According to media reports, the Biden administration is supporting a new round of talks with Venezuela that will be overseen by Norway and take place in Mexico in mid-August, despite the recent disappearance and arrest of opposition leader Freddy Guevara, and a recent regime-led siege on President Juan Guaidó. France, Russia, and Argentina may also be at the talks and have either been supportive or sympathetic to the regime at times.
The prospect of a peaceful political settlement to the crisis in Venezuela has long been seen by both Republicans and Democrats as the preferred solution to the political and economic crisis. Negotiations, however, have been attempted many times and have failed to deliver results. If the United States is a party to a new round of talks, it must negotiate from a position of strength and avoid concessions that cross key internal redlines. Further, the United States will need to demonstrate its seriousness and impose a cost on the regime if talks with Maduro fail yet again. Washington should prepare and be ready to launch new rounds of sanctions to use if negotiations stall and should consider a “snapback” strategy to penalize the regime for reversing any potential commitments made during talks.
There are key U.S. national security interests at stake in Venezuela:
The United States currently has over 430 sanctions in place against Venezuelan individuals, companies, and other persons. The U.S. intensified its sanctions campaign under President Trump in response to the Maduro regime’s deepening repression and corruption. However, the Biden Administration has yet to impose additional sanctions on Venezuela – all 23 sanctions from 2021 were added at the end of Trump’s tenure. Biden should prepare new sanctions to increase pressure on the regime and continue to rigorously enforce existing sanctions, especially on oil transfers, while talks continue and only loosen them when results are achieved.
U.S sanctions responded to a wide range of malign behavior by the Maduro regime. Some sanctions, particularly in the economic sector, were messaged upon implementation as being fully removable should Venezuelan behavior change. Some of the other designations, including on individuals responsible for regime violence, are more difficult to lift politically and legally.
The regime has not shown it is interested in a legitimate negotiation given its continued arrest and detention of political dissidents in Venezuela. Opposition leaders continue to experience harassment and detention. Engaging in a negotiation now could embolden the regime to continue its attacks against democratic actors. Once the regime ceases its repressive actions, any negotiation must push for the establishment of free and fair presidential elections in Venezuela, and only consider meaningful reductions in U.S. sanctions pressure after a successful, independently verified conclusion. The United States should signal that the following specific steps will not be considered until those conditions are met:
A recurring pattern is that the Chavista regime often abandons talks as soon as it perceives the level of international and domestic pressure diminishing. Given the number of times, under both the Obama and Trump administrations, that negotiations were attempted and failed, the United States should insist on additional confidence measures from the regime during talks and before sanctions relief is granted, to show that the regime is serious. The opposite approach – lax U.S. sanctions enforcement and offering unilateral concessions – signals weakness to Maduro. Recent moves by the regime to allow COVID-19 vaccines into Venezuela and to allow the World Food Program to operate are not genuine confidence measures; instead, they should be viewed as matters of critical public health designed to quell street protests. Real confidence measures involve things that the regime so far has resisted and could include:
Engaging in a negotiation while the regime continues to arrest opposition leaders and threaten President Guaidó and other political dissidents portends the likely failure of these negotiations. Should the regime end this activity, it is still critical that any negotiation strategy put forward by the U.S. administration identify clear, concrete mechanisms to hold the regime accountable if and when it fails to meet agreed upon goals, or if the regime makes commitments and then backtracks. This should be done in conjunction with the EU and OAS, which have the ability to impose significant new sanctions.
Our partners in the region need to play the role of continuing pressure on Maduro, and the U.S. must continue to inform and closely consult with them during negotiations. There must be willingness to deploy these penalties at the same time the negotiation is ongoing. Finally, there should be no permanent changes on the U.S. side in response to temporary changes from the Maduro regime. The United States should consider a “snapback” strategy to ensure any individual sanctions or Executive Orders removed or modified are immediately reinstated following a pre-determined set of actions by the Maduro regime.
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