President Biden deserves applause for his first moves on Venezuela. Biden not only is disproving former President Trump’s ridiculous claims that he’s a “Socialist” who would befriend Venezuela’s dictatorship, the president also is exploring more-effective ways to press for democratic changes in that country.
First, Biden rightly refers to Venezuelan ruler Nicolas Maduro as “a dictator.” And the Biden administration seems to be in no rush to relax U.S. sanctions against top Venezuelan officials that were begun by President Obama in 2014, then expanded during the Trump administration.
“We know at the root of much of the misery and the suffering of the people of Venezuela stands one individual, and we have been very clear that Nicolas Maduro is a dictator,” a State Department spokesman said at a March 8 briefing to reporters.
Second, the Biden administration continues to recognize Juan Guaidó, the democratically elected president of the 2015 National Assembly, as Venezuela’s interim president.
U.S. Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken had a 45-minute phone call with Guaidó on March 2, which was originally scheduled to last 10 minutes, people close to the conversation told me. The two vowed to “increase multilateral pressure and press for a peaceful, democratic transition,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said after the call.
Third, the Biden administration announced on March 8 that it will grant Temporary Protected Status and work permits for up to 320,000 Venezuelan exiles in the United States, something that Trump had failed to do during his four years in office.
Trump had deported some Venezuelans, and on his last full day in office ordered to protect Venezuelans from immediate deportations, but left them in a legal limbo.
“This shows President Biden’s solidarity with us, and we are grateful for that,” Carlos Vecchio, Guaidó’s ambassador to the United States, told me this week. “It will help the Venezuelan diaspora in the United States have more political power to seek political changes in Venezuela.”
Biden administration officials say they are not ruling out easing some sanctions on Venezuela if the Maduro dictatorship were to take steps holding free elections, but that there are no signs of that happening yet.
In the meantime, they are exploring ideas to widen multilateral pressures on Maduro to allow a transition to democracy.
One of the proposals being discussed in Washington D.C.’s diplomatic circles is creation of a new international coalition, which some call a G8 — Group of 8 — for Venezuela. The coalition would include eight major democracies — the United States, Canada, Brazil, Colombia, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.
Vecchio, who supports such a coalition, told me, “This is a group of democracies that could use their economic, political and diplomatic power, as well as sanctions, to force a political change” in Venezuela.
“Only a high-level coalition like this one would have the clout to also exert diplomatic, political and economic pressures on Maduro’s allies such as China, Russia,and Cuba,” Vecchio said.
There are already several multilateral coalitions aimed at restoring democracy in Venezuela, but they have been fragmented, failing to extract democratic reforms from the Maduro regime. Unlike the proposed G8, none of the major coalitions include the United States, and most have failed to impose strong sanctions on Venezuela.
Latin America’s so-called Group of Lima has lost much of its clout in recent years after the election of left-of-center populist leaders in Mexico and Argentina. The European-led International Contact Group on Venezuela has tried a less-confrontational approach with Maduro, but without much success.
The proposed G8 coalition would be the first to be led by the United States and, therefore, would have much more clout than the other members, coalition supporters say. A U.S.-led multinational diplomatic coalition would have been unthinkable under Trump. He insulted European leaders and alienated key U.S. allies.
Biden is quietly doing the right things on Venezuela. He should take advantage of his higher standing in the international arena to move the G8 idea — or a variation — forward. Otherwise, Venezuela’s humanitarian disaster will keep getting worse, and millions more Venezuelans will flee abroad.
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