Hopes for a return to democracy in Venezuela are fading as authoritarian President Nicolás Maduro gains more regional recognition, frustrating US and EU efforts to pressure him to negotiate free and fair elections for next year.
After years of isolation following his disputed 2018 election victory, an increasingly triumphant Maduro found himself in the diplomatic spotlight last week at a South American summit hosted by Brazil’s leftist president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Maduro told his fellow presidents that his country had survived a US attack under former President Donald Trump that was “more brutal than the (Russian) attack on Ukraine”. He cited “900 sanctions and measures against the entire economy” in addition to assassination attempts, threats of military invasion and international isolation.
“And here we are, in defiance and looking to the future,” he concluded, after boasting that his revolutionary socialist party had won 27 of 29 presidential, parliamentary and local elections during its 24 uninterrupted years in government.
Standing next to Maduro, Lula offered him an uncritical endorsement and spoke of “a story that has been set up against Venezuela”, adding: “I think Venezuela needs to show its own story so it can really make people change their minds change.”
Thomas Shannon, a former top US State Department diplomat who is now an adviser to the Washington law firm Arnold & Porter, said Lula had “really undermined the Biden administration’s approach — which could have had some success — by making Maduro convince him not to. “I don’t have to give the opposition anything.”
Maduro is facing an investigation by the International Criminal Court into possible crimes against humanity and has a US $15 million bounty on his head for narco-terrorism charges. However, he also arranged bilateral meetings in Brasília with the leftist leaders of Argentina and Colombia, as well as with Lula.
None of them publicly criticized the political repression and economic mismanagement in Venezuela that led to the exodus of 7 million refugees. Only Chile’s leftist leader and Uruguay’s conservative president expressed concern over human rights abuses in Venezuela, Maduro was quick to note.
A Brazilian diplomat said that Lula had privately raised the Venezuelan election issue with Maduro. “The most important thing was getting these presidents together,” he said. “For years we had a situation where some refused to be in the same room as others.”
The Biden administration last year moved away from a failed Trump-era strategy of “maximum pressure” sanctions designed to force regime change in Caracas. In November, it enabled Chevron to restart limited oil exports from the country, a move designed to push Maduro to reopen talks with the opposition.
The US concession followed a tentative agreement between Maduro’s government and the opposition during Norway-brokered talks that $3 billion in frozen Venezuelan funds should be spent on humanitarian projects in the west.
But six months later, the funds have yet to be released, talks have not resumed, and time is running out for negotiations that could improve the chances of a free presidential election next year.
No date has been set for the vote, but with the opposition confused Maduro has hinted he could bring the vote forward.
“Maduro feels no pressure to sit with the opposition and negotiate terms for the election,” said Ryan Berg, director of the Americas program at the CSIS think tank in Washington. “Even less now that the region is uniting around him.”
Maduro survived the years of Western exile by turning to China, Russia, Turkey and Iran and dodging sanctions by sending shipments of oil to East Asia through intermediaries. US officials say his administration has increased state coffers by encouraging illegal gold mining in the Amazon rainforest and cutting back on drug traffickers.
Venezuela has taken a free-market turn in recent years, allowing greater use of the US dollar and dismantling some state controls. The IMF said Venezuela’s gross domestic product grew 8 percent last year and will grow another 5 percent this year, albeit from a very low base.
The EU had hoped to exploit Maduro’s desire for more legitimacy by dangling the prospect of an EU election observation mission for next year’s elections. But diplomats in Brussels admit they cannot move forward if Caracas makes even minimal political concessions.
“The opportunity may close soon,” said a senior EU diplomat. “It’s a matter of months.”
The difficulty for the US and the EU is that, after the collapse of Trump-era sanctions and Western attempts to recognize an alternative government led by former Congress President Juan Guaidó, they are left with few options.
“Getting engaged to Maduro is important as he has no intention of going anywhere,” said Tamara Taraciuk Broner, a Venezuelan expert at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. “But that engagement cannot be free, it must generate incentives for the Venezuelan authorities to move forward in a democratic process.”
“The last thing the Venezuelan people need is for Maduro to gain notoriety,” she added. “Maduro has his own story about what is happening and Lula. . . gave that story more resonance.”
Additional reporting by Michael Pooler in São Paulo