Just over a year ago, the U.S. enacted a policy of putting “maximum pressure” on the Venezuelan dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro. After sham elections, Maduro held his second inauguration in January of 2019 amid widespread public protests. Shortly thereafter, opposition National Assembly president Juan Guaidó assumed the interim presidency, in keeping with the Venezuelan constitution’s provisions on replacing an illegitimate president. As Venezuelans took to the streets in protest against the Maduro regime, the international community coalesced around Guaidó, with 60 governments recognizing him as the Venezuelan head of state.
As part of the “maximum pressure” policy, the Treasury Department expanded sanctions against Venezuela, specifically targeting oil exports and high-ranking regime officials. U.S. policymakers intended to weaken Maduro’s standing within the country and cause defections in the government and military. But in recent years, the regime has carefully cultivated loyalty within the armed services by handing over key sectors of the economy to military leaders and embedding Cuban security personnel to stamp out dissent. So the sanctions proved incapable of meaningfully crippling Maduro’s regime. With help from the Russian oil firm Rosneft, Maduro continued to export oil, while illicit trade in narcotics and gold buoyed government coffers. With little domestic appetite for military intervention, the U.S.’s efforts to oust Maduro stalled.
Meanwhile, Maduro consolidated power with several thousand extrajudicial killings. The U.N. Human Rights Council, apparently untroubled by the murder campaign, subsequently admitted Venezuela, lending Maduro much-needed legitimacy. Earlier this year, the regime attempted to stamp out Guaidó once and for all, planting a Chavista sympathizer at the head of the National Assembly while opposition members were blocked from entering.
Rather than let these aggressive moves go unchallenged, the U.S. has changed tack in the last few weeks, giving “maximum pressure” a new meaning. On March 26, the Justice Department indicted Maduro and 14 of his associates on drug-trafficking charges, based on long-documented evidence that regime officials have enriched themselves through the cocaine trade. By offering a $15 million reward for Maduro’s capture and placing similar bounties on the heads of other key regime figures, U.S. law-enforcement agents hoped to spur action against the regime within the country. The American Enterprise Institute’s Ryan Berg tells National Review that Venezuela watchers in the U.S. had pushed for indictments for a long time, but policymakers never found the opportune moment. That changed in March, as oil prices collapsed following the breakdown of OPEC+ talks between Saudi Arabia and Russia. Oil makes up 98 percent of the Venezuelan economy, and the revenues from it have provided the socialist government cover for decades of economic mismanagement. “Once the geopolitics flipped in the U.S’s favor, the administration decided to accelerate the pace of its actions against the Venezuelan regime,” Berg says.
Maduro had already suffered a blow when President Trump imposed sanctions on Rosneft for facilitating the Venezuelan oil trade. The Russians attempted to channel Venezuelan oil through a different subsidiary, TNK Trading International, but the Treasury Department swiftly moved to sanction that entity as well. And the shock from the coronavirus pandemic brought the price of oil so low that the Russians have now ceased operations in Venezuela altogether.
As oil revenue dries up, cutting off illicit revenue could push the regime toward insolvency. To that end, the U.S. Southern Command has moved three destroyers, a littoral combat ship, and surveillance aircraft into the Caribbean to interdict drug shipments in and out of Venezuela. The mobilization of some of the military’s most expensive assets marks a dramatic break from the diplomacy-driven anti-Maduro efforts of the past year. “This is about as pressure-intensive as the U.S. government can get,” says Berg. Squeezing the regime’s finances could cripple Maduro’s ability to buy off military personnel, spurring long-awaited defections. But Frank Mora, a former Defense Department official, points out that the extent of Maduro’s dependence on drug money is unclear, and maintaining SOUTHCOM operations will incur continuing costs. “I don’t think that these assets can be deployed for more than 4–6 weeks,” Mora says. “There’s a maintenance cycle, a deployment cycle, and these assets are required elsewhere,” which adds urgency to SOUTHCOM’s maneuvers.
Coupled with the legal and military actions is a transition plan unveiled by the State Department in late March. The Democratic Transition Framework calls for a new body, excluding both Maduro and Guaidó, to lead the country until free and fair elections can be held. It is unlikely, though, that the regime will negotiate with the U.S. “The transition framework requires some willingness on the part of the people you’ve indicted to negotiate,” says Mora. “It’s hard to imagine why, if you’re indicted, you’d be predisposed to negotiate.”
Berg argues that the transition framework is not an attempt to bring Maduro to the negotiating table, but rather a signal to the Venezuelan people and low-ranking regime officials that there is path forward without Maduro. “It helps people down the food chain in the regime to see that they can have a future under a new government,” he says.
With Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis worsening each day, the possibility of democratic transition represents a beacon of hope for the Venezuelan people. The Maduro regime, on the precipice of collapse for years now, has proven agonizingly resilient. But with Russia and China less willing to prop it up, and collapsed oil prices having cut off crucial funding, the socialists in Venezuela are as vulnerable as ever.