Joe Biden's Venezuela Problem Just Got Much Worse

A political comeback for Brazil's Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in this week's presidential election has marked another win for left-wing forces in Latin America, where President Joe Biden's attempts to isolate Venezuela now has fewer allies than ever before.

That effort began in January 2019 under Biden's predecessor, former President Donald Trump, who cut ties with the government of socialist Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro after a reelection disputed by opposition leader Juan Guaidó.

To this day, Guaidó remains the U.S.-recognized leader of the country, despite having failed to take power through an uprising later that year. He has suffered multiple fractures in his movement, and his position has been weakened to the point where his role as National Assembly leader has been under challenge since January.

"The U.S. policy of diplomatically isolating Maduro and recognizing a fictional 'interim government' as the legitimate representative of Venezuela has become increasingly unsustainable since the democratically elected parliament headed by Juan Guaidó ended its term in January last year," Phil Gunson, senior analyst of the Crisis Group think tank's Andes project, told Newsweek.

Meanwhile, Maduro remains firmly in control in Miraflores Palace, from which he called Lula on Monday to congratulate the new Brazilian president-elect set to replace right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

This is just the most recent shakeup to stack the geopolitical cards further in the Venezuelan leader's favor. In June, another dramatic shift saw outgoing conservative Colombian President Iván Duque succeeded by Gustavo Petro, the nation's first-ever leftist leader, who went on to reestablish ties with Maduro in August and meet with him in person on Tuesday.

"More and more of the governments that originally recognized Guaidó have, one way or another, withdrawn that recognition," Gunson said, "and the changes of government in Colombia and Brazil are almost the final nails in the coffin of the Trump-era policy."

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Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and U.S. President Joe Biden are seen in this combination photo. Elections this year that saw leftist candidates take power in formerly right-wing-led neighboring Colombia and Brazil have offered a boost to Maduro's staying power nearly four years after the U.S. attempted to unseat him. Carolina Cabral/Getty; Saul Loeb/Getty

For Biden, the situation is another blow to his administration's Western Hemisphere strategy, the vulnerabilities of which were on full display at the Summit of the Americas hosted by the U.S. in Los Angeles in June. The gathering, intended to showcase Washington's leadership in the region, saw several leaders boycott the event over the exclusion of socialist-led Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, while representatives from other nations who attended used the platform to express their grievances over the U.S. blacklisting of their neighbors.

The Biden administration's hardline stance came in contrast to that of former President Barack Obama, who broke with decades of U.S. foreign policy to open up relations with Cold War-era foe Cuba at a time when Biden served as vice president. But Obama's detente with the communist-led island was reversed by Trump, who doubled down on sanctions against Havana, as well as on Caracas and Managua.

Trump's position received an overwhelmingly positive reception among conservatives in the U.S., including influential voices within the Cuban and Venezuelan diaspora community. Democrats have had to contend with such right-wing enthusiasm while fighting their own political battles at home. This challenge has tempered domestic support for any major break with Trump-era policies even within Biden's own party at a time when regional politics were trending in the opposite direction.

So, while Gunson said a failure for Venezuela's embattled opposition-led interim government to attain a majority in elections set to be held this January "would allow Washington a more or less dignified way out of this diplomatic dead-end," he also acknowledged the political risks surrounding such a move for the Biden administration.

"Given the likely outcome of the midterms, and even if the Democrats were somehow to hold on to the House, it seems very unlikely that the Venezuela lobby in Congress will be any more inclined to look favorably on what they see as being 'soft on dictatorship,'" Gunson said.

The key, he argued, lie in whether the new administrations in Brazil and Colombia as well as other regional governments with a line to Maduro could foster a more politically palatable environment for Biden to reconsider its approach to Venezuela. But he also noted that "whether or not Maduro is prepared to make any concessions of his own remains an open question."

"If the region were to show that it can help shepherd Maduro back towards democracy," Gunson said, "that would give Biden some cover for a more flexible policy approach."

But, in any case, he added, "the current policy, inherited from Trump, has clearly not worked" and, instead "has ended up benefiting U.S. adversaries around the world."

When the U.S. first sought to unseat Maduro nearly four years ago, the ensuing crisis divided the international community. A number of the U.S.' closest partners and allies around the world backed Guaidó at the time, while some leading rivals, including China, Russia and Iran, threw their weight behind Maduro.

Since then, these three powers have expanded cooperation with Venezuela as their relationship with the U.S. deteriorated. Moscow has boosted military relations with Maduro even throughout the ongoing war in Ukraine. Tehran has managed to strike up oil deals with Caracas to defy Trump-era sanctions maintained by Biden on both nations. And for Beijing, Venezuela has been one of a number of countries where Chinese economic and political clout is on the rise in Latin America.

"Over Biden's first two years, whereas he has been daring and bold on domestic policy, he has been traditional and unimaginative on foreign policy," John Cavanagh, senior adviser at the Institute for Policy Studies, told Newsweek. "He has largely ignored South America as Chinese influence has spread."

"The United States simply isn't much of a factor in South America," he added.

Cavanagh noted that as a fresh wave of leftist leaders set a new course for the continent, the Biden administration failed to seize on new opportunities to participate in a Venezuela peace process led by Mexico. It also was unable to find new areas of cooperation with Colombia and Chile, where leftist Gabriel Boric defeated conservative José Antonio Kast, who tried to channel Trump with a campaign that promised to "make Chile a great country."

Cavanagh suspected the U.S. would be "similarly unimaginative with Brazil" under Lula if the current trajectory held.

But Cavanagh also asserted that the new "pink tide" in Latin America was far different from the first that took place in the early 2000s, bringing to power Maduro's predecessor, Hugo Chávez.

While Cavanagh argued that the shift that took place two decades ago "was made up of socialists who despoiled the earth by digging oil and gas and minerals to fund anti-poverty programs and to support left governments," he noted that "the new progressive tide of leaders in Latin America is much more green than pink," with a focus on climate and environment in addition to indigenous and women's rights.

This approach, Cavanagh explained, makes these leaders "quite different from Maduro," with whom they are not necessarily allied even if they do agree on supporting "much closer economic coordination among Latin American countries, and much closer coordination on a range of other issues."

"There is an opportunity for major cooperation in the Western Hemisphere on huge issues like climate and inequality, and the United States has seemed uninterested," Cavanagh said. "The new pink-green governments of Latin America will come together to faces these challenges, likely with the United States on the sidelines."

Lula, wins, Brazil, election, October, 2022
Brazilian president-elect for the leftist Workers Party (PT) Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva delivers a speech to supporters at the Paulista avenue after winning the presidential run-off election, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on October 30, 2022. U.S. President Joe Biden congratulated Lula on his victory, saying he was "committed to continue working as partners to address common challenges, including combatting climate change, safeguarding food security, promoting inclusion and democracy, and managing regional migration." CAIO GUATELLI/AFP/Getty Images

"That said, the Lula and Petro elections coincide with the more pragmatic approach of the Biden administration toward Venezuela," Cavanagh added, "because the United States needs Venezuelan oil as the Russian war in Ukraine drags on."

One of the Biden administration's leading domestic priorities in the run-up to the midterm elections has been trying to drive down rising fuel costs as the conflict in Europe and the ensuing sanctions on Moscow threw the global energy market into disarray. Efforts to do so included the Biden administration sending a delegation to Caracas back in the earliest days of the war in Ukraine, though little change in policy has emerged from the overture.

After Biden fought to lower gas prices over the summer, a new shock came last month as the extended group of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC+) agreed to cut oil output by around two million barrels despite U.S. pleas to increase production. Russia, Iran and Venezuela are all members of OPEC+, yet the most influential power is widely seen as Saudi Arabia, a longtime U.S. partner that has sought to forge a more independent foreign policy track in recent years.

Cavanagh noted any new initiatives, even those based on easing the burden for U.S. consumers, would still have to navigate the domestic right-wing bloc bolstered by Cuban and Venezuelan expatriate voices that still "does serve as a constraining factor on the White House" and "adds to the lack of boldness or creativity in U.S. policy toward the region."

Jose Chalhoub, a Venezuela-based oil and risk analyst, also reiterated these constraints, which he told Newsweek "are still playing an important role against any major significant advance regarding the current administration to lift sanctions on Maduro," as does the domestic situation in Venezuela itself given the collapse of the opposition's united front.

Chalhoub said "the Biden administration has made clear that it is seeking as a condition the restart of political negotiations with the opposition," one now "at odds, divided and now mostly highly discredited without new fresh faces to offer to a discontent population."

And, in the event that oil diplomacy did move forward, the atrophied nature of Venezuela's energy sector after years of economic woes has created yet another "problematic situation," in which oil companies were underproducing by up to 700,000 barrels per day, hindering the benefit to the U.S. in the short-term before production can be increased.

"So, for any change of policy and lifting of sanctions," Chalhoub said, "Biden or any upcoming new administration will have to tackle these issues, and also assess the still-important influence and presence of Chinese and Iranian companies in deals with Caracas."

But he too felt the U.S. would ultimately need to reassess its strategy following the failures brought on by the current approach.

"Washington will have to take a more pragmatic approach to this new landscape after the recent triumph of Lula, and considering also Venezuela now," he argued. "Juan Guaidó considerably lost all what he and his political team and supporters got to achieve with the active support by Washington and more than 30 countries, as nothing significant happened in terms of achieving a régime or a political change in the country still plagued by myriads of problems and a laggard oil production."

"After the midterms," Chalhoub added, "we might have a much clearer picture of what Washington might do further regarding the region."