Published by The Lawfare Institute
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On Nov. 17, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas testified before Congress that his department would seek new ways to expel Venezuelan migrants in the wake of a federal court’s decision to strike down Title 42 border closures. Mayorkas’s testimony serves as yet another example of the United States’ failure to address the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Venezuela and the root causes of the Venezuelan migration.
Helping the Venezuelan people and stemming the flow of illegal, dangerous migration to the United States requires a new strategy. To help curb the flow of migrants, the Biden administration must focus on recently rekindled negotiations between Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and the Venezuelan opposition, sanctions relief in exchange for Maduro’s continued cooperation, as well as regional and bilateral migration talks.
The Humanitarian Crisis in Venezuela and Trump-Era Sanctions
According to the United Nations, 6.8 million Venezuelans have fled their country since 2014. Before the coronavirus pandemic and economic downturn in Latin America, Venezuelans sought refuge in the neighboring countries of Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador. Today, Venezuelan migrants are increasingly making the dangerous trek through the Darién Gap into Central America and up to the U.S.-Mexico border. U.S. Border Patrol statistics indicate that more than 150,000 Venezuelan nationals have crossed into the United States from Mexico in 2022.
Maduro (and former president Hugo Chávez before him) has subjected the Venezuelan population to authoritarian rule, and has used state security forces to go after political opponents. Because of this, a well-founded fear of political persecution has pushed many Venezuelans to become refugees, seeking asylum in the United States.
In 2019, the Trump administration tightened sanctions on Venezuela, including adding new oil sanctions that targeted the Venezuelan state-run oil company PDVSA. Venezuela, which sits on top of the world’s largest oil reserves, has long depended on the oil industry to support its economy. The Venezuelan government is heavily reliant on oil exports for income, making Venezuela similar to other “petrostates” within the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). U.S. sanctions on PDVSA are especially significant, as they are meant to cut off the lifeblood to the Venezuelan government by preventing U.S. companies from doing business with Venezuela and making it difficult for foreign companies as well. In addition to oil sanctions, then-President Trump gave the U.S. Treasury the power to implement secondary sanctions on foreign entities—such as the foreign oil companies France’s Total SA, Norway’s Equinor ASA, and Spain’s Repsol SA—that were engaging with the Maduro regime.
To put pressure on Venezuela, Trump also recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the “rightful” interim Venezuelan president in 2019 rather than Maduro. Following Venezuela’s fraudulent presidential elections in 2018 (in which Maduro claimed victory), Guaidó proclaimed himself president under Article 233 of the Venezuelan Constitution, which allows for the leader of the country’s National Assembly to assume the presidency and call for new presidential elections in the “absence of the president of the Republic.” The United States immediately backed Guaidó and rallied international support for him to push Maduro out. As part of the gambit, the Trump administration gave Guaidó control of Venezuela’s largest foreign asset, the U.S.-based PDVSA subsidiary of Citgo.
U.S. sanctions and the Guaidó strategy have made an already desperate situation even worse. Sanctions were supposed to starve the Maduro government of dollars. While they did accomplish this goal, they also significantly hurt the Venezuelan economy and population, creating a dire living situation in the country with soaring levels of inflation and inaccessibility to basic goods such as food and medicine.
Thousands of Venezuelans are risking their lives to get to the United States and flee these conditions. But deporting Venezuelan nationals living in the United States who are ineligible for the United States’ humanitarian parole program back to Venezuela—as described by Mayorkas—to face economic hardship and political persecution at the hands of the Venezuelan government is not a viable, long-term solution.
A Better Venezuela Policy
To fully revamp its Venezuela policy, the Biden administration must follow five key principles. First, the United States should, essentially, leave the domestic Venezuelan crisis for the Venezuelans to resolve. Negotiations between the Venezuelan government and the opposition are necessary to find a lasting, peaceful resolution. While the international community can facilitate dialogue, negotiations must be conducted between the Venezuelan parties only.
Maduro walked away from negotiations with the opposition a year ago, and only just recently returned to talks facilitated by Norway and hosted in Mexico City in late November. The return to negotiations is a significant and promising development, indicating that Maduro is ready to take at least some of the necessary steps to re-engage with the opposition and the international community. Ramping up diplomatic and international pressure on Maduro to remain at the negotiating table is, therefore, essential.
Second, the U.S should not continue to recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s president. Clinging to the Trump-era fiction that Guaidó is the president just prolongs the political crisis by antagonizing the Venezuelan government (which considers Guaidó a threat to the state) and preventing other opposition leaders from gaining momentum inside Venezuela. In supporting Guaidó as the leader of the Venezuelan opposition, the United States deters other opposition figures from taking on a leadership role within the movement because of Guaidó’s U.S. backing and, significantly, his control of Citgo, which his status by the United States confers. Further, Guaidó has lost support inside Venezuela due to corruption allegations and accusations of mismanaged funds, which has contributed to a fractured opposition.
A better strategy would be for the United States and international community to encourage the Venezuelan opposition to participate in Venezuela’s 2024 presidential election and facilitate efforts by the opposition parties to coalesce around a candidate to run against Maduro. This means helping the opposition bolster grassroots organization and mobilization efforts necessary to hold primaries and select a strong, qualified candidate to face Maduro. Opposition leaders such as Henríque Capriles, Leopoldo Lόpez, Maria Corina Machado, Julio Borges, and Sergio Garrido, who won in last year’s regional elections in Barinas (Chávez’s home state), will play important roles in this regard and will help to identify viable options for the opposition’s nominee.
Despite the fear of fraud or manipulation of the vote by the Venezuelan government, the opposition must participate in the 2024 contest as well as local and municipal elections going forward. The opposition boycotted the 2018 presidential election and the 2020 parliamentary elections due to alleged fraud by Maduro and a National Electoral Council that is reportedly composed of Maduro regime loyalists.
No matter the past claims of Venezuelan opposition figures that the vote was manipulated, boycotting elections does not help advance democracy in Venezuela. For instance, Sergio Garrido’s gubernatorial win last year in Barinas serves as evidence that opposition figures can still win within Venezuela’s existing electoral system. The United States and international community can help in this respect by reinforcing their support for democracy and consistently calling for free and fair elections that are administered by an impartial National Electoral Council and overseen by international observers.
Third, the Venezuelan people need sanctions relief. While targeted sanctions on individuals or entities involved in drug trafficking, money laundering, or alleged human rights abuses are justified, broad-based economic sanctions are not. As described above, the Venezeulan population is largely suffering because of broad sanctions imposed on the country (specifically on the state-run oil producer) that have ultimately created a humanitarian crisis there. To lessen its tight grip on Venezuela’s economy, the United States should lift its broad sanctions in exchange for Maduro’s ongoing and earnest participation in negotiations and concrete actions to alleviate the suffering of the Venezuelan people.
The Biden administration has already begun lifting some sanctions in exchange for the Venezuelan government’s cooperation. In November, it eased some oil sanctions by allowing the American oil and gas company Chevron “to resume limited natural resource extraction operations in Venezuela.” Chevron had previously been operating in Venezuela since the 1920s until the United States imposed sanctions on the country in 2019. The U.S. Treasury Department license issued to Chevron will allow the company to resume operations on projects it has with PDVSA and to import some Venezuelan oil to the United States. This is a significant step by the U.S. government and evidence that U.S. sanctions relief is possible if Maduro negotiates in good faith and starts to help his people. The humanitarian agreement hammered out in Mexico City appears to be a step in this direction.
With demonstrated progress, lifting additional oil sanctions should remain on the table as a diplomatic carrot for Maduro. A partial step could involve the U.S. government funneling oil revenues to a humanitarian trust fund, as was done in Afghanistan. This would allow Venezuelan oil money to go directly to the Venezuelan people as opposed to the Venezuelan government. Bringing Venezuelan oil back online for U.S.oil refineries that have the capacity to refine heavy Venezuelan crude and had been regular importers prior to sanctions, would also benefit volatile energy markets, which have been rattled since the Russian invasion of Ukraine jolted global energy supply in early 2022.
Meanwhile, the Venezuelan government can take steps to incentivize domestic economic growth and development by privatizing certain, inefficient state-owned entities. The government can also release political prisoners and recognize the important role of human rights and a free press in Venezuela. Most immediately, the Venezuelan government can make good on the humanitarian agreement it made with the Venezuelan opposition and facilitate the dispatchment of relief funds to the Venezuelan people from a humanitarian fund to be administered by the United Nations. The government agreed to such a humanitarian fund in the November meeting with the opposition, making this an important and first, most tangible step. Reportedly, funds will come from frozen Venezuelan assets abroad and will be used for the power grid, health care, and education.
Fourth, the United States needs to address the Venezuelan migration crisis head-on by holding regional migration talks with Venezuela and neighboring countries in Latin America, including Brazil, Colombia, Panama, and Mexico, which have been greatly impacted by the outflow of Venezuelan migrants. So far, these countries have discussed ways to work together “to create the conditions for safe, orderly, and humane migration” via the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection. The declaration—established in June 2022 at the Summit of the Americas—is designed to build consensus around the ways in which countries in the Western Hemisphere deal with migrants and how they cooperate with one another to address migration, including issuing work visas and temporary status, administering health care, and handling repatriation processes. To accomplish the goals as outlined in the declaration, more action and funding is needed to provide stability and assistance, legal pathways, human migration management, and emergency response measures.
Fifth, the United States must revamp its immigration policy in a way that balances U.S. national security imperatives while also allowing for Venezuelan refugees to enter the country safely and legally. President Biden’s decision to grant Venezuelans temporary protected status in 2021 and to establish the humanitarian parole program are necessary, but insufficient. Indeed, the crisis is severe enough to warrant direct, bilateral migration talks with Venezuela in the same way that the United States has held migration talks with Cuba since the1990s. Rather than looking for new ways to expel Venezuelans from the United States, as Secretary Mayorkas has indicated, the United States can look for new ways to provide safe and legal pathways for them.
For example, the Biden administration can agree to resettle more Venezuelan refugees and increase funding for multilateral organizations facilitating refugee resettlement. The administration could also extend temporary protected status for Venezuelans in the United States beyond the March 2024 date, which is when the short-term immigration status is currently set to expire. Biden can also create temporary or seasonal work programs to which Venezuelan nationals could apply to come legally to the United States under an expanded employment authorization.
The United States did not cause the suffering of the Venezuelan people, but current policies are exacerbating the crisis. It’s time to rethink U.S.-Venezuela policy and do more to address the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela and the root causes of migration to the United States.