This Could Be the Last Shot to Restore Democracy in Venezuela

The United States Should Return to a Policy of Democracy Promotion

This has been a tough year for Venezuelans, as the Maduro regime has escalated repression and fear while the country prepares to host presidential elections. Only three months have passed in 2024, and yet the regime has taken a number of repressive actions against the opposition, including a marked increase in arbitrary detentions and forced disappearances of civil society and NGO leaders, such as Rocío San Miguel; the expulsion of the members of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Venezuela; and the murder of a former Venezuelan military official in Chile, Ronald Ojeda, at the hands of the Venezuelan crime group loyal to the regime: Tren de Aragua.

Following the dictator’s playbook, Maduro has pursued these actions to create hopelessness and generate political apathy, contributing to an environment where migration is the only option. This has resulted in the continued increase of one of the largest displacement crises, with almost 8 million Venezuelan migrants—almost 10 percent of whom have come to the United States—scattered across the world. Maduro also aims to distract citizens from the electoral route, motivating them to abstain and create deeper political divides and polarization across society.

However, the opposition’s unitary candidate, María Corina Machado, has done everything in her power to keep Venezuelans focused on restoring democracy through free and fair presidential elections. She participated in a primary election, which she overwhelmingly won with 93 percent of the votes; she filed a court appeal to overturn an arbitrary ban on her holding public office; she named the unblemished Corina Yoris her successor for her presidential run when it became clear the regime would not permit her to face Maduro; and she has maintained exemplary unity across the notoriously fractured opposition to keep working toward the electoral strategy. Indeed, the most notable development is that all of the usual criticisms of opposition strategy seemed to not apply this election cycle. Instead, Machado has catalyzed an outpouring of support for change, preventing opposition fragmentation. Fluent in English, Machado also built key constituencies in Washington, forging trust with U.S. policymakers and explaining her governance plans if elected.

Machado has proven to be a tireless advocate and disciplined campaigner, fighting through regime roadblocks and repression and abduction of campaign staff to travel the country with her hopeful message. This has not been a normal campaign, as key members of her team (Magalli Meda, Claudia Macero, Pedro Urruchurtu, Omar González and Humberto Villalobos) have been politically persecuted by the regime and are in hiding, while others (such as Henry Alviarez, Dignorah Hernandez, Juan Freites, Guillermo Lopez, Luis Camacaro, Joe Villamizar, and Emill Brandt) have been forcefully disappeared by the regime. Maduro has even labeled Vente Venezuela, Machado’s party, a terrorist group. The life of Machado is in danger; even the former president of Colombia, Ivan Duque, alerted the international community of the risk that Venezuela’s Bolivarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN) would also make an attempt on her life.

As the deadline to register candidates in Venezuela’s presidential election neared, many feared the eventual outcome—Maduro shutting out the main opposition platform, consisting of nine parties supporting the dominant primary victor as well as her substitute Corina Yoris, barreling toward another rigged election with only ersatz opposition candidates permitted to compete. As the clock approached midnight, the Maduro-controlled National Electoral Council (CNE) continued to register candidates—just not Machado or Corina Yoris. With 20 minutes remaining, the CNE announced it had accepted another candidate. There had been a defection within the opposition’s Unitary Platform; one of the parties, Un Nuevo Tiempo, had split to register its leader, Manuel Rosales, the current governor of Zulia state, seen as an accommodationist and erstwhile opposition figure. To many Venezuelans, the midnight machinations seemed a cruel microcosm of their political fate under 25 years of Chavismo.

Many speculated that Rosales’ inscription was the Maduro regime’s plan all along. By rigging the electoral system and maintaining control over the CNE, Maduro was able to hew to Chavismo’s defining feature of the past two decades—not only does the regime get to win every election, but it also selects who loses to them, too. In the end, a candidate nominally considered “opposition,” who chose to sit out the opposition’s October 2023 primaries, managed to register his candidacy, while neither the overwhelming victor of that primary process nor her chosen substitute were permitted to register. But a candidate chosen by Maduro will never be a candidate of the people. The bottom line is that Machado has stayed on the electoral course, has not called for abstention, and continues to denounce the lack of electoral conditions, including the struggles of the massive diaspora to register to vote.

A Firm U.S. Response—Hasta el final

Machado is doing everything she can to overcome the herculean obstacles that the regime has set forth to impede her presidential run and restore democracy in Venezuela. Her efforts have continued even after the regime-controlled Supreme Electoral Tribunal reaffirmed her arbitrary ban on holding public office. Sadly, the Biden administration’s support has not been commensurate with Maduro’s challenge. U.S. policy toward Venezuela has been characterized by giving Maduro his greatest wish list: the return of regime financier Alex Saab, the freedom of First Lady Cilia Flores’ “narco nephews,” and the lifting of oil and gold sanctions, among others.

U.S. policy will lose what little credibility it has remaining without firmly committing to sanctions snapback on April 18, its self-imposed deadline to review relief offered last October through the Barbados agreement. Electoral irregularities abound, repression is arguably at an all-time high, and the threadbare Barbados agreement barely manages to stand as mere letter. At a minimum, the United States should revoke General License No. 44, which permits oil companies to operate in Venezuela, on April 18 to show Maduro there are consequences to his thieving yet another election. As one leading analyst’s headline blared in the wake of the regime’s actions: “Venezuela Stops Pretending. The World Should, Too.”

Even though it is abundantly clear who will win Venezuela’s presidential election in July—the United States should not formulate strategy around the infinitesimal likelihood of a black swan event—the U.S. strategic objective at this point should be to provoke a governing crisis within the Maduro regime. The Biden administration and the Venezuelan opposition can do this by making it as difficult as possible for Maduro to steal the election. To state the obvious, Maduro is highly unpopular, and the dissident Chavista voices and moderates within Venezuela who see possibility in Machado’s candidacy are unhappier than ever. Cracks may yet emerge in the dissident military leadership as well. Venezuela’s arcane electoral rules permit candidate substitutions until April 20, raising the possibility, however small, that the Unitary Platform could seek a substitution capable of challenging Maduro effectively.

To be sure, if any of the 13 candidates currently registered for president receive the vote count to replace Maduro, either on their own or as a result of Machado’s endorsement, the regime will promptly alter the numbers. Nevertheless, if the theft becomes transparent and brazen enough, it could torpedo Maduro’s hold on Chavismo and engender a scenario where regime elites worry about their future under another six years of his leadership—especially as the International Criminal Court case for “crimes against humanity” continues against him and other regime heavyweights. Does the United States really want Maduro to continue fomenting chaos in the Western Hemisphere for the next six years?

But the truth is that the Barbados agreement occurred in conjunction with the Biden administration’s shift to a more accommodationist approach toward Maduro. The goal of U.S. policy toward Venezuela is as much about securing for global markets a modicum of crude oil from Venezuela (currently 750,000 barrels per day) and curtailing emigration from Maduro’s authoritarian regime as it is about providing a framework for freer and fairer presidential elections. The Biden administration aimed to stymie the flow of migrants by stabilizing Maduro’s regime economically through sanctions relief estimated to be worth between six and ten billion dollars over the six-month window. But sanctions are not tantamount to a migration switch. To believe they are the key drivers of migration is to fundamentally misunderstand Maduro’s “enchufado economy,” which works for the plugged in and well connected but fails to trickle down to the middle and lower classes. And as Machado herself has warned, major moments like a rigged election can serve as a precipitating event for a torrent of Venezuelan migration, even with a more sanguine economic outlook.

Yet, serious questions remain about the future of U.S. sanctions policy against implacable foes such as Maduro. Neither “maximum pressure” nor sanctions relief and a belief in the Biden administration’s ability to negotiate fruitfully with Maduro managed to induce the desired political change in Caracas. From this premise, some will posit that sanctions should remain lifted, since they do more harm than good. However, as CSIS senior associate Evan Ellis argues convincingly, in a world where neither approach can induce political change, at least in the short term, the best approach is likely to shift to a strategy of containment against the regime. Ellis writes: “As with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, when regime change is unrealistic and military action undesirable, the next best option is containment, to limit the damage Venezuela can do as a hotbed of criminality, a promoter of populist authoritarianism, and a host of extra-hemispheric threats.”

Containment requires, among other tools, robust sanctions pressure and a strategic approach. Applied effectively and enforced vigorously, a containment campaign could keep Maduro—albeit still in power—boxed in. The U.S. goal should be to make Maduro less able to husband resources into his regime’s repressive apparatus, less capable of harassing and threatening invasion on neighbors like Guyana, and less willing to leverage his criminal network to commit extraterritorial assassinations. Of course, the long-term focus should remain firmly centered on a policy of democracy promotion and political change even if the United States acknowledges such a goal is not feasible in the short and medium term. While less than fully satisfying, such a scenario would represent a significant improvement from the current panorama, where Maduro is clearly emboldened, and a Venezuela careening toward Ortega-style regime consolidation negatively impacts the trajectory of the entire Western Hemisphere—not just now, but through the rest of the decade.

U.S. policymakers have responded with various permutations of “alarm,” “concern,” “deep concern,” and “condemnation,” for Maduro’s actions. As Venezuela’s future enters a critical phase, the time to turn these words into action is now—starting with the critical decision regarding sanctions snapback on April 18. The time has come for the Biden administration to support Machado and trusted members of the Unitary Platform by returning to a policy aimed at political change as opposed to accommodation and election-year political exigencies. After all, the efforts of Machado and the Unitary Platform may be the country’s last shot to restore democracy.

Ryan C. Berg is director of the Americas Program and head of the Future of Venezuela Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Alexandra Winkler is a non-resident senior associate with the Americas Program at CSIS.