Venezuela’s socialist president, Nicolas Maduro, is offering an unexpected diplomatic olive branch to Washington now that Democrats control the White House, but the Biden administration faces pressure at home not to weaken the campaign that former President Trump built against Caracas.
President Biden so far has shown little sign of easing the pressure, but sources say administration officials are carefully weighing how to respond to a series of surprise moves by the Maduro regime that Republicans dismiss as a scheme to stay in power.
The U.S. and its allies, including a number of Venezuela’s neighbors, imposed harsh sanctions on the economy, particularly the critical oil sector, and its top leadership. They contended that opposition leader Juan Guaido was Venezuela’s rightful president after a fraud-ridden 2018 national election.
Mr. Maduro responded by cracking down on political dissent and turning to China, Iran and Russia for economic and military support.
The Venezuelan president caused a stir last month by dropping his long opposition to the World Food Program’s distribution of much-needed food to the nation’s schoolchildren. Critics had accused him of allowing supplies to go only to his supporters.
Then came an announcement that the “Citgo 6” were being released from a Venezuelan prison to house arrest. It was a clear overture to U.S. officials, who have long criticized Caracas’ 2017 detention on corruption charges of the six executives from Houston-based Citgo Petroleum, a subsidiary of the Venezuelan state oil company.
The Biden administration was still analyzing the “Citgo 6” move when Mr. Maduro announced that two well-known members of Venezuela’s opposition, including a formerly jailed activist, would be allowed to fill seats on the country’s National Electoral Council.
“Maduro is trying to get Washington’s attention,” said Geoff Ramsey, who heads the Venezuela program at the Washington Office on Latin America. “The question is: What can Washington give in return to induce even greater concessions from him?
“My sense is the [Biden administration] is being very calculated in their response,” Mr. Ramsey said in an interview. “They don’t want to be seen to be legitimizing Maduro, but I think they also understand this really is an important opening.”
‘Window of opportunity’
Some Democrats in Washington say Mr. Biden should seize the offering after four years of unrelenting hostility between the U.S. and Venezuela.
Hours before Mr. Maduro’s move on the election board was announced last week, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory W. Meeks, New York Democrat, said there is a “window of opportunity” to engage with Caracas.
“While I continue to be deeply concerned by human rights violations committed by the Maduro government and recognize that the path back to democracy is complicated, I believe that the Biden administration should send clear signals to Caracas that acknowledge these positive gestures and incentivizes further progress towards democracy,” Mr. Meeks said in a statement.
Analysts say the sanctions have imposed harsh penalties on the regime, which is already dealing with what rights groups say is one of the hemisphere’s greatest humanitarian crises brought on by its own economic mismanagement.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken took a tougher line in remarks to business leaders at a May 4 event hosted by the Americas Society and the Council of the Americas, according to The Associated Press. He promised to keep working with allies to exert pressure on the “brutal Maduro regime” as it has “systematically repressed” the rights of ordinary Venezuelans.
The State Department declined any comment on Mr. Meeks’ statements. It told reporters earlier this month that “the overriding goal of the Biden-Harris administration has been and always remains to support a peaceful democratic transition in Venezuela.”
Julie Chung, acting assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, said in a May 6 post on Twitter that the administration needs to see more from Mr. Maduro, including — at a minimum — “free and fair elections, including lifting bans on political parties, the unconditional release of political prisoners, invitations to credible international electoral observers, [and] a public electoral calendar.”
On Capitol Hill, Sen. James E. Risch of Idaho, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and fellow Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, whose home state of Florida contains one of the biggest communities of Venezuelan Americans, cautioned the Biden administration not to do anything to legitimize Mr. Maduro, a protege of the late anti-American populist leader Hugo Chavez.
“The Biden administration must not fall for this scheme, which will only prolong Maduro’s authoritarian grip on the people of Venezuela,” they said. The U.S. government should “stand firm in support” of Mr. Guaido’s rival government.
The United States and dozens of other nations recognized Mr. Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president in the wake of a 2018 election that the Maduro government is widely accused of having rigged to remain in power. The Trump administration leveled a range of sanctions in a bid to pressure Mr. Maduro to step down so new elections could be held.
Mr. Maduro was able to retain the loyalty of senior military officials and used the pressure to accuse the U.S. of plotting a coup against him.
In the past year, however, some in the Venezuelan opposition have held private talks with the Maduro government that appear to have been the catalyst for the appointment this month of two opposition figures to the National Election Council.
One of those appointed is Enrique Marquez, who was briefly vice president of Venezuela’s National Assembly when it was controlled by the opposition from 2016 until last year. The other is longtime strategist Roberto Picon, whom the Maduro government jailed for six months in 2017 for organizing a symbolic, parallel vote when the opposition boycotted Mr. Maduro’s referendum to name a rubber-stamp constitutional assembly.
A hard-line faction of the opposition has stayed loyal to Mr. Guaido. Guaido backers have rejected any coexistence with Mr. Maduro and condemned the electoral council appointments.
“Only an agreement, with due international support, in favor of getting out of this tragedy and having free and fair elections to address the humanitarian emergency and have justice, is a real solution,” Mr. Guaido tweeted in response to the appointments of Mr. Marquez and Mr. Picon.
Regional experts say Mr. Maduro is skillfully dividing the Venezuelan opposition to gain leverage in any interaction with the Biden administration.
“Maduro was very aware that the steps he’s been taking, particularly with the electoral council, would create divisions in the opposition,” said Michael Shifter, who heads the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.
“He’s also aware these steps will advance his agenda by driving a wedge between the already fractured opposition and Washington,” Mr. Shifter told The Washington Times. “That’s what Maduro has been very good at for many years and Chavez was very good at before that. They’re not good at governing, but they are good at creating divisions within the opposition and between the opposition and Washington, and that’s what keeps them in power.”
Even Mr. Guaido has shown signs he is not ready to dismiss any hope of a rapprochement with the government,
He floated on Twitter this month a hazy proposal for a “National Salvation Agreement” with the government. He said he was prepared to consider wide-ranging talks to seek “realistic and viable solutions” to Venezuela’s social, economic and political crises. Mr. Guaido, who considers himself Venezuela’s legitimate “interim president,” said any deal must involve the opposition, pro-government forces and the international community.
The question facing the White House, Mr. Shifter said, is whether it is ready to drop Mr. Guaido in favor of other opposition players in Caracas who could cut a power-sharing deal with the regime.
Mr. Guaido continues to have the support of influential Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill. Chief among them is Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, who is more aligned on Venezuela policy with hawkish Republicans such as Mr. Rubio and Mr. Risch than with left-leaning members of his own party, including Mr. Meeks.
Mr. Menendez’s office ignored requests for comment. But Mr. Menendez and Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, largely echoed Mr. Guaido’s take on the latest developments. In a joint statement, they said the Venezuelan electoral council is still run by “regime loyalists.”
Mr. Shifter said Mr. Menendez’s clout will likely heavily influence how far the Biden team is willing to take up Mr. Maduro’s overtures.
As Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, Mr. Menendez is “an important player who’s going to be essential to President Biden on other foreign policy fronts, such as China or Iran or North Korea,” Mr. Shifter said. “Biden’s not going to want to get Menendez upset on Venezuela. I also don’t think we’ll see Biden doing anything on Cuba.”
Mr. Ramsey said Mr. Biden could reconsider whether Venezuela has made serious progress toward free and fair elections.
“I think the question is: How is the administration going to keep Maduro at the table at this point?” Mr. Ramsey said. “If I’m Maduro and I’ve just made significant concessions to the opposition and to the United States and I don’t get anything in return, what’s keeping me at the table? Why wouldn’t I just walk away?
“I don’t think the United States has to offer full sanctions relief right now,” he said, but the administration might consider “some kind of incentive to keep Maduro at the table.”