In Stratfor's 2018 Annual Forecast, we wrote that countries in the Americas, including the United States, would pressure the Venezuelan government to hold competitive elections this year and to recognize the opposition-controlled legislature. But the Venezuelan government is not interested in holding elections it could lose in 2018, unless the United States grants its leaders amnesty.
Venezuela's government will hold an election, but it will be neither free nor fair. And that fact has effectively eliminated the chance of negotiating a settlement to the country's political crisis anytime soon. The administration of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced on Jan. 23 that it would hold a presidential election April 30. The Latin American countries overseeing the negotiations to promote political coexistence between the Venezuelan government and its opposition reacted negatively to the announcement, saying that it is impossible to hold fair elections so soon. The United States and many Latin American governments will not recognize the results of any election held so swiftly and without guarantees that the government will allow international observers and refrain from manipulating results.
Following the announcement, Mexico's foreign ministry — the main Latin American mediator between the Maduro administration and its opposition — went so far as to pull out of talks. The move effectively ends credible oversight of the government-opposition discussion and eliminates the possibility that Venezuela's political confrontation could be solved through negotiation anytime soon. It's possible that negotiations could strike back up, if the Venezuelan government makes certain concessions, but there is no question that talks have been severely weakened. Because of this, the United States, one of the main stakeholders in the talks, is likely to study further sanctions to penalize Venezuela for its slide toward a formal one-party state.
Unless Maduro and other officials are guaranteed amnesty from the United States and the opposition, they are unlikely to voluntarily leave office and expose themselves to possible criminal charges. The political and military elite running Venezuela would rather take a calculated risk and hold a rushed election that is unlikely to have much international observation or recognition — even if it means future U.S. sanctions — than risk losing a free and fair election.
The United States has an interest in slowing Venezuela's descent into full-blown dictatorship, but it is not a top priority for the country. Economic problems are driving people from Venezuela, some of whom will try to enter or stay in the United States illegally. Venezuelan officials have also been deeply involved in cocaine trafficking to the United States. But other global events supersede these concerns. Moreover, Washington has few good options for intervening in Venezuela. The country's political opposition is weak, and even if Washington helped weaken the current administration, there's no guarantee the opposition could garner enough support to effectively rule.
Even so, Washington will likely consider imposing heavier sanctions on Venezuela. It could enact a blanket embargo on Venezuelan oil shipments or take further measures to shut Venezuela out of the U.S. financial system. But given the weak opposition, Washington may instead adopt an incremental approach, implementing sanctions on individuals and entities but shying away from heavy sanctions that would impose further hardships on the Venezuelan population.