Biden's reboot of our policy toward Venezuela looks troubling

We’ve been asking the question pretty much since the day Joe Biden was sworn in as president. What does he plan to do about the situation in Venezuela? The country has entirely collapsed under the regime of dictator Nicolas Maduro and the situation has long since passed the stage of being a literal humanitarian crisis. This week we saw what appears to be the beginning of an answer to that question, but it doesn’t instill much confidence. An anonymous Biden administration official spoke with reporters this week and announced two policy changes regarding Venezuela. First, Biden will offer temporary legal status to as many as 300,000 Venezuelan citizens who fled their homeland and came to the United States. The majority of them currently reside in Florida. Second, Biden plans to “review” our sanctions on Venezuela, saying that the strict sanctions imposed by the Trump administration were a “failed policy.” (Associated Press)

“The United States is in no rush to lift sanctions,” the official said, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss the policy. “But we need to recognize here that unilateral sanctions over the last four years have not succeeded in achieving an electoral outcome in the country.”

U.S. sanctions, which began under President Barack Obama, have increased economic pressure on the once prosperous country. Its economy was already suffering from mismanagement and the deterioration of its all-important oil industry.

In the last few years, the Venezuelan economy has been in free fall, with widespread shortages of food and medicine and frequent power outages. An estimated 5 million people have fled, mostly to neighboring countries such as Colombia, but many have settled in South Florida.

I don’t really have a problem with Biden offering temporary legal status to the refugees in this case, even though there are quite a few of them. Unlike people coming here from impoverished locations, the Venezuelans were legitimately fleeing a very real humanitarian crisis and a destructive authoritarian regime. Also, the vast majority of them have reportedly at least tried to do the right thing and apply for asylum. Trump didn’t offer the same sort of legal status, but he did defer deportations for many of the refugees, so this isn’t that big of a policy shift.

It’s the proposed “review” of sanctions that’s more troubling. Biden’s spokesperson is saying that he’s “in no hurry” to lift sanctions, so what else is the review going to accomplish? Putting on even more sanctions? While I doubt that would accomplish much, I suppose I wouldn’t object to it, but that’s not what it sounds like since he’s describing Trump’s heavy sanctions as “a failed strategy.”

Sadly, Biden is mostly correct in saying that the sanctions failed, but that’s not the fault of the United States. The sanctions haven’t driven Maduro from office because they have been continually undermined by the efforts of China and Russia, along with Turkey and a few others to help Maduro work around them. More sanctions on Venezuela aren’t going to change anything as long as major global players are helping Maduro to cheat by buying their oil and pumping cash into what’s left of Venezuela’s economy.

If Joe Biden truly wants to prove what a wizard he is on foreign policy and diplomacy, he could figure out a way to negotiate with China and Russia and convince them to support the sanctions and cut off Maduro’s lifelines. I’m not suggesting that such a thing would even be possible, particularly in the case of Russia, but it would at least be worth the effort. The Russians, in particular, have little incentive to cooperate since they now own a majority of Venezuela’s oil supply.

I’m glad that Biden is at least paying attention to this situation, but he needs to come up with some sort of plan soon. Maduro is holding many hostages, including one American former marine who we discussed here previously. Supporting the citizens of Venezuela who are suffering terribly at the hands of a deranged tyrant is also simply the right thing to do.

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