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Biden needs to assert U.S. leadership in Venezuela as Maduro exploits negotiations

Any process that keeps the Maduro regime intact will exacerbate intolerable security threats to the U.S. and the hemisphere at large.
Image: FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's President Maduro holds a news conference at Miraflores Palace in Caracas
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro speaks in Caracas on March 12, 2020.Manaure Quintero / Reuters file

For two centuries, the U.S. has operated under the Monroe Doctrine — countries outside the Western Hemisphere should not interfere with independent governments in Central and South America. Yet today, we see countless actors like Russia, China and Iran meddling in Venezuela, where the economic, humanitarian and security crises provoked by Nicolás Maduro and his cronies are among the most pressing national security concerns in our part of the world.

The administration should increase pressure on the Maduro regime and its enablers until conditions are right to conduct free and fair elections.

The U.S. should reassert American leadership in our hemisphere and, along with like-minded allies, seek a return to democratic order in Venezuela as an antidote to the dangers posed by Maduro. We must enhance engagement with our allies to better leverage a diplomatic and financial pressure campaign against the criminal Maduro regime and in support of interim President Juan Guaidó. Guaidó has led efforts to restore democratic order in Venezuela since 2019 as the country’s legitimate leader, recognized by the U.S. and many other countries, even though Maduro has kept him from gaining control of several key institutions.

During the 2020 presidential campaign, Joe Biden’s team proposed the use of multilateral pressure and smart sanctions to stop the Maduro regime and transition to free and fair elections. But eight months since the inauguration, Biden has instead helped companies navigate around U.S. sanctions by offering them exemptions. These exemptions have allowed financial resources to flow directly into the hands of the regime, strengthening its position rather than weakening it.

Meanwhile, Biden supports the negotiations between representatives of Maduro and Guaidó that officially begin Friday, with the stated goal of holding free and fair elections in return for the lifting of international sanctions. These negotiations, however, are likely to only further entrench the Maduro regime by buying it time while further dividing the opposition. They will also enable greater Russian meddling in the Americas by allowing Moscow a seat at the negotiating table.

Importantly, the democratic forces in Venezuela and their allies have already tried to negotiate the end of the illegitimate Maduro regime more than a dozen times without results. These failed negotiations have occurred in both an environment of heightened engagement favored by the Obama administration and under the pressure of more punitive measures implemented by the Trump administration. Each time, the Maduro regime failed to make any concessions, and the opposition walked away weaker than before.

The Maduro regime poses a danger not just to Venezuelans, but to the U.S., as well. Sadly, the Venezuelan government under Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, morphed into a vast criminal enterprise that spans the world and engages in an array of criminal activities, including falsified oil sales, illegal mining, drug trafficking, fraudulent infrastructure projects and financial crimes.

Maduro remains atop this criminal network through heinous human rights violations and widespread corruption that reaches into the U.S. and Europe. His criminal network relies on its alliances with terrorist organizations, such as the Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional and Hezbollah, as well as security and financial support from countries including Cuba, China, Russia, Iran and Turkey.

As these foreign influences encroach further into the country, the threats to U.S. national security — and the hemisphere writ large — grow greater. Their strengthening of ties with Venezuela, combined with the country’s proximity to the U.S., raises significant concerns about terrorist threats, transnational criminal activity and the expanded reach of foreign adversaries.

Maduro is also holding more than 260 political prisoners and eight U.S. hostages as part of his broader political clampdown. This, tied with the extensive drug smuggling operation that threatens communities across the U.S., paints a stark picture of why what is happening in Venezuela also matters here at home.

Venezuelans aren’t suffering only politically, though. Following the socialist model of the regime in Cuba, Maduro has presided over an economy that has contracted by more than 75 percent since 2014, the year after he was elected. Now, 96 percent of the population lives in poverty and endures chronic food shortages. These horrific conditions have pushed more than 5.6 million Venezuelans to flee their homeland, placing an enormous economic, social, health and political burden on the neighboring democracies that have generously accepted these refugees.

Meanwhile, the democratic forces led by Guaidó have the support of a diverse group of freedom-loving countries that have chosen to prioritize humanitarian efforts paired with diplomatic tools, such as sanctions, in response to the Maduro regime.

Let me be clear: Any negotiations that keep the Maduro regime intact in Venezuela will exacerbate intolerable security threats to the U.S. and the hemisphere at large. The Biden administration should mitigate the negative consequences of engaging in this ill-fated exercise by developing a more robust strategy, beginning with setting a clear timeline for negotiations. The longer negotiations continue without a deadline or mechanisms to evaluate progress, the smaller the prospects are for a return to democratic order in Venezuela.

In the meantime, the administration should increase pressure on the Maduro regime and its enablers until conditions are right to conduct free and fair elections. These include persuading our European allies to promptly match U.S. and Canadian sanctions, enhancing the capacity of our democratic allies in the region to confront the instability emanating from Venezuela through humanitarian and economic assistance, conducting robust freedom-of-navigation and counternarcotics operations to end the Maduro regime’s transnational criminal activities and leading a diplomatic effort to ensure that the Organization of American States continues to recognize the interim government led by Guaidó as the legitimate government of Venezuela.

Finding solutions to the political, humanitarian and security crises in Venezuela is crucial for the peace and stability of our hemisphere. The Biden administration must answer this challenge with relentless pressure in support of a prompt democratic outcome, not a negotiation process that further entrenches the Maduro regime and its enablers in Cuba, Russia, China and Iran.