Washington’s Ability to Pressure Maduro is Limited

The past few weeks have challenged the progress achieved in U.S.-Venezuela relations since last fall. Recent tit-for-tat measures taken by both Washington and Caracas signal a weakening of prospects for Venezuela’s return to democracy.

The Barbados agreement, which was signed last October between the government of Nicolás Maduro and opposition negotiators, was hailed as a breakthrough after years of stalemate. It called on the Maduro government to improve the country’s electoral conditions by allowing for the opposition primary to proceed and by creating a judicial review process regarding the disqualifications of several opposition candidates, including María Machado, who is leading in the polls. For these concessions by the Maduro government, the U.S. granted Venezuela temporary relief from select economic sanctions.

While the content of the Barbados agreement was sketched out between the Maduro government and opposition negotiators, the actual breakthrough happened not in Barbados, nor in Caracas, but in Doha last fall, as a result of a series of meetings between Biden administration officials and Maduro representatives, facilitated by the government of Qatar.

Last month, however, Venezuela’s top court confirmed the electoral disqualification of Machado, violating the spirit of the agreement. The U.S. answered by restoring sanctions on Venezuela’s gold sector and by threatening to revoke relief from sanctions on the country’s oil industry.

Venezuela has continued to crack down: Last week it expelled the U.N. human rights agency, just days after it detained a high-profile human rights activist on charges of treason, accusing her of alleged involvement in a conspiracy to assassinate Maduro.

Also last week, the Biden administration announced the upcoming departure of Juan Gonzalez, the White House’s top Latin America adviser. This was an apparent concession to Venezuelan hard-liners who see Gonzalez as the architect of the administration’s increasingly diplomatic approach toward the Maduro regime.

The events of recent weeks suggest that while U.S.-Venezuela negotiations have provided a solid push for progress, their impact on Venezuela’s return to democracy will be limited. This is part of a broader historical trend.

Our research has revealed that a wide range of U.S. initiatives have had no clear effect on the direction of Maduro’s anti-democratic slide over the past decade. A more decisive factor, in contrast, has been the Venezuelan opposition’s ability to mount a viable challenge to Maduro’s hold on executive power.


Over the course of three administrations—under Presidents Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden—U.S. policy toward the Maduro government has run the gamut from non-interference to patient diplomacy to public criticism to outright efforts at regime change.

Patient diplomacy has had some victories. In the run-up to the 2015 Venezuelan legislative elections, the Obama administration took a step back from its rollout of targeted sanctions, and largely remained silent about Venezuela. This avoided any escalation and resulted in an overconfident Maduro allowing democratic elections to proceed. A unified opposition won a landslide victory—just the type of “stunning election” democratic transition scholars say oppositions should aim for. This gave the opposition a commanding majority in the National Assembly from where they were able to challenge Maduro.

However, in the first seven months of the Trump administration, the same diplomatic approach saw Maduro turn to full-fledged authoritarianism, brutally repressing protests in 2017, and concocting a constitutional assembly to displace the opposition-controlled National Assembly.

Hard-line policies have produced mixed results as well. When the Obama administration rolled out sanctions against Venezuela in 2015, the Maduro government responded not with authoritarian repression. Rather, it leaned into the anti-U.S. sentiment within the country and mobilized its supporters and regional allies.

But when Trump eventually launched a “maximum pressure” strategy on Venezuela that included recognizing the interim government of National Assembly President Juan Guaidó, levying oil sanctions, and publicly suggesting that a military option was on the table, this strategy failed to bring about change. Instead, it pushed the Maduro government to consolidate its power over institutions by jailing or exiling political opponents, taking over opposition party names and logos, and harassing independent media.

The most important trigger of Maduro’s various episodes of authoritarian crackdown has not been U.S. actions but simply the opposition’s ability to challenge Maduro’s hold on executive power. The two major periods of massive street mobilization demanding Maduro’s resignation in 2014 and 2017 resulted not in a democratic opening but in brutal repression, with scores injured and killed. It is not just mass protests that provoke authoritarian crackdowns—institutional routes don’t fare much better.

When the opposition-controlled National Assembly pursued the constitutional mechanism of a recall referendum in 2016—navigating a Kafkaesque series of obstacles put in their way—the Maduro government canceled it. Last year, when the opposition unified around an electoral path to power for the first time since 2015 and generated considerable public enthusiasm for its primaries, the Maduro government disbanded the National Electoral Council, reaffirmed poll leader Machado’s electoral disqualification, and said the European Union would not be invited as observers in 2024.

In contrast, the Maduro government has eased up on its authoritarian tendencies in moments when the opposition has failed to present a viable challenge to power. In late 2014 and early 2015, Obama’s signing of a targeted sanctions bill left a divided Venezuelan opposition on its heels, weathering the fallout of an unpopular policy. This allowed Maduro to mobilize his supporters rather than repress the opposition.

Ultimately, the United States’ ability to pressure an authoritarian leader like Maduro is limited. Whether this is because the U.S. is a declining hegemonic power, or because of the short attention span typical of Washington when it comes to Latin America policy, the upshot is that solutions will depend more on what happens inside Venezuela than outside.

This should provide a reality check for U.S. policymakers and advocates. In itself, the Biden administration’s present strategy of negotiating sanctions relief for democratic elections will most likely allow the Maduro government to engineer a path to perpetuate itself in power—conceding just enough liberty to claim they are democratic but keeping just enough control to make sure they don’t lose power—as it did in 2016 and 2017. Unfortunately, a sanctions snap-back would be worse. While it would satisfy Florida legislators, it would also put wind in Maduro’s sails, helping him mobilize national and international rejection of U.S. intervention, just as he did in 2014 and early 2015.

The U.S. approach needs to be accompanied by support for a robust and far-reaching effort at negotiation and reconciliation by Venezuelans themselves. Machado has admirably progressed in this direction. While in the past she has argued against negotiating with the Maduro regime, calling it a “transnational criminal conglomerate,” she now says that negotiation is a “fundamental aspect” of what she and her movement are doing.

Much more needs to happen in this direction. Maduro officials are not going to put themselves in harm’s way when they are comfortably holding power. They are acutely aware of the judicial pursuit of Brazil’s Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Bolivia’s Evo Morales when they left power. And they have their own memories of the immediate roundup of Chávez government officials during the 48-hour coup in April 2002. To take even moderate risks, Maduro officials and Chavista activists need concrete assurances of their well-being and the political viability of their movement after leaving office.

Doing so requires a broad effort at public discussion and reconciliation. It will not be easy. Venezuelans are exhausted and frustrated with the failed negotiation attempts of the past 10 years. Some activists and observers who formerly supported negotiation are now skeptical. Much of the debate within the current opposition is toxic with discussions generally deteriorating into mutual accusations of treachery and treason. To make matters worse, the Maduro government regularly instrumentalizes such initiatives as a way of circumventing the main opposition coalition, creating a constant flow of dialogue spaces they closely control.

The August 2021 memorandum of understanding signed between the opposition and Maduro government under the guidance of Norwegian diplomats includes a number of provisions for doing this work in a structured way. It provides a framework for government and opposition delegations to negotiate electoral guarantees, the lifting of sanctions, and victims’ reparations. But it also emphasizes the need to establish “social and political coexistence” for the betterment of Venezuela’s future.

Processes of negotiation and reconciliation that change the terms of conflict are difficult, but there are many precedents. In Poland, South Africa, Chile, Ireland, and neighboring Colombia, conflicts once considered intractable and hopeless all made painstaking progress through not just power politics, but creative efforts at trust-building and the construction of common ground and viable futures for the actors in conflict. Until such efforts are vigorously undertaken in Venezuela, any significant return to democracy is unlikely.

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