The arrival of U.S. President Joe Biden in the White House has ushered in hopes for a new approach towards one of the thorniest foreign policy questions – how to restore democracy in Venezuela.
As the U.S seeks to rebuild ties with European allies that became distanced during the presidency of Donald Trump, analysts say Venezuela will be one of many tests of this new relationship.
In Madrid, the left-wing government of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has cheered Biden and what it hopes will be his fresh approach to relations with a region that both nations consider their backyard.
Because of its historical ties to Latin America, Spain has been at the forefront of European efforts to negotiate with the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in order to push for democratic change.
During the Trump era, talk in Washington of using military clashed with the EU strategy of seeking to force change through sanctions while maintaining a peaceful dialogue with both the Maduro government and opposition groups.
Biden’s election of President Biden was seen as a “great opportunity for change” by Leopoldo López, one of the leaders of the Venezuelan opposition who fled the country in 2020 and now lives in Madrid.
“In the past year, relations between the U.S. and Europe became more distanced with respect to many issues and one of the issues was Venezuela,” López said in an interview.
“Now there is a great opportunity to have a clear and more coordinated position between the U.S. and Europe. We propose there should be a common focus to attain free and democratic parliamentary elections. The start of the solution of the humanitarian problem starts with the change in the political situation.”
López added, “We ask that sanctions are coordinated between U.S. and Europe against those people who have been identified by the United Nations as committing human rights abuses.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki recently laid out the new U.S. government’s approach to the political crisis in Venezuela.
The Biden administration “will focus on addressing the humanitarian situation, providing support to Venezuelan people and reinvigorating multilateral diplomacy to press for a democratic outcome and pursue individuals involved in corruption, human rights abuses,” she said.
Worsening political situation
In Venezuela, meanwhile, the political situation worsened at the end of 2020 after legislative elections in December were criticized by the opposition and the EU as lacking legitimacy.
Venezuela is mired in a deep institutional crisis. The Maduro government exercises power without international credibility but faces a divided opposition which has no clear road map for how to wrestle control of the nation.
The economic situation for 30 million Venezuelans is even more volatile, with many barely able to cover basic needs such as food, health and access to public services. The International Monetary Fund expects inflation to rise by 6,500% this year.
Despite the growing convergence on policy, Washington and its European allies disagree on how to deal with the Venezuelan opposition. Unlike the U.S., Brussels has refused to recognize Juan Guiadó as the de-facto president of Venezuela.
Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya said this week the EU supported the Venezuelan opposition movement and called for a “humanitarian response” as well as a “dialogue between all political forces and social actors” within the country. However, she said that the opposition movement must seek more “unity and strength.”
In a signal that Madrid aligns itself with Biden’s foreign policy, Gonzalez Laya added: “I listened carefully to the statements of the U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, where he clearly explained that the strategy followed in recent years had not worked and that it and that it was necessary to work with all U.S. allies to promote a change in Venezuela and that is where Spain will be of course.”
The decision not to recognize Guaidó as interim president angered some elements of the Venezuelan opposition. Isadora Zubillaga, deputy foreign minister in Guaido’s interim government, described the EU’s position as “muddled” in a Politico article.
Sanctions may become aligned
Analysts said that while Biden has indicated he wants to pursue a peaceful resolution of the Venezuelan situation, he remains committed to sanctions.
Carlos Malamud, an analyst who specializes in Latin America at the Real Elcano Institute, a Madrid think tank, believes the U.S. sanctions policy towards Venezuela will change. “I think they may become more aligned towards the European Union which maintains committed to collective sanctions,” he told VOA in an interview.
The sanctions blacklist on Venezuela may be expanded, the EU said recently, warning Maduro against further crackdowns on the opposition. Brussels placed an arms embargo on Venezuela, froze certain assets and imposed a travel ban on 36 people aligned to the Maduro government.
Geoff Ramsey, director for Venezuela at WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas, expects Biden to use a “carrot and the stick” strategy with Maduro’s government.
“Moving forward, it’s very likely we’ll see a clearer emphasis on negotiations leading to free and fair elections,” he told VOA. “None of this means Biden will let up the pressure. The president has been quite clear that he sees sanctions as a valid tool for free, fair and credible elections in Venezuela and is not going to lift U.S. sanctions with nothing in exchange.”