Venezuela Notes - October 2023
Comments on the recent deal and next year's election.
This week's World Politics Review column covers the Venezuela deal announced last week. I’m using today’s newsletter to add a few additional comments.
First, the Biden administration deserves credit for some policy experimentation here. They are using the lifting of sanctions and the explicit threat of snapback as leverage to get better election conditions, which is a far smarter use of sanctions than simply maintaining the sanctions and hoping to deny the regime of resources. Will it work? It's not clear yet. But trying something new definitely beats continuing an old policy that is certainly failing.
Second, Maria Corina Machado is the clear winner of the opposition primary. She out-organized everyone else. Opposition voters have rallied around her as someone who has been a consistent leader within the opposition who has never gotten her chance to lead it. Part of her success is that Machado has become more mainstream in the past few years and she's also learned how to campaign better. Her organization around the country is taking the best lessons from previous opposition attempts to win and adapting them to the modern situation. If your opinion on Machado is based on what you know about her from the late 2000s or the mid-2010s, you need to take a look at her current rallies and interviews and update your views.
To put it another way, Machado's moderation can be proven by the fact the Maduro regime fears running against her. If she were an extremist, Maduro would embrace her candidacy, name her as the government's preferred opponent, and run against her by building a coalition of the Chavista base, the moderates and the ni-nis in the country who don't like the more extreme opposition leaders. Maduro could probably beat the Machado of 2013, but he's concerned he can't beat the more moderate and better candidate of Machado 2023 without significant levels of fraud that will be called out by the international community. For that reason alone, it's worth having the international community push to have the opposition's primary results respected.
Third, there are internal disputes within the Maduro regime. This latest round of disputes was highlighted to the public in early 2023 with the corruption crackdown, but has strengthened due to a divide over how to handle the election next year. There is a group of Chavistas including Diosdado Cabello that wants to steal it all with impunity and doesn't care at all about how the election is perceived by the international community. They are countered by a group that wants a mostly free and fair election to renew the legitimacy of the government, believing that is the best way to strengthen governance and the economy. Sitting between those sides is Maduro and a small group of advisors who believe they represent a middle ground, willing to cheat and repress at some level to guarantee victory while still trying to win the election with some level of veracity to obtain all the benefits of doing so. There have been disputes before and ultimately those disputes didn't amount to much in terms of dragging the regime down, but it is still a factor worth monitoring.
Finally, the Venezuelan refugee crisis continues, with the number of Venezuelans attempting to cross the US border last month higher than the number of Mexican migrants for the first time ever. Many of these Venezuelans are coming from somewhere else in Latin America, having left Venezuela years before. But there are still some Venezuelans fleeing the country today and most are planning to travel straight to the US if possible. To that, I want to recommend an excellent article in the New York Times today that follows a Venezuelan family who has remained in the country and is waiting for a legal path.
In the first point, I praised the Biden administration for its experimentation with new sanctions policies, but on migration, they need more consistency and resources—the latter of which comes down to Congress. The contradiction between demanding people only use legal pathways, granting TPS for Venezuelans who didn’t use those pathways, and then resuming deportations for those who are breaking the rules too late to obtain TPS, creates a confusing situation that benefits nobody but the smugglers moving people around the hemisphere for profit. Humanitarian parole is only available to those with valid passports and networks in the US, leaving many out in the cold. And even for those who should qualify, the policy appears broken and faces major roadblocks to implementation. The entire hemisphere would benefit economically and politically if the US could bring more focus to creating an effective system to assist the Venezuelans fleeing the brutal regime and its decade-long economic collapse.