On October 31, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken testified before Congress. It was a rare appearance, so I took the opportunity to ask him why the Biden Administration has lifted sanctions on Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela when we all know the narco-dictator has no intention of relinquishing power.
Secretary Blinken’s response was typical. The United States lifted sanctions, he said, to reward Maduro for agreeing to “a way forward toward free and fair elections,” and it will reimpose those sanctions if that agreement is violated. The problem is that the agreement had already been violated. Just one day prior to Blinken’s testimony, Maduro’s kangaroo supreme court, which he stuffed with his political allies in 2015, declared the opposition’s primary election null and void.
The fact that the Biden Administration believed things would go otherwise, coupled with its failure to respond to Maduro’s violation, is telling. For one, it shows Democrats’ fanatical belief that preemptive sanctions relief can change the behavior of authoritarian regimes, even though all evidence is to the contrary.
This belief is most notable in the administration’s relationship with Iran, a country whose proxies are now attacking U.S. troops in the Middle East. But it extends far beyond that, to the administration’s relationships with China, Cuba, and––evidently––Venezuela. Congress has set clear conditions for the termination of sanctions on Maduro, but Democrats continue to alleviate them before those conditions are met. It’s backwards, because the effectiveness of sanctions relies on nations believing real actions, not empty promises, are the only way to gain relief.
The Biden Administration’s approach also shows a deep misunderstanding of who narco-dictator Maduro is and what motivates him. Maduro is not a leader whose primary concern is the common good of his people. He is a tyrant and criminal whose primary concern is the preservation of his own lavish lifestyle. He has committed heinous crimes to preserve his illegitimate rule, from extrajudicial killings to forced disappearances to the torture of thousands of Venezuelans. For him, there is no greater threat than a democratic general election in which his victims have the ability to vote him out of office. He will do everything possible to prevent that from happening.
In other words, why should we expect Maduro to preside over truly free and fair elections when his opposition has unified behind a candidate, María Corina Machado, who would surely beat him if allowed to compete in free and fair elections? And why should we expect Maduro to step down from power if the Biden Administration is willing to lift sanctions on him for purely performative behavior?
What makes this whole situation even crazier is the fact that the United States has tried this approach before––and witnessed its failure. Last June, the administration lifted sanctions on Maduro’s nephew, Malpica Flores. Last October, Biden let two other nephews who are convicted drug traffickers return to Venezuela. Last November, the U.S. Treasury Department issued a special license for Chevron to continue joint projects with Maduro’s regime. Each concession was made in response to promises from Maduro that he would take steps towards holding free and fair elections. Every single time, he reneged on his end of the deal.
The Maduro playbook is simple: make commitments the regime has no intention of honoring, receive sanctions relief in exchange for those commitments, and promptly capitalize on the international attention and financial windfall to further solidify––and fund––the status quo. The Biden Administration’s inability to catch on is embarrassing. Rewarding the lies of an abusive tyrant and his drug trafficker allies is bad for Venezuela and bad for America.
I urge Secretary Blinken and the White House to adopt a new approach: stop putting faith in Maduro and recognize that any and all hopes for democracy in Venezuela rest with the opposition. There is room for cautious optimism here, because support for Machado is unified and strong. The United States should support her and her efforts to convince Venezuelans, even junior members of the regime, that they are better off in a country without Maduro.
Conversely, we should stop the stream of concessions––dropping any misguided plans the Biden Administration may have to release Colombian money launderer Alex Saab––because we undermine Machado’s efforts when people believe that Maduro can secure sanctions relief without having to hold elections. The Biden Administration made clear sanctions would be re-imposed if the Maduro narco regime fails to allow Machado to run. Congress will hold this administration accountable for their word.
In short, the time for U.S. naivete toward Venezuela is over. For three years now, our leaders have treated Maduro’s dictatorship like something far less selfish and predictable than it is, and the consequences have been uniformly negative. Let’s try some common sense instead. It’s what the United States needs and the people of Venezuela deserve.