Politics, World, Americas

Will Biden show flexibility towards Venezuela?

Reports suggest Biden is offering to ease sanctions, in exchange for Venezuela holding ‘free and fair’ presidential polls

Jorge Jraissati   | 28.01.2021
Will Biden show flexibility towards Venezuela?

CARACAS, Venezuela

While new US President Joe Biden is continuing to recognize Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president, unconfirmed news reports say his administration is willing to open channels of communication with the Nicolas Maduro government. 

Reports have also surfaced that the Biden administration may ease some of the sanctions on its South American neighbor, home to some 28.5 million people. 

“Since January 2019, the US and US-allied Western countries have supported Guaido over Maduro. Yet, most of them still recognize the Maduro government implicitly, for instance, by recognizing his ambassadors.”

While more than 50 countries including the US recognize Guaido as the legitimate president, the UN, Russia, China, Iran, Turkey and the majority of UN member states have stood by Maduro.

In recent weeks, there has been speculation that with Donald Trump’s exit from the White House, the Biden administration may address the US’ tense relations with Venezuela.

The US officially broke its diplomatic ties with Venezuela in January 2019, when the Trump administration recognized Guaido as interim president and followed by imposing sanctions against the Maduro government, with the hope of pushing regime change.

The US also prohibited American entities from engaging in transactions with PDVSA, the Venezuelan state-owned oil and natural gas company. In August 2019, the Trump administration authorized the use of financial sanctions against foreign energy firms engaged in business with the state company. According to the Venezuelan government, these actions have severely pinched state finances.

Biden and his advisers have described the Venezuelan crisis as “the biggest diplomatic challenge” that their administration now faces in the Western Hemisphere.

As such, Biden and his team are talking about the specific political, diplomatic, and economic measures that the new administration will take towards Venezulela.

On the economic front, Biden has articulated his intention to continue America’s policy of putting pressure on Venezuela, maintaining sanctions as well as working with other countries to make them more punitive.

Willingness for dialogue

But the administration has also expressed willingness to establish a mechanism of dialogue with the Venezuelan government to discuss ending the sanctions.

According to news reports, the Biden administration is preparing a team of experts to negotiate lifting the sanctions in exchange for Venezuela holding “free and fair” presidential elections.

This would be a departure from the Trump administration, which had insisted that under Maduro such free and fair elections are not possible.

Moreover, there have been news reports stating that the Biden administration is considering dropping the sanctions on the state oil company altogether in light of the drastic effects these have had on the Venezuelan economy.

This would go in line with previous comments from Biden’s advisor Juan Gonzalez, who said that the new administration wants to avoid the excessive use of sanctions, and that in contrast, they want to use sanctions as a “strategic” tool in an “intelligent” manner.

Beyond America’s policy of sanctions, Biden has also stated that the international community ought to step up its humanitarian efforts towards Venezuela.

Biden also said that the world has a “responsibility to help Venezuela’s neighbors like Colombia manage the grave humanitarian crisis created by the millions of Venezuelan migrants who’ve fled the country.”

Domestically, Biden has pledged to grant Venezuelans living in the US temporary protected status (TPS) so they can stay in the country legally. TPS is an immigration status provided to nationals of certain countries facing problems that make it difficult or unsafe for their nationals to be deported there. According to the Congressional Budget Office, in 2018 there were about 200,000 Venezuelans eligible for TPS.

Delicate diplomatic situation

Antony Blinken, Biden’s just-confirmed secretary of state, told the US Senate that the new administration will continue recognizing Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president. He added that the US needs an “effective policy that can restore Venezuela to democracy, starting with free and fair elections.”

Ultimately, Biden is inheriting a delicate diplomatic situation compounded by the complex economic crisis in Venezuela. Experts, therefore, anticipate different but complementary tactics adopted by the US to resolve the situation.

Writing at The Dialogue website, Ray Walser, a political scientist at Seton Hall University in the US state of New Jersey, argued that democratic platforms soundly rejected Trump’s “failed” policy on Venezuela, and so we should expect a new emphasis focused on mitigating the consequences of its humanitarian crisis.

Karen DeYoung, senior national security correspondent for The Washington Post, said that since the new administration is seeking to improve relations with Cuba, Biden will try to use Cuba as leverage for future negotiations with the Venezuelan government.

DeYoung also said that Biden will pay special attention to unifying the Venezuelan opposition, so they can “re-energize the appeal to weary and disillusioned Venezuelans.”

The Washington Office on Latin America, a US-based NGO, has called on Biden to bring Europe and Latin America to the center of the decision-making so they can “commit to a multilateral approach that strengthens coordination with Europe and Latin America.”

In a report, the group recommended that the US pursue greater communication with relevant foreign countries like China and Russia, to seek solutions that fit the interests of all the parties involved.

Greater flexibility than Trump

On Cuba, for instance, the NGO urged the Biden administration to “not frame a transition in Venezuela as the first step in an existential threat to the island’s government.”

It suggested that the new administration should “unequivocally state” that the US no longer supports any kind of military intervention.

Experts agree that while Biden’s strategy will preserve key aspects from the Trump administration – such as US support for Guaido – the new administration will focus on finding diplomatic avenues to resolve the Venezuelan situation.

They also say that the US administration is showing a greater degree of flexibility and willingness to engage in dialogue with Caracas.

Venezuelan shares this optimism, saying it expects better relations with the US under Biden.

Last week, Maduro said that he hopes to “turn the page” with Washington so that the two countries can reach a “new path” after years of tensions; a path based on “mutual respect, dialogue, communication, and understanding.”

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