U.S. Policy on Venezuela Formally Shifting Toward Regime Change

5 MINS READOct 4, 2018 | 10:30 GMT
A controlled flame burns behind a storage tank at an oil refinery complex in Venezuela.

A controlled flame burns behind a storage tank at an oil complex in Paraguana, Venezuela. The South American country exports about 575,000 barrels of crude oil per day to U.S. Gulf Coast refiners.

  • A bipartisan group of U.S. senators is considering a more aggressive approach toward Venezuela with a bill calling for human rights prosecutions and a major U.S. role in the country's recovery.  
  • The legislation would make the already unlikely prospect of negotiations between the Venezuelan and U.S. governments virtually impossible.
  • Though support appears to be building in Washington for greater legislative action to address Venezuela's humanitarian crisis, direct U.S. military intervention remains extremely unlikely.

While the U.S. government is moving toward a policy of regime change in Venezuela, its actions may simply lead to a prolonged standoff. In the U.S. Senate, lawmakers are working on a bill that largely codifies much of what is already existing policy, but the measure could also lead to a loss of political and economic power for Venezuela's rulers, as well as prosecutions for crimes against humanity. While the bill's approval would be significant, its stipulations make a negotiated solution to Venezuela's political stalemate highly unlikely. The current government won't agree to talks under the bill's conditions and will instead cling ever more fiercely to power.

The Big Picture

Venezuela's crisis has spilled beyond its borders. With its economy rapidly falling apart, tens of thousands of its citizens are leaving Venezuela each month. Fearing incarceration, Venezuela's political elites have marginalized the opposition and clamped down on signs of dissent within the armed forces. In Washington, the worsening conditions are raising the priority of Venezuela on the Trump administration's to-do list. However, there are few effective options for the administration to pressure Venezuela for political change — and military intervention remains highly unlikely.

A Hawkish Approach

The bill, which is sponsored by 11 senators, including Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, both Venezuela hawks, reflects the political reality between Venezuela and the United States. Relations between the two countries have declined to the point that the removal of Venezuela's government is now openly discussed among Washington policymakers. The bill calls for Venezuela to pursue credible negotiations for a fair political system and free elections, which has been U.S. policy since the administration of President Nicolas Maduro refused to recognize the elected opposition legislature in 2016. The bill also calls for the United States to become more involved in Venezuela's economic reconstruction, from coordinating multilateral lending to coordinating debt relief along with major lenders to Caracas, including Chinese financial institutions.

However, the bill leaves little room for negotiations between Maduro's government and the White House. Washington had previously tried to work out a political transition that would allow Maduro to leave power, but those talks failed. That setback was largely due to the sprawling network of interests among Venezuelan government figures that would be on any negotiating table. Too many political figures fear what a change in government — even a carefully orchestrated one — would bring. Numerous officials are suspected of drug trafficking, money laundering and other serious crimes, which could land them in a U.S. or Venezuelan prison. And others probably fear they would be held accountable for the economic collapse and humanitarian crisis enveloping the country.

From Bad to Worse

The bill, combined with increasing rhetoric from across the U.S. government, is a clear sign that the U.S. perception of Venezuela is evolving and that the country is rising in importance on Washington's radar. This change is largely because the crisis has worsened and expanded beyond Venezuela's borders during the past three years. Tens of thousands are fleeing monthly to neighboring countries in search of relief from hyperinflation and a rapidly deteriorating quality of life. Peru, Ecuador and Colombia have all enacted tougher measures to limit the flow of migrants, but they lack the capability to seriously enforce their borders. Demanding passports or increasing border security are partial solutions at best.

Within Venezuela, the decline can be seen in increases in malnutrition, medicine shortages and human rights violations. These worsening conditions are raising concerns among regional bodies such as the Organization of American States, and with neighboring governments opposed to Maduro's continued tenure — such as Colombia under President Ivan Duque.

But as Venezuela deteriorates, practical solutions for the United States remain elusive. The U.S. government, American businesses and others have interests in Venezuela, but assembling those interests into a coherent policy to directly address the situation has proved difficult. Some federal agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of the Treasury, have national security-oriented concerns about Venezuela. U.S. Gulf Coast refiners — who import about 575,000 barrels per day of Venezuelan crude oil and export light crude and fuel to Venezuela — definitely care about the country's declining oil production and its shaky finances. And human rights organizations and a cottage industry of lobbyists in Washington are closely watching Venezuela's slide into dictatorship. All these concerns and interests keep pulling the White House's attention back to Venezuela, but the United States is unlikely to go beyond legislation or additional executive sanctions against Caracas for now.

A chart records the fall of exports of crude oil and refined products from Venezuela over the past decade.

Simmering, But Not Bubbling Over

While the ongoing economic disaster in Venezuela concerns the United States for a number of reasons, the country is not strategically important to Washington. None of the reasons for its significance to various federal agencies and private interests demands direct U.S. intervention. In fact, U.S. military intervention is implausible, except in certain situations. For example, if a coup attempt led to rebel military forces taking over large swaths of the country but not removing the government, the United States could be forced to decide whether to back the insurgents. 

In this situation, inertia is taking over. The only events likely to break the impasse are a successful coup or some split within the ruling coalition. The former would likely be carried out by military units trying to end the slide into economic hardship, and the latter could occur if ruling party officials feel that it's better to turn on Maduro and others rather than deal with the risks of overthrow, unrest or military intervention. Negotiations involving amnesty or safe passage to a third country would probably be off the table if the United States approves legislation encouraging prosecutions or heavy U.S. involvement in Venezuela's economic affairs. At this stage, it appears that Washington is pushing the U.S.-Venezuela relationship toward a prolonged standoff.

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