Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro for four years has had to worry about President Trump’s warning that, when it comes to his troubled government, “all options are on the table.”
And though the socialist strongman — fresh from an election this month that has only cemented his power in Caracas — may rest a little easier once Mr. Trump leaves the White House, the celebrations are tempered by the knowledge the incoming Biden administration is unlikely to roll out the red carpet for him or his allies.
No leaders in the Western Hemisphere face more uncertainty from the change in power in Washington than Latin America’s leftist triumvirate — Mr. Maduro, Cuba’s Miguel Diaz-Canel and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega. But all three likely will face continuing pressure from Washington on a variety of issues, including human rights, trade and the allies they link up with around the world, analysts predict.
Intriguingly, Mr. Maduro and Mr. Diaz-Canel were among the very first wave of world leaders to congratulate President-elect Joseph R. Biden when the U.S. networks called the race for him a few days after the Nov. 3 election, with both saying on Twitter they were open to more dialogue with Washington than had been the case the past four years.
“We believe in the possibility of having constructive bilateral relations while respecting our differences,” Mr. Diaz-Canel tweeted, while noting what he called the “new direction in the American election.”
Mr. Biden during the campaign suggested that Mr. Trump’s criticisms of repressive leftist regimes was correct, but his pressure policies have proven deeply counterproductive.
“This administration’s approach isn’t working,” Mr. Biden told a campaign rally in Florida in late October. “Cuba’s no closer to freedom and democracy today than it was four years ago. “In fact, there are more political prisoners and secret police are more brutal than ever.”
But with an Antony Blinken-led State Department likely to adopt a less confrontational tone, analysts say, there may also be both new opportunities for engagement and, should those fail, more unified international pressure.
While the three countries have banded together in the face of Mr. Trump’s relentless pressure, each faces a unique challenge — and opportunity — under Mr. Biden.
Venezuela: Chronicle of a fraud foretold
For Mr. Maduro, the most visible of the three leftist leaders, the change of guard in Washington will come weeks after he has apparently consolidated power in the National Assembly, sidelining at the same time the man the Trump administration and many around the world would rather have in charge.
Record-high abstention in the Dec. 6 national legislative elections — around 70% even by the dubious official count — means Mr. Maduro’s “Great Patriotic Pole” will now hold a supermajority in parliament, which until now had been the only opposition-controlled — if largely disenfranchised — branch of government.
“This was the ‘Chronicle of a Fraud Foretold,’ to paraphrase [Gabriel] Garcia Marquez,” former Venezuelan U.N. Ambassador Milos Alcalay quipped. “The [regime’s] goal was to create this kind of fiction of a National Assembly.”
And though the United States rejected the vote alongside dozens of European and Latin American governments, the results put Assembly Speaker Juan Guaido — who, based on that role, last year declared himself Venezuela’s interim president — in even more of an institutional and political limbo.
Mr. Maduro last week crowed to journalists that the Trump pressure campaign in Venezuela has “failed spectacularly,” adding, “Let’s hope that [the Biden administration] had time to think and let’s hope that channels of communication and dialogue between Venezuela and the United States are opened.”
Still, analysts predict Mr. Biden, who has long had an interest in the region from his days in the Senate, will continue to recognize Mr. Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.
“The international backing goes to the orchestra’s director, and today the orchestra’s director is Guaido,” Mr. Alcalay said.
And there won’t be a return to the scenes of the 2010s, when President Obama was not coy about chatting up Mr. Maduro at the 2015 Summit of the Americas and then-Vice President Biden did the same at Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s inauguration that year.
“Hard lessons have been learned,” said Inter-American Dialogue President Michael Shifter. “And the conclusion by the Biden government is that this is a dictatorship that has just been buying time and not been negotiating in good faith.”
The Obama and Trump-era sanctions targeting Mr. Maduro’s regime thus aren’t going anywhere for era, Mr. Shifter predicted.
“While you’re not going to hear ‘All options are on the table,’” he said, “the Biden administration is going to hold back on making any specific concessions.”
And though he lauded Mr. Trump’s “solidarity” with his country’s opposition, Mr. Alcalay noted that if Mr. Biden can strike a more harmonious tone with traditional U.S. allies, Mr. Maduro might find it more difficult to muddy the diplomatic waters and evoke traditional fears of the great Yankee power to the north. Mr. Biden’s expressed pledge to work more closely with America’s traditional allies may make life more difficult for Mr. Maduro.
“Until now, there have been a variety of strategies: The U.S. strategy, the European strategy, the Group of Lima strategy, the [Organization of American States] strategy,” he said. “Biden may well be a chance for a common strategy.”
Cuba: The more things change
Mr. Maduro’s strategy, meanwhile, will continue to center on the economic and ideological ties with Cuba forged by his mentor and predecessor, the anti-U.S. populist Hugo Chavez, whom none other than Fidel Castro had dubbed “our best friend.”
Any attempt to drive a wedge between Havana and Caracas will be ignored on the island, said Gary Prevost, a political scientist at Saint John’s University and co-author of “United States-Cuban Relations: A Critical History.”
“If Cuba is expected to throw Venezuela under the bus, forget it,” Mr. Prevost said.
But Mr. Biden was also part of an administration that made precedent-breaking diplomatic overtures to Havana — overtures that Mr. Trump promptly reversed. Cuba watchers say the ruling Communist Party, now dealing with yet another pro-democracy boomlet, will be watching the Biden administration’s opening moves warily.
The surprise electoral success by Mr. Trump and Republicans in wooing Hispanic voters in Florida and elsewhere over the dangers of “socialism” in the Nov. 3 vote may also be a signal against radical change for the new administration.
“The Cuban government has endured so many U.S. administrations of all different kinds that it does not see changes of government as a huge shift,” said Gregory Weeks, a regional scholar at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. “They see continuity, with changes here and there.”
Cuban leaders are also keenly aware that only Congress can rescind the 1962 trade embargo against them.
“They’ll figure that they can work more with the Biden administration,” Mr. Weeks, who edits The Latin Americanist journal, predicted. “I doubt they believe that anything major is going to change.”
Former Secretary of State John Kerry, whom Mr. Biden has tapped as his Cabinet-level special envoy for climate, meanwhile, recently expressed his “disappointment” with the Cuban response to the Obama-era overtures, Mr. Shifter recalled.
“There was — if not the expectation — at least the hope that there would be some more moves on the Cuban government’s part toward greater opening, both economically and politically. And that didn’t happen,” Mr. Shifter noted.
And that those “wedded” to the 2015 thaw — such as Obama-era alumnae Ben Rhodes and Denis McDonough — either won’t be part of the Biden team or working in a different field likely means Mr. Biden’s initial focus may be on what he can do unilaterally, Mr. Prevost said.
The new administration might, for instance, move quickly to ease restrictions on travel to the island and ingratiate itself with the tourism industry, he predicted.
“Major U.S. airlines … all invested in flying to Cuba, set up schedules, set up facilities to do it,” Mr. Prevost said. “They want Americans and Cuban Americans to be getting on their airplanes and flying down there.”
And on the heels of Western Union shuttering the doors to its 407 Cuban offices last month, Mr. Biden may roll back restrictions on remittances — up to $3 billion a year — a move similarly deemed mostly uncontroversial, Mr. Prevost added.
“There’s no political risk in the Cuban American community,” he said, “for going back to making it easier for the remittances to be sent to the island.”
Nicaragua: Wishful thinking, rude awakening
While the Biden administration may want to take baby steps on Cuba, the approach to Nicaragua will likely look more like a full-on holding pattern.
The government of longtime leftist Daniel Ortega — who first came to prominence as a Sandinista rebel battling the U.S.-backed Somoza regime in the 1970s and 1980s — was rocked by popular protests throughout the Trump years.
Critical coverage of the government’s violent clampdown on a nationwide protest movement has faded, and Mr. Ortega’s internal and external foes seem to have their hopes pinned on a presidential election set for November of next year.
The Trump administration in October backed an Organization of American States’ call to reform Nicaragua’s electoral council, and it would be unwise for Mr. Biden to ease the international pressure to hold a free, fair and internationally observed vote, said La Prensa columnist Pedro Joaquin Chamorro.
“But I don’t think that will happen,” he said.
Mr. Chamorro — who hails from one of Nicaragua’s most prominent political clans and served as a leader of the U.S.-backed Contras and in various Cabinet posts, including as defense minister — noted that Republicans and Democrats in Washington see Mr. Ortega in much the same light.
“In [the House] and the Senate, Nicaragua policy was bipartisan during the Trump administration,” he said, adding there was no reason to believe that would change under Mr. Biden.
Still, unlike in the cases of Cuba and Venezuela, a review of the Obama years offers relatively few clues about how the new president’s foreign-policy team might want to deal with Managua.
“The internal situation in Nicaragua changed notably after the 2016 elections and the 2018 civic insurrection,” Mr. Chamorro recalled. “The reaction … was up to the Trump administration. When President Obama was in power, the situation in Nicaragua was quite different.”
That lack of past confrontations may have led Mr. Ortega to assume — wrongly, Mr. Shifter said — that his regime could get Mr. Biden to lift an array of sanctions Mr. Trump’s Treasury Department last tightened in October.
“Ortega perhaps has some wishful thinking, and he may have a rude awakening,” Mr. Shifter said. “The policy is not going to change very much, frankly, in advance of next November’s elections.”
All things being equal, however, Mr. Maduro, Mr. Miguel Diaz-Canel and Mr. Ortega may still toast their good fortunes come Jan. 20.
“Are they happy that Biden is in and Trump is out? I think so,” Mr. Shifter said.
But their problem, Mr. Alcalay said, is not just that Mr. Biden may turn out to be more hawkish than expected, but also that they can’t run away from their own, deeply rooted anti-Americanism.
“If you say ‘I want love, I want peace’ while you point your cannons at it,” he said, “you really have no chance with any U.S. administration.”