The past few weeks have seen a dramatic uptick in U.S. policy initiatives towards the illegitimate regime of Nicolás Maduro. Within a short period of time, the Trump Administration indicted Maduro and 14 regime officials on narco-terrorism, proposed a dramatic power-sharing and transition agreement, and bolstered U.S. counter-narcotics assets in Latin America. This is all occurring to the backdrop of the Maduro regime ignoring Venezuela’s growing COVID-19 outbreak.
Resolving Venezuela’s political and humanitarian crisis matters greatly to the U.S. and the stability of South America. The U.S. should seek a negotiated solution to the crisis with significant leverage over Maduro and his inner circle, providing humanitarian assistance to credible civil society groups—but not resorting to a military solution unless vital national security interests are threatened.
Venezuela’s Democratic Transition Plan: Merits and Weaknesses
During the past year, the situation in Venezuela reached a stalemate. Absent the U.S.’s maximum pressure campaign, there were pitiful regional and international responses beyond diplomatic condemnations and minor targeted sanctions. The Norway-mediated dialogue between Venezuelan interim President Juan Guaido and the regime ended prematurely due to the Maduro regime’s unwillingness—as Heritage analysts predicted.
On March 26, the Department of Justice indicted Nicolás Maduro and 14 current and former Venezuelan officials on charges of narco-terrorism. The charges stem from their collaboration with the Colombian-based terrorist group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which “intended to flood the United States with cocaine in order to undermine the health and wellbeing of our nation.”
Merits. Within this context, a few days later the Trump Administration proposed a Democratic Transition Framework for Venezuela. Although light on details for implementation and oversight, on balance the proposal is a needed step forward to resolve the political stalemate. The timing after Maduro’s indictment can be used as an additional point of leverage as well. There are areas in which the agreement can serve to incentivize a dissent within the unlawful regime and begin the democratization process.
It dissolves the illegitimate Constituent Assembly created by Maduro and leaves the democratically elected National Assembly (NA) as the only rightful legislative body. The NA is charged with replacing the National Electoral Council (CNE) and Supreme Court (TSJ), two highly politicized entities wielded as tools of state repression. This agreement does not solely favor anti-Maduro political parties. The CNE and TSJ authorities will be selected by parties and coalitions with at least 25 percent representation in the National Assembly, meaning the ruling socialist party members will have a seat at the table.
The plan proposes the creation of a “Council of State,” requiring both interim President Guaido and Maduro to step down. Both opposing political movements in the country, the anti-Maduro political coalition and the ruling socialist party, would each elect two members to the council, and then the council members would elect a secretary-general to serve as the interim president. Additional criteria would also be applied to ensure representation of the levers of power within the country. This part of the plan creates an incentive for a transition, as the council’s establishment and departure of foreign security services will lead the suspension of U.S. sanctions on the government of Venezuela, the national oil company, and the oil sector.
Weaknesses. Because the agreement is a work in progress, U.S. officials should seek compensate for its shortcomings should transition negotiations begin in earnest. The agreement requires three-quarters of the NA’s vote to maintain foreign security services—presumably China, Cuba, and Russia, who continue providing Maduro with varied levels of financial, intelligence, military, and security assistance. In exchange, the U.S. will lift sanctions on the government and oil sector. Expelling security forces will not be enough. The new Venezuelan government will have to reorient its foreign policy with countries like Cuba, China, and Russia, all of whom are vested in the status quo.
There must also be a clearer articulation of programs put in place to prevent graft and politicization. Fundraising and planning for Venezuela’s reconstruction is happening now, and stakeholders want to know aid and development will reach their intended targets.
COVID-19 in Venezuela
The first confirmed case of COVID-19 was discovered on March 13, and since then, the country has confirmed nearly 200 cases of the virus. The pandemic is sadly only Venezuela’s latest health crisis. Maduro’s corruption and mismanagement destroyed Venezuela’s health care system. There is a chronic shortage of medication and medical supplies and a resurgence of communicable diseases. Venezuela’s COVID-19 testing capacity is extremely limited, its hospitals lack sufficient equipment, and hygiene products for the broad public are largely unavailable. A widespread outbreak would be disastrous.
Yet the U.S. should be leery of policies that would enable a power grab by Maduro.
Some Members of Congress are pressuring the White House to temporarily suspend some sanctions on Venezuela. Suspending sanctions at this moment would be a flawed approach. There is no indication whatsoever Maduro would use humanitarian funds for their intended purpose. Humanitarian assistance is prioritized for regime officials and international allies. Venezuela is still providing Cuba with oil shipments—despite its own domestic shortages.
Humanitarian organizations are not hampered by U.S. sanctions but rather by the on-the-ground limitations imposed on them by the unlawful regime. Journalists who report on the coronavirus have been imprisoned, and an anti-Maduro legislator was also arrested for a social media post about a local hospital lacking running water. They also detained a young medical researcher for sounding the alarm on coronavirus cases and accused her of treason. Licenses for humanitarian organizations have also been scaled back, limiting their humanitarian efforts.
Counter-Narcotics Operation Necessary, But Timing Imperfect
Shortly after the transition proposal was announced, the U.S. also stated it would enhance its counter-narcotics assets in the Caribbean and East-Pacific. While the Administration was seeking a negotiated solution to the Venezuela crisis, it was also sending the largest number of assets to the region in the modern era. These resources notwithstanding, SOUTHCOM has been in dire need of additional capabilities to curtail illicit trafficking.
At a recent congressional hearing, SOUTHCOM commander Admiral Craig Faller stated the U.S. is only able to interdict “nine percent of known drug movements.” This low percentage is directly tied to the lack of assets in theater. Venezuela’s neighbor, Colombia, is the world’s largest producer of cocaine, and Venezuela has emerged as a major drug transit zone.
Yet according to a recent report from the Congressional Research Service, “There are no exact data on the total quantity of foreign-produced illicit drugs flowing into the United States.” U.S. authorities are only able to quantify the amount of drugs detected and seized at points of entry—but they do not know how much they are not stopping, meaning better interdiction tools from the points of origin are needed.
It makes sense to address SOUTHCOM’s assets shortfall while simultaneously addressing ramping-up efforts to address historic cocaine production in Colombia and opioid production in Mexico, both of which are ongoing initiatives. It is also a positive step that the Colombian government is taking a leading role in this effort alongside over 20 other countries. U.S.–Colombian cooperation on counter-narcotics is extensive and decades long. Its navy is a powerhouse, with South America’s longest Pacific and Atlantic coastlines.
What the U.S. Should Do
Looking at these recent policy developments, there is potential for real forward momentum on Venezuela—if the risks are safely mitigated. To do so, the U.S. should:
- Use the “Democratic Transition Framework for Venezuela” as the guide for transition government negotiations.
- Provide COVID-19 aid through credible nongovernment organizations, faith-based organizations, civil society groups, and the interim government. These organizations can provide lifesaving assistance to vulnerable Venezuelans.
- Maintain sanctions that exclude humanitarian and medicinal items.
- Urge regional partners to not deliver aid directly to Maduro’s unlawful regime. Our international partners cannot allow Maduro to weaponize aid against the Venezuelan people and politicize medicine to advance his political objectives.
- Mitigate Venezuela’s COVID-19 crisis on regional partners. Despite stay-in-place orders in regional countries, humans are still moving around. The U.S. should work with regional partners like Colombia, which is hosting nearly 2 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants to prevent a widespread outbreak of the pandemic.
- Prepare a concerted international response if Guaido is hurt or arrested. With many of the countries that recognize Guaido under siege by COVID-19, Maduro could move against Guaido. The U.S. and international partners should be prepared for this scenario.
- Encourage multilaterals and financial institutions with U.S. government participation assistance via non-regime-affiliated entities to provide COVID-19 assistance. These should include institutions like the Pan American Health Organization and the Inter-American Development Bank. Recipient criteria should mirror those of the U.S. government.
- Withhold a military response unless vital national security interests are directly threatened. While there is a growing sense of frustration at the slow progress of a transition, current conditions in Venezuela do not rise to the level of a U.S. military intervention to remove Maduro.
- Support a transition in Venezuela that acknowledges the governments in Beijing, Havana, and Moscow as adversarial to their democratic aspirations. It would be difficult for Venezuela to decouple from any or all three countries, but the U.S. should insist on working with the current interim government to develop a framework for managing relationships with these countries.
The Trump Administration should be commended for its commitment to Venezuela’s democratic aspirations. No other country has dedicated as many resources to this effort. It would be naïve to assume Nicolás Maduro would wittingly play a productive role absent external influence. Washington is wise to wield leverage to incentivize change. It would also be prudent for U.S. and regional partners to apply those same principles with COVID-19 assistance. Maduro cannot be allowed to politicize foreign assistance for his criminal benefit.
Ana Quintana is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America and the Western Hemisphere in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.