Chávez. Photo: Carolina Cabral via Getty.
U.S. President Joe Biden vowed to continue with the status quo of treating the Venezuelan regime as a pariah state this week.
“The situation in Venezuela continues to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States,” wrote Biden in a memo to Congress.
“Therefore, I have determined that it is necessary to continue the national emergency… with respect to the situation in Venezuela.”
A social and economic crisis in the South American country of 30 million has raged ever since strongman President Nicolás Maduro came into power in 2013 following the death of his predecessor, Hugo Chávez. Maduro consolidated power by packing the courts with loyalist judges and neutering the legislature, driving some key lawmakers out of the country and detaining others. He inherited a Venezuela dramatically transformed by the socialism Chávez spent a decade and a half building. Chávez spent oil money on housing and electricity for the poor. But when the oil price collapsed in 2014, so did his socialist dream.
“There is broad bipartisan consensus (in the United States) that Maduro is squarely responsible for the erosion of democracy in Venezuela, human rights abuses that amount to crimes against humanity, and the growing power of drug-trafficking organizations in the Andean region,” says Paul J. Angelo, a fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“The Biden administration will likely seek to continue to isolate Maduro internationally, while corralling international assistance to alleviate Venezuela’s ever-growing humanitarian tragedy.”
Barack Obama, for whom Biden served as vice president, signed an executive order in 2015 that imposed property and travel sanctions on certain individuals close to the Maduro government. Later, under the Trump administration, Washington upped the ante and sanctioned the country’s oil sector. With this extension, Biden is carrying on what Obama and Trump started.
But some critics claim these latter sanctions are the origin of the South American country’s economic collapse.
Maduro’s regime has gone to great lengths to maintain power and control in Venezuela, garnering international condemnation. A United Nations report last year found that his government is responsible for wide-ranging human rights abuses, including arbitrary detentions, torture and extrajudicial killings.
The crisis has driven more than 5 million refugees across the border into Colombia and other parts of the region. It has also created the ideal conditions for criminal groups to thrive. Organized crime bosses move their cocaine shipments from Colombia into Venezuela’s anarchic, corrupt landscape and onwards to Europe and the United States, aided and abetted by the government, according to reports.
Hyperinflation has rendered the bolivar - Venezuela’s currency - nearly worthless. In an effort to pull dollars into the starved economy, Maduro wants to privatize state-owned companies after seizing them years earlier. Maduro points his finger at the U.S. for the crisis.
Over the years, there have been multiple attempts to negotiate with the Maduro regime in order to pave a way forward toward free and fair elections in which an opposition candidate would participate. None have succeeded.
“The Trump administration’s unilateral disposition and failed ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Maduro alienated many of the United States’ partners and allies,” says Angelo.
“Biden, on the other hand, has delivered on his campaign promise to leverage longstanding ties to the world’s leading democracies to bring additional pressure to bear on Maduro.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. and its European allies continue to apply pressure using sanctions on individual members of Maduro’s government, as well as to limit Venezuela’s ability to do business with the rest of the world.
Earlier this year, Colombia’s president Iván Duque granted protective status to 2 million undocumented migrants. Biden has said he too wants to take care of Venezuelans who have fled the Maduro regime. His diplomatic touch will matter, and it will stand in stark contrast to his predecessor’s bravado on the international stage.