Maduro vs Biden: Diplomacy and Strategy in an Election Year

In a crucial year for the U.S. government, the Biden administration is seeking another term using a multidimensional strategy. One dimension is managing the refugee crisis on the southern border; another is maintaining the price of gas with West Texas Intermediate crude oil priced at about $70-80 a barrel; and finally, solving the political crisis in Venezuela. This focus has created a high-risk scenario for U.S. diplomacy, with the objective of realigning geopolitical dynamics and addressing urgent domestic and international challenges.

The Biden administration started secret negotiations more than a year ago with the Nicolás Maduro regime, abandoning the “maximum pressure” strategy of the Donald Trump era. The dialogue is aimed at lifting the sanctions on oil and gas sector exports, which provide 94% of Venezuela’s foreign exchange, in return for democratic reforms, including free elections and the release of unjustly detained U.S. citizens. The agreement reached in Barbados last October suggested a possible thaw in relations between the U.S. and the Maduro regime, and a step toward the restoration of democracy in Venezuela.

However, the White House’s optimism was short-lived. Maduro and his people quickly undermined the agreement, ignoring the results of the opposition’s primary election in 2023 and abandoning the commitment to free elections. This turn of events exposed Joe Biden to criticism, especially because economic sanctions were lifted and there was a controversial release of Colombian businessman Alex Saab — the principal front man of the Miraflores clan — despite evidence incriminating him in serious crimes, money laundering, criminal conspiracy, illicit enrichment, fictitious exports and imports and aggravated fraud. At the same time, the Maduro regime stepped up its authoritarian tactics, increasing repression of the opposition — above all against the leaders of Vente Venezuela, the party of opposition leader María Corina Machado — and exacerbating the territorial dispute with Guyana.

Maduro’s open defiance of Biden casts doubt on the ability of the U.S. president to lead the world’s major power, especially given the mood of the voters he faces in the upcoming presidential election.

The Biden administration has been at a crossroads since the Maduro regime challenged the deal for democracy in Venezuela. Saab’s pardon on the grounds of leniency doesn’t just call into question Washington’s rhetoric on judicial independence; it also suggests that pressure tactics may result in impunity.

In response, the White House threatened to let the license that permits Maduro to derive income from oil exports expire. The regime responded by cutting the program allowing Venezuelans repatriated from the U.S. to enter the country.

At this critical moment, Biden is recalibrating his strategy, looking to be effective without resorting to maximum pressure, which hasn’t worked in Venezuela.

In order to save the Barbados agreement, the U.S. has asked Colombian President Gustavo Petro to mediate in an effort to overcome the current impasse and move forward toward a peaceful and democratic solution.

Last Monday, Brazil, another of Maduro’s allies, defended continuing the agreement for the elections in Venezuela, reaffirming the support of Brazil and the U.S. for the dialogue negotiated by Norway.

Mediation by regional heavyweights like the president of Colombia, and the support of Brazil, highlight the complexity of the situation and the need to seek innovative solutions. These actions reflect a preference for diplomacy and negotiation, emphasizing that any solution must be pragmatic and oriented toward tangible results.

The possibility of an encounter between Machado and Maduro, facilitated by Colombian President Petro, could be key to deescalating tension and promoting a constructive dialogue.

In a nutshell, the situation in Venezuela is a significant challenge for the Biden administration, especially since it is a key election year in the United States. The search for regional leaders to act as go-betweens, and the support of Brazil, reflect an attempt to balance diplomacy and negotiation, while confronting the opposition to Maduro. The ability of the Biden administration to manage this situation effectively will have important implications for the future of Venezuela and the influence of the U.S. in today’s world, highlighting the importance of adaptability and strategy in contemporary diplomacy.

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