A Peaceful Democratic Transition in Venezuela

In Hard Choices: Memos to the President, CSIS scholars analyze the opportunities and decisions the next administration will face.

This commentary addresses a hypothetical scenario regarding Venezuela’s elections to be held on December 6, 2020.

FROM: The National Security Adviser
SUBJ: A Peaceful Democratic Transition in Venezuela
DATE: January 23, 2021

Two years ago, the United States recognized National Assembly president Juan Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela. Now, in the wake of yet another unfree election hosted by the Maduro regime, your administration will need to reevaluate U.S. strategy thus far and chart a path forward for a peaceful democratic transition.

The Issue

On December 6, 2020, the Maduro regime in Venezuela hosted and won unfree elections for the National Assembly, which had been the only remaining democratically elected institution in the country. Ahead of the election, the regime-controlled Supreme Tribunal of Justice appointed regime loyalists to the National Electoral Council, which oversees the country’s elections. The regime also took over three main opposition parties and denied opposition leaders their right to run for office. The election was widely criticized by the international community because it did not meet internationally recognized standards for transparent, free, and fair elections.

Based on those unfair conditions, the opposition chose not to participate. Predictably, the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (i.e., Maduro’s party) now claims control of the National Assembly that will be in place until 2025.

This complicates the legal standing of interim president Juan Guaidó, whose constitutional legitimacy derived from his position as president of the 2015-2020 National Assembly. That assembly, which the United States had previously recognized, seems to have lost its mandate on January 5, 2021. Now, many of our allies lack clarity on the legal argument to support Guaidó and his interim government. Some are expected to increase their engagement with Maduro’s delegations, handicapping the interim government’s ability to capitalize on international support and safeguard Venezuela’s external assets.

The Opportunity

The end of mandate of the sitting National Assembly represents a critical juncture in the Venezuelan opposition’s long struggle for democracy. It also coincides with the beginning of a new presidential term in the United States, and with the two-year anniversary of the United States’ recognition of interim president Guaidó and the maximum pressure campaign against the Maduro regime. Your administration must now take stock of which aspects of our Venezuela strategy have worked, and which have not. As you reevaluate the strategy thus far, your options include:

  1. Continue to lead a maximum pressure campaign—including sanctions—against the Maduro regime;

  2. Maintain some pressure while pursuing multilateral efforts; or

  3. Shift away from the pressure campaign and explore alternative peaceful solutions.

The Decision

The European Union attempted to negotiate with the regime to postpone the December 6 elections. The United States, by contrast, denounced the elections from the beginning, maintaining that there is no hope for free, fair, or transparent elections of any kind so long as the regime controls the country’s electoral institutions and manipulates the electoral playing field. The U.S.-EU discord is indicative of a broader rift in the international community’s strategy toward Venezuela, whereby the United States has been more confrontational with the regime.

Whatever you decide, you should continue to insist that until there are free, fair, and transparent elections, the 2015-2020 National Assembly remains the only legitimate, democratic institution in Venezuela. After that, your options diverge.

a. A strategy of continued unilateral pressure would entail:
  1. Reaffirming U.S. support for the interim government led by Juan Guaidó;

  2. Sanctioning any companies that engage in crude-for-diesel swaps with Venezuela past the deadlines set by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC);

  3. Seizing additional Iranian fuel shipments bound for Venezuela;

  4. Deploying additional resources for the U.S. Southern Command anti-narcotics mission in the Caribbean;

  5. Implementing a no-fly zone and a naval blockade to impede trade and military activity;

  6. Providing equipment and personnel to help neighboring countries, including Colombia and Brazil, secure their borders with Venezuela to crack down on illegal mining; and

  7. Increasing humanitarian aid inside Venezuela and in states hosting Venezuelan migrants.
b. You may wish to draw closer to the European Union, opting for a broader multilateral approach focused on negotiating with the regime. Aligning the United States more closely with allies is likely to have the effect of increasing pressure on the Maduro government, even if U.S. penalties diminish. It might also provide a broader basis for the success of a day-after government. If you choose this route, your options would include:
  1. Reaffirming U.S. support for the interim government and urging European allies to continue recognizing the 2015-2020 National Assembly as the only legitimate institution in the country;

  2. Engaging with the European Union to apply diplomatic pressure on Maduro’s supporters, including Turkey—one of the Maduro regime’s key allies;

  3. Cooperating with the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Lima Group to seek diplomatic solutions to the crisis;

  4. Reinstituting exemptions for oil-for-diesel swaps; and

  5. Drawing from the State Department’s Democratic Transition Framework, validating the possibility of trading sanctions relief for regime defections as another means to push for legitimate negotiations.
c. You might also decide to scale back support for the interim government, which, after January 5, 2021, has had a complicated legal standing. While this would extricate the United States from increasingly messy opposition politics, this option would be fraught with uncertainties and undo years of progress and diplomacy by the interim government, which more than 50 countries have recognized. However, if you choose to pursue this route, your administration could start with the following options:
  1. Insisting that, until there are free, fair, and transparent elections, the United States will continue to recognize the 2015-2020 National Assembly as the only legitimate democratic institution in the country;

  2. Establishing stronger ties with Venezuelan civil society and other opposition leaders who are not completely aligned with Guaidó’s coalition, such as former president candidate Henrique Capriles; and

  3. Engaging Venezuela’s government officials and Chavista dissidents to find common grounds for a peaceful resolution, including Maduro’s exit.

The Venezuelan crisis has serious security, economic, and humanitarian implications for the Western Hemisphere. Under your administration, the United States can chart a path forward for a peaceful democratic transition. Which path would you like to pursue?

___ Continued unilateral pressure

___ Increased multilateralism

___ Scaling back support

Daniel F. Runde is senior vice president, director of the Project on Prosperity and Development, and holds the William A. Schreyer Chair in Global Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Daniel F. Runde
Senior Vice President; William A. Schreyer Chair; Director, Project on Prosperity and Development