Maduro’s Grip on Power is Tightening, and the U.S. Is Running Out of Options
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As doubts grow over whether the upcoming Venezuelan presidential election will be free and fair — or even happen at all — some politicians, analysts and activists have been calling this the “point of no return” for Venezuelan democracy. After American and Venezuelan negotiators in Barbados signed a deal to remove U.S. sanctions on fossil fuels and gold mining sectors in exchange for democratic guarantees, the Maduro government quickly began cracking down even harder on the opposition. Maduro has since jailed a number of critics and banned all plausible challengers from running against him, including frontrunner María Corina Machado. Machado’s top staffers have been jailed on mocked-up charges. Political prisoners in Venezuela are routinely subject to torture and abuse.

It seems lifting sanctions on key sectors did little to incentivize Maduro into moderating his authoritarianism. The logical outcome, then, would be to completely isolate Maduro, or even depose him by force, an approach that has been staunchly supported by hawks from across the aisle including Republican Marco Rubio and now-indicted Democrat Bob Menendez, who have been pushing for the U.S. to intervene in Venezuela since Maduro’s highly controversial election win in 2013. Figures in the Venezuelan opposition, including Juan Guiadó (who was Interim President from 2019 to early 2023), hawkish American commentators, and a number of prominent Venezuelan exiles have also made American intervention their mantle.

Yet, this approach has been tried since Chávez’s last years in office, with little success in provoking liberalization. There is no clear pathway towards liberalizing Venezuela, but with all paths of aggression apparently blocked, it seems diplomatic, dialogue-centered negotiations, leveraging the influence of regional actors like Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia, will be the U.S.’s greatest tool for valuable concessions moving forward. 

As a result of Maduro’s refusal to uphold his end of the bargain in the Barbados deal, the Biden administration has decided to put the sanctions back on and further isolate Maduro from the international arena. This move is meant to deter the tyrant from meddling in the election results. Whether Maduro (or the National Electoral Council) only allows for a sham election or overturns results if the opposition wins, the fear is that he would further consolidate his power, invalidate political opposition, and drive Venezuela closer to becoming a fully authoritarian state. 

Isolating Maduro from international relations has only driven him to form new, undesirable partnerships. Currently, the Maduro government has been kicked out of U.S.-led institutions in the region, including the Organization of American States and Mercosur, pushing him to join alternative multilateral groups like the Union of South American Nations and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America. Maduro has also been boosting relations with Iran, Russia, Cuba, Nicaragua, and other sanctioned states.

Despite sanctions, Maduro has also been able to restore Venezuela’s economy to somewhat stable growth, reaching 4 percent GDP growth in 2023, the highest in South America. This growth is, in part, due to Maduro’s economic rapprochement with other outcast states and China (and the previous extreme shrinking of Venezuela’s economy). Maduro has also created a powerful illicit economy, with significant state revenues incurred from deals with illegal armed groups such as the ELN and the FARC creating a client state for guerrilla groups and rogue states. 

With these mechanisms, Maduro has created an alternative economy, diplomatic channels, and security guarantees independent of the U.S. and its allies. Complete isolation would make Maduro seem weaker, possibly leading to attempts to depose him. Having powerful friends with interests in regime continuity protects the Maduro regime from popular uprisings. So far, none of the states allied with Maduro have explicitly stated that they would come to Maduro’s defence if there were a coup attempt, but the U.S. might not want to risk violent conflict by calling their bluff.

Maduro’s play for increased influence within the anti-U.S. resistance movement — which is populated with extremely authoritarian and regressive groups and states — has thus diminished the power of U.S. sanctions. If access to U.S. markets is of diminished interest to the Maduro government, then sanctions preventing Venezuela from accessing those markets will have little effect.

Even if it wished to pursue this policy, the U.S. is missing several critical elements to stage a successful coup in Venezuela. The number of armed and passionate opposition to Maduro may not be sufficient to support an insurgency or coup. Many of the richest and most passionate opponents to Maduro have left the country, dissuaded from resisting domestically by Maduro’s repeated political repression campaigns and his small army of armed loyalists, called the Peace Defenders Squads (Cuadrillas Defensoras de la Paz). His loyalists represent about 20 percent (though some polls have Maduro at above 50 percent) of the electorate, much higher if exiles are not counted. An intervention would be met with significant resistance. 

For the U.S., an intervention would also be quite costly. If successful, the intervention would create an enormous power vacuum filled by guerrilla groups and gangsters who would take advantage of economic and security disruption to exploit the local population and enrich themselves. This could in turn create a pretext for the U.S. to be forced to occupy Venezuela  until the security situation is corrected, potentially costing the U.S. taxpayer trillions of dollars and weakening U.S. standing and power. Public and international pressure on the U.S. as a result of the intervention may also push Washington to pursue increasingly incoherent or rushed decisions in an occupied Venezuela.

Regardless of its success or failure, a U.S.-backed coup would hinder the nation’s reputation — in a region already antagonistic to America — which would only serve to bolster China’s growing influence there. The intervention would also push Latin American countries to take a side on the coup, creating a further rift between pro-U.S. and anti-U.S. states and decreasing the contract space for diplomacy and partnership. It is currently unclear whether any Latin American states would come to the U.S.’s defence. 

A failed intervention could provoke Maduro into cracking down on domestic opposition and disengaging completely from all diplomacy with the U.S. and its allies. The U.S. must do what it can to preserve diplomatic channels for dialogue and negotiation with Maduro. Paranoid regimes with a self-righteous cause are also not known for making incredibly rational, peaceful decisions. 

While it may be inconvenient for hawks in Washington and Miami to hear that the options to depose Maduro are increasingly weak and sparse, it is important to recognize it. Neither sanctions, isolation nor insurgency are ultimately successful options for regime moderation or democratization. 

Simple answers given by far-removed elites won’t provide welfare or democracy for one Venezuelan, and Maduro’s increasingly firm grip on power will require complex solutions for democracy and prosperity to truly prevail. Instead, the U.S. will have to adopt a diplomatic, dialogue-centered approach to secure certain concessions from Latin American leaders, with help from regional powers with positive leverage and influence.

Joseph Bouchard is a freelance journalist and analyst covering geopolitics in the Americas, with reporting experience in Bolivia, Colombia, and Brazil. His articles have appeared in The Diplomat, Mongabay, Le Devoir, La Razón, The National Interest, and Brazilian Report. He is a contributor to Young Voices.