Back To Top

[Eli Lake] Biden should give Maduro reason to worry

One of the defining features of the Trump years has been the collapse of bipartisan consensus on foreign policy. There is at least one notable exception, however: support for a democratic transition in Venezuela.

When Juan Guaido, the leader of Venezuela’s national assembly and the man recognized by the US and more than 60 other nations as the country’s interim president, attended the State of the Union address in Washington this year, he received a standing ovation from Democrats and Republicans. The next day, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi saluted his courage. “We believe the plight of the people of Venezuela is a challenge to the conscience of the world,” she said.

Democratic support for President Donald Trump’s initial 2019 Venezuela policy -- support for Guaido and sanctions against President Nicolas Maduro -- is particularly important now. In December, Venezuela is scheduled to hold a rigged election for the legislature that Guaido now leads. If Joe Biden wins the US election in November, he will have to decide how best to respond to what happens in Venezuela a month later.

Early signs are that he will do the right thing. Biden was the first Democratic presidential candidate in 2019 to support Guaido as interim president, tweeting three weeks after Guaido was recognized by Trump: “It is time for Maduro to step aside and allow a democratic transition.”

Biden has been careful to say he does not support “regime change” for Venezuela, the phrase used to describe the George W. Bush administration’s approach to Iraq. But he has come close to endorsing the concept in substance. As he told the Americas Quarterly in March, Maduro “is a dictator, plain and simple, but the overriding goal in Venezuela must be to press for a democratic outcome through free and fair elections, and to help the Venezuelan people rebuild their country.”

To be clear: The elections in December will not bring Venezuela closer to democracy. They will have the opposite effect of purging Maduro’s opposition from the country’s parliament. That’s because the national assembly is supposed to choose the body to manage elections. The country’s supreme court usurped this power this year and appointed its own electoral commission of cronies. In addition, Venezuela’s top court has also disqualified the leaders of most opposition parties.

Biden has not gotten into much detail on this matter. But Trump’s special representative for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, has. Speaking to reporters last week, he said the supreme court’s recent shenanigans are “yet another demonstration that with Maduro still in power and in a position to manipulate the elections and their outcome, there can be no free and fair election in Venezuela.”

Abrams and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were clear last week that the US does not support any kind of negotiation with Maduro, other than one over the terms by which he would leave power. That stands in contrast to Trump’s musings in June that he may be open to meeting with Maduro, undermining the policy his administration had been building for the past 18 months. For now at least, it appears that negotiations with Maduro are off the table.

So Biden has an opportunity. He would weaken the dictator’s hand simply by saying that, if elected president, he would not recognize the results of the rigged election Maduro has planned for December.

Such a message would be particularly effective for two reasons, one having to do with interpersonal relations and the other with international relations. First, Biden’s rejection of the upcoming elections could confirm Maduro’s already paranoid impression that the former vice president has long sought his demise. Back in 2015, Maduro publicly accused Biden of fomenting regime change in Venezuela after meeting with leaders of Caribbean countries. At the time, Biden’s office said Maduro’s statements were an effort to distract Venezuelan citizens from the worsening political and humanitarian crisis in their country. Five years later, Biden could cause Maduro to doubt himself all over again.

Second, and more important, a statement about the elections would strengthen the resolve of Venezuela’s neighbors that have supported Guaido’s elevation and Maduro’s ouster. For Latin American countries that have followed Trump’s lead, a faux election in December would be an attractive excuse to improve relations with Maduro’s regime. Biden should make it clear now that if he wins, they will be expected to stay the course that Trump set in 2019.

Eli Lake
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. -- Ed.