Editor’s Note: Amanda Mattingly is a Truman National Security Project fellow and a former foreign affairs officer at the US Department of State. She served at the US Embassy in Caracas in 2002-2003. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.
I’ve met Nicolás Maduro, and he’s about the last person you’d want running a country. He’s an incompetent authoritarian. He has driven his country and its economy into the ground.
His brand of Bolivarian socialism is a corrupt sham, a con job on Venezuela’s poor and a sorry excuse for a political-economic model. Venezuela suffers from a humanitarian, political and economic disaster thanks to Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chávez.
As successive authoritarian leaders, they have stripped away Venezuela’s economic viability and democratic institutions while consolidating power.
Now, I can tell you Joe Biden is no Maduro. He is no radical, corrupt socialist, and he is certainly no friend to Maduro. False rhetoric about Biden and communism has been circulating in southern Florida in this election year, with South Florida voters particularly susceptible to assertions that Biden wants to install Cuban or Venezuelan-style socialism in the United States. Exploiting traumatic memories of life in Cuba under the Castros and in Venezuela under Chávez and Maduro, Trump is stoking their fears in search of votes. “Joe Biden is a PUPPET of CASTRO-CHAVISTAS,” Trump tweeted Saturday.
Given the importance of Florida in US presidential elections, and the particular importance of Latino voters in South Florida, these false narratives about Biden could be important in determining who serves as America’s next President.
The truth is that Biden is a moderate Democrat and American patriot who has a long record in the US Senate, and as vice president, of taking a tough stance on American adversaries – like Maduro – and of advocating for a smart, integrated US foreign policy in Latin America.
Not only is it ludicrous to compare Biden to Maduro, it is also ludicrous to think that Biden wouldn’t take a tough stand against him. In early 2019, Biden recognized Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the legitimate interim leader of Venezuela within weeks of Guaidó proclaiming himself the rightful President and calling for new, free and fair elections. Guaidó has been accepted as the legitimate leader of Venezuela by more than 50 countries, including the US. He knows that Biden will be a strong ally against Maduro and for efforts to bring about a peaceful democratic transition in Venezuela.
American policy toward Venezuela should focus first and foremost on democracy. Before the Trump administration, democracy promotion had been a cornerstone of US foreign policy in Latin America and around the world. The US should work to regain its leadership role in promoting and upholding democratic principles, institutions, and governance. The US should definitely not be suggesting the possibility of an American military intervention or the tacit approval of a military coup in Venezuela. American diplomats should get back in the business of promoting and defending democracy.
The US should also be defending human rights and taking a tougher stand against Maduro and his regime, which has been accused of abuses by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and a recent UN report. The Venezuelan government has denied such reports, making it all the more important for the US to put its weight behind any efforts to hold Maduro to account.
American’s stance on Venezuela should be tough, but it should also open up new diplomatic opportunities with allies in Latin America and Europe.
Rather than closing down avenues for diplomacy, the US should work to open new paths for cooperation. Unfortunately, this administration has squandered the trust and mutual respect necessary to build a strong multilateral coalition to address Venezuela’s crisis. America’s foreign policy works best when the US works with partners and provides principled, values-driven leadership in multilateral organizations. Right now, the US should be leading the efforts at the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Lima Group to promote a peaceful and democratic transition in Venezuela. Working through these institutions, the US gains legitimacy and support for its agenda.
In the absence of strong US leadership, Latin Americans across the region are losing faith in democracy and in the US as a partner for a better future.
A credible and effective US policy would also respond to the humanitarian disaster that has befallen the Venezuela people. More than 5 million Venezuelans have fled their country out of fear of political persecution and in search of economic opportunities. Meanwhile, untold thousands could be dying of Covid-19 due to a collapse of the health care system. In 2019, Doctors for Health found that 70% of Venezuela’s public hospitals reported only intermittent access to water, as Human Rights Watch notes.
The US should be working with Colombia and Brazil to address this disaster and its spillover throughout the region, specifically by targeting assistance to refugees and the neighboring countries bearing the brunt of the exodus. The US government should also extend Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Venezuelans in the US, a group that includes approximately 200,000 eligible Venezuelans who have sought refuge from the crisis in their home country, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Rather than doubling down on cruel policies and draconian economic sanctions that squeeze the Venezuelan people – but benefit the Maduro regime by offering him cover for his economic failures – a new US-Venezuela policy should seek to help “el pueblo,” the people.
America’s failed policies on Cuba should be a lesson, and Venezuela should not fall victim to a repeat of that anachronistic approach. For decades, we have provided the Cuban regime with an excuse for its own failed economic policies, and now we are doing the same for Venezuela. Never-ending sanctions on Cuba have not resulted in regime change. That tactic will not work in Venezuela either. Sweeping economic sanctions primarily hurt the people of these countries and make them ever more prostrate before their authoritarian governments. You can see that in the hours-long lines for food in Havana and the hours-long lines for gas in Caracas.
Targeted sanctions on specific individuals in the Maduro government, military, and security services would be more effective. By the end of 2019, and almost a year after the United States imposed broad economic and oil sanctions on Venezuela, 96% of households in Venezuela were living in poverty, and of that number, 79% in extreme poverty. Yet, Maduro remained in power.
US sanctions should target Venezuelan nationals supporting and funding Maduro; those who commit human rights violations; those who undermine democratic processes and institutions like the National Electoral Council (CNE); and those who run drug trafficking and money laundering operations.
The blunt tool of general sanctions further degrades the poor economic conditions in which the majority of Venezuelans now live. We are deepening their suffering rather than providing leverage for a solution.
Current US-Venezuela policy also pushes Venezuela closer to Russia, China, and Iran. Over the last several years, we have seen these countries lending to the Venezuelan government, taking control of the Venezuelan oil sector, and most recently, allegedly buying Venezuelan gold in exchange for gasoline.
The situation in Venezuela is heartbreaking. The sooner free and fair elections can be held to elect a new leader, the better. Under a Biden administration, the US will regain its leadership in the region and work toward that day when Venezuela sees there is a peaceful, democratic transition.