition parties’ stance on the Maduro regime

The US began to relax its oil embargo against Venezuela in November last year in response to the global oil crisis. Triggered by the Russia–Ukraine War, the crisis has been exacerbated by President Biden’s failed attempts at negotiating with Saudi Arabia and Iran regarding oil production and human rights. It is thus unsurprising that the US is looking to improve relations with Venezuela, another authoritarian state with abundant oil resources. However, lifting sanctions against Venezuela seems to be self-contradictory, especially after the US recently imposed fresh sanctions on Iran over the death of Mahsa Amini. It has been argued that Biden’s move shows that the US is unable to tackle both the global oil crisis and Venezuela’s crackdown on dissents in the short run.

The Biden administration indirectly admits that sanctions against Venezuela are ineffective

The question of whether the West should continue to impose sanctions on Venezuela has long been a subject for debate. Critics argue that the US’s indiscriminate sanctions, albeit with the initial support of many Western states, only harm Venezuela’s people and do not help with the overthrowing of Maduro’s dictatorship. Some commentators even state that Maduro’s dictatorship has been consolidated because of the sanctions. In fact, the pro-Maduro camp has dominated the Venezuelan legislature despite exiled opposition leader Guaidó’s calls for a boycott of the rigged legislative election. William Neuman, author of Things Are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse: Inside the Collapse of Venezuela, says that relying entirely on Guaidó is nothing more than upholding a fiction that will never happen in reality. Neuman and a number of others reiterate that the US should ease sanctions against Venezuela to encourage the Maduro regime to reconcile with the various opposition parties. Furthermore, Neuman believes that the majority of the six million Venezuelan refugees are anti-Maduro voters, and the root cause of them fleeing abroad is the collapse of Venezuela’s economy, which is attributed to the US’ indiscriminate sanctions. If the US eases sanctions, Venezuela’s economy could begin to recover. Subsequently, more Venezuelan refugees would have a stronger incentive to return home and “vote Maduro out” in the next presidential election.

By contrast, those advocating for the upholding of sanctions emphasize the following. First, there is little sign that Venezuela’s democracy and human rights have improved or are likely to improve in the foreseeable future. The US compromise is thus equivalent to surrendering to Maduro’s dictatorship. In addition, as early as 2014–2018 (before the US sanctions came into effect), more than 2.3 million Venezuelan civilians had fled abroad. In other words, it is Maduro’s dictatorship, rather than US sanctions, which is responsible for the misery of Venezuela’s civilians. As such, there is no guarantee that the removal of sanctions alone will encourage Venezuelan refugees to go back home. Worse still, by easing sanctions, Maduro’s crackdown on dissidents will be easier because his dictatorship will have access to more foreign funds.

Moreover, although Venezuela has abundant oil resources, there is no way to quickly restore the country’s oil production to its height of more than three million barrels per day after years of mismanagement. Consequently, Biden has damaged the moral reputation of the US without achieving the desired results. Similar criticism also highlights Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia in July last year, and then his administration’s granting of immunity to the Saudi crown prince in November of the same year in the murder trial of dissident journalist Khashoggi. Moreover, some critics are worried that with the setting of such a precedent, other dictatorships will not take US sanctions seriously in the future.

Biden’s controversial decision will inevitably frustrate Guaidó and other human rights activists who strongly oppose the West’s pause in its punitive approach to Venezuela. Nevertheless, they have been hit by a number of harsh realities in the past two years. In September 2020, The Economist reported that the Venezuelan opposition is divided over its support for Guaidó. Specifically, Guaidó criticized any politician who participated in the rigged legislative election and made any form of compromise with the Maduro regime as being cowards and traitors. He also urged the US to impose tougher sanctions. However, some opposition leaders who stayed in Venezuela, such as Henrique Capriles, have argued that Guaidó’s approach is unrealistic.

Venezuela’s opposition dissolves Guaidó’s “interim government” and shifts hope to the next presidential election

It should also be emphasized that while Guaidó’s interim government heavily relied on moral support from the West, the EU has not called him “interim president” since 2021. Furthermore, late in Trump’s administration, Guaidó’s requests to meet with the president in person were repeatedly ignored or rejected. Worse, the Biden administration has shown its intention to adopt a more reconciliatory approach towards the Maduro regime, especially since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. Last June, despite Biden reiterating his support to Guaidó in a phone conservation, the media focused more on the subsequent development that Guaidó was not invited to attend the 9th Summit of the Americas, which was held in Los Angeles.

It is therefore clear that Guaidó was marginalized for some time before the US formally relaxed its sanctions on Venezuela. It is no wonder that the Venezuelan opposition camp is increasingly reluctant to support him. According to the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal last October, several major opposition parties in Venezuela were considering no longer recognizing Guaidó as the interim president in exile, and instead are looking for other ways to oust Maduro. This rumor was confirmed last month by the formal removal of Guaidó as interim president after three of the four major opposition groups (Justice First, Democratic Action, and A New Era) voted to support this bill.

Any choice is a political gamble with no guarantee of success

Of course, any attempt at ousting Maduro through the next Venezuelan presidential election is a political gamble. After all, the Maduro regime can continue to modify electoral rules in his favor and use administrative and judicial means to disqualify any popular opposition leaders from running. Even if Maduro loses the next election, a peaceful transition of power will not be easy. For example, the Venezuelan military has benefitted greatly from their support of Maduro in recent years, and they might not be willing to let go of their privileged position should a transition of power take place. Indeed, they may follow in the footsteps of Myanmar’s Tatmadaw and initiate a coup d’état.

Unfortunately, the US and Venezuelan opposition can do little to prevent such an event. After all, the US is strongly against sending troops to Venezuela as it is not in their best interest and US military intervention in the past 30 years has largely caused more problems than it has solved. Consequently, it would be unrealistic for the Venezuelan opposition to expect any significant military help from the US. In reality, while the re-imposition of sanctions is likely to be the US’ toughest response, their impact would be no more effective than its sanctions against Cuba, Iran, and North Korea.

Some factions in Venezuela’s opposition understand that foreign support is limited, which is why they are resorting to other means to achieve their political goals. However, the lack of any armed forces is a problem. Ultimately, unless some as yet unseen variable fundamentally changes the political landscape in Venezuela, the prospects for the opposition remain slim.

An earlier Chinese version of this article appeared in print on December 30, 2022 in Section B, Page 14 of Ming Pao Daily News. This version includes updated content.

T-Fai Yeung – moderndiplomacy

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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