Source: Carlos Becerra/Bloomberg.
U.S.-Venezuela relations have changed rapidly in the past weeks. In mid-October, a delegation of the Venezuelan opposition, supported by the United States, and the government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro signed a partial accord which has gained much traction. Indeed, Venezuela has not seen such a consequential bargain between the government and the opposition since the 2003 agreements that resulted in a recall referendum against former president Hugo Chávez in 2004.
Perhaps the most important outcome of such accords—besides the welcoming news of the liberation of some political prisoners—came from Washington, as the Biden administration temporarily lifted oil, gas, and gold-related sanctions on Venezuela that had been in place since 2019. These sanction-relief measures, however, are conditioned on “the expedited reinstatement of all candidates” who are currently banned from running and “the release of all wrongfully detained U.S. nationals and Venezuelan political prisoners.” The statement strongly concludes that “failure to abide by the terms of this arrangement will lead the United States to reverse steps we have taken.”
The conditional, time-bound nature of the sanction-relief measures is neither a reckless blunder, as many Republicans have argued, nor the silver bullet to “step toward protecting the lives and dignity of the Venezuelan people,” as one Democratic representative claimed. Rather, the policy is a shrewd and strategic move intended to create cracks in the Venezuelan elite. The United States is effectively and credibly putting the ball in Maduro’s court: will he truly follow through on these conditions, resulting in much-needed cash inflows in an electoral year, or will he forgo such economic benefits to safely retain an absolute grip on power?
The true potential of the policy lies not in its ability to change Maduro’s behavior, given his reputation as a bad-faith negotiator, or even on the prospect of securing favorable conditions for the 2024 elections. Rather, its influence lies in its potential to foster significant internal divisions within the regime. After all, it has been an empirical regularity in the study of dictatorial breakdowns that internal fractures in hegemonic autocracies like Maduro’s are the most likely drivers of political openings and, eventually, democratization. As political scientist Andreas Schedler aptly points out in his analysis of hegemonic autocracies’ demise: “As soon as cracks open in the facade of elite unity, the whole edifice of hegemonic invincibility starts to crumble.”
Then, for those concerned with Venezuela’s democratization, it will be most promising to understand how these sanctions-relief measures might impact the Maduro regime’s internal cohesion. Indeed, under specific conditions, these measures could create significant divisions within the dictatorship that could pay democratizing dividends within the next year.
In this optimistic scenario, the Maduro regime would determine that the benefits of re-entry into the international oil market surpass the costs of allowing more competitive elections in 2024. As the regime enjoys considerably higher oil revenues, they might seriously consider lifting the bans on opposition candidates by the end of November, as conditioned by the U.S. government, to maintain the steady stream of income.
Yet, while U.S. sanctions-relief policy offers such tempting benefits, it also ups the ante by demanding a much more competitive electoral environment in 2024. For instance, the regime would be taking a large risk if it allowed a popular opposition leader like María Corina Machado, who obtained over 90 percent of the votes in the opposition primaries, to legally run under a united opposition banner. If that happened, then the Maduro regime would be required to employ costly strategies, like intensified efforts at electoral manipulation and fraud, and divert limited resources from oil revenues to electoral competition. Should these methods fail and the opposition achieve an electoral victory, the regime would be forced to rely on the military for repression—an extremely costly strategy that could further aggravate internal divisions.
The Maduro regime is thus forced to deliberate about breaking with its stable but cash-strapped status quo to move into more profitable but uncertain territory—creating potential for internal tensions, as many of its members would certainly not want to kill the golden goose of rising oil revenues. These divisions could harshly weaken the regime’s hegemony, creating the most likely opening for Venezuela’s democratization.
While the regime may choose economic gains over electoral stability, providing a clear path for political liberalization and likely democratization, the alternative is much more likely. For an autocratic regime in a stable status quo, exposure to unnecessary electoral competition, uncertainty, and disunity is just too costly—even in exchange for an improved economy.
Let us not forget that the Maduro dictatorship—like other autocracies such as Cuba, Iran, or Russia—has impressively adapted to economic sanctions while remaining firmly in power. The status quo has been conveniently maintained by the Venezuela autocracy thanks to the systematization and internal socialization of drug trafficking, oil exports on the black market, and financial aid from, among others, Turkey, China, Iran, and Russia.
The expectation that the regime would freely and fairly enable highly popular and formidable opposition candidates to participate is, unfortunately, naive. Thus, it comes as no surprise that high-ranking elites—like Socialist Party deputy Diosdado Cabello or National Assembly President Jorge Rodríguez, a signatory of the accords—have already sent a clear signal to their military and partisan audiences who may have considered allowing further competition for oil benefits: “We do not accept blackmail [from Washington]. The disqualified candidates will remain barred.”
Ultimately, the accords and ensuing U.S. sanctions-relief policy have already created new junctures that, under certain conditions, could have democratizing potential. Unfortunately, the regime is unlikely to allow those conditions as they face a choice between economic benefits and regime stability—naturally preferring the latter. Even so, the introduction of that choice provides even a minimal degree of hope for regime divisions and democratic openings as the elite splits over whether stability or growth provide the best path forward. Though the payoff may not be immediate, U.S. policymakers and the international community should continue to support measures, such as the recent sanctions-relief policy, that increase the odds of fostering Maduro’s worst fear: division and uncertainty within the regime.
Leonardo Di Bonaventura-Altuve is a doctoral student of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. His research focuses on democracy promotion, the international dimensions of democratization and autocratization, and international relations theory. Di Bonaventura-Altuve is from Guanare, Venezuela.
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