Maduro is flouting his commitment to hold free elections in Venezuela. The US must respond – carefully

An April deadline for a decision to ‘snap back’ US and EU sanctions is approaching. The Biden administration must reimpose some measures – but in careful, calibrated fashion.

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On 18 April a deadline looms for the US, the EU, and especially Venezuela. On that day, the US must decide whether to ‘snap back’ economic sanctions that it loosened on 18 October 2023. At the same time, the EU will decide whether to continue personal sanctions on Venezuelan government officials.

The future of international sanctions on Venezuela ultimately rests with the government of President Nicolás Maduro. At a summit in Barbados on 17 October 2023, it committed to ensure competitive and inclusive elections in 2024 in return for relief from some US sanctions. As the country heads to the 28 July elections, things don’t look promising.

The threat of reimposing or extending sanctions was intended to encourage, even force, the Maduro government to hew to its commitments. But since October the Maduro government has arrested leaders of the opposition, summarily banned the leading opposition candidate from running, and established a complicated electoral timetable tilted in favour of the incumbent. 

Most recently, the government arrested two leaders of opposition leader Maria Corina Machado’s campaign team, Dignora Hernández and Henry Alviarez, and issued arrest warrants for seven other members of her group, all on unsubstantiated charges of conspiracy. This after a previous wave of arrests seized other leaders of Machado’s network including Emill Brandt Ulloa

It’s arguable whether this recent wave of repression has violated the letter of the Barbados deal. But they undeniably violate its spirit.

The US dilemma

This puts the US into a bind. For almost five years, the Trump administration’s maximum pressure strategy failed to either spark the collapse of the Maduro government or force improvements in human rights. 

The hope was that the threat of losing a renewed revenue stream, international recognition, and freedom of travel for sanctioned officials would incentivize a reduction of state repression in Venezuela.

President Biden loosened US sanctions via the Barbados agreement, allowing limited investment in Venezuela’s all-important gas and oil sector. This was intended give the international community some leverage. So too was the EU’s decision to align the renewal of its personal sanctions with the 18 April US sanctions review date. 

The hope was that the threat of losing a renewed revenue stream, international recognition, and freedom of travel for sanctioned officials would incentivize a reduction of state repression in Venezuela and maybe even a credibly free and fair presidential election in 2024.  

In response, several companies rushed to invest in Venezuela, including Shell, Repsol and Maurel et Prom. Oil production and exports increased, as did government revenue, with oil profits expected to jump from $12 billion to $20 billion in 2023 alone.

Sanctions’ relief definitely helped move the country toward fixing a date for the 2024 presidential election. But it didn’t produce much change in the Maduro government’s modus operandi.

Pushing the boundaries of the Barbados agreement

Since October, the Maduro government has shown little compunction – or even remorse – in cracking down against critics and violating human rights. Activist Rocio San Miguel was detained in mid-February and her whereabouts are still unknown. (Rocio participated in a private Chatham House workshop on Venezuela in September 2023.)

In early March the Maduro government’s electoral council finally announced the timetable for the 2024 elections. But the compressed timeline allows only four days (21-25 March) for aspiring presidential candidates to register, or for the electoral council to register new or displaced voters, of which there are an estimated 5 million in Venezuela alone. 

Meanwhile the 28 July election date leaves little time for international election observation teams from the EU and Carter Center to arrive and prepare to monitor pre-electoral conditions and election-day procedures and results. 

The Maduro government also committed to create a judicial process to re-evaluate the disqualification of three opposition candidates. 

In January, the Maduro-packed Supreme Court handed down a perfunctory decision to maintain the prohibition on Machado’s occupying public office, citing un-substantiated claims of corruption. 

It was, in a generous interpretation, minimal compliance with the Barbados agreement, which only established the need for a judicial process, not that Machado must be reinstated. 

But the Supreme Court’s decision, without a hearing or even presentation of evidence, smacked of a kangaroo court.

Other promises over freedom of expression, association and an electoral timetable have been similarly eviscerated. 

Taken in isolation, the detention of Machado’s team members and reported harassment of citizens attending opposition rallies do not individually violate the standards established by Barbados. But in the aggregate they constitute a violation of the Maduro’s government’s commitments. 

Sanctions: Now What?

So, what should be done on 18 April? At stake is not just Venezuelans’ hopes for freedom and political and civil rights, but the international understanding and careful application of sanctions.

There needs to be some cost – economic and political – to the Maduro government for its cynical disregard for its international commitments.

It is difficult to argue that reinstating some sanctions is not merited. The Barbados agreement has been an experiment in foreign policy, following the failure of Trump’s maximum pressure approach. The Maduro government has responded by cynically manipulating this international push for a new role for sanctions – and playing on global hunger for its oil and gas reserves.

Unfortunately, energy and financial interests have spent more time lobbying the US not to reimpose sanctions than in lobbying the Venezuelan government to meet its obligations under the Barbados Agreement. 

There needs to be some cost – economic and political – to the Maduro government for its cynical disregard for its international commitments. Venezuelan citizens who have suffered under decades of a failed economic policy and a US-imposed sanctions regime should be exempt from that cost. Nor should any ‘snap-back’ of sanctions rock nervous global energy markets.

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The cost should focus on restricting future investment in Venezuela’s energy sector. It could look to limit the amount of revenue that the Maduro government receives from oil and gas exploration and production by limiting it to debt buy-back rather than revenue sharing with the government. It could also freeze future investment and joint ventures in any Venezuela-state-based initiatives.  

Full-on rejection of Biden’s carrots and sticks approach risks a full-on crackdown by the Maduro government against Venezuelan civil and political society. 

US and EU personal sanctions should remain in place. Venezuelan public officials have shown a shocking disregard for the norms of the international community and its laws. Rehabilitation and recognition should only come with compliance. 

Full, complete ‘snap back’ should be approached with caution. The Maduro government has embraced other rogue regimes – Russia, Iran, and Cuba – in its resistance to US pressure. But it has also expressed a desire for international legitimacy. 

Full-on rejection of Biden’s carrots and sticks approach risks a full-on crackdown by the Maduro government against Venezuelan civil and political society. That would spell disaster. 

Of course, fear of an overreaction by a government should never guide the international community’s policy calculations. But in this case the cost and opportunities to Venezuelan citizens, who desperately hope for change, has to be considered alongside the credibility of Western sanctions policy. 

Measured, but punitive reactions on 18 April seem to be in order, unless the Maduro government changes course. That, though, appears unlikely.