The Venezuelan dictator defied sanctions, international isolation, and massive protests. He appears to have a firmer footing than he’s had in years. Now what?
By Will Freeman
A few years ago, it looked like Nicolás Maduro’s days could be numbered, as countries around the world, including Venezuela’s neighbors, began turning their backs on his authoritarian regime. Governments in North America, Europe, and Latin America shuttered their embassies in Venezuela and cut diplomatic ties. In 2019, the United States blocked access to its financial markets, sanctioned oil, Venezuela’s top export, and put secondary sanctions on any company doing business with Caracas, spurring international firms to back out of deals. Before long, Maduro had achieved a pariah status unlike any Latin American head of state since the end of the Cold War. That same year, mass protests, which had escalated over the course of Maduro’s presidency, seemed to push his regime to the brink. Maduro resorted to a brutal crackdown to quell the unrest. Many in Washington wagered that he did not have long.
But now, less than four years later, Maduro is not only still in power but on a firmer footing than before. His government has restored ties with its Latin American neighbors—notably, Colombia, Argentina, and Brazil. The economy has improved somewhat since oil production, which hit an all-time low in July 2020, has ramped back up as foreign companies resume pumping. How has Maduro—a leader who never possessed the rhetorical skill of his predecessor, Hugo Chávez—survived when so many counted him out? Dictators, once isolated, rarely make such diplomatic comebacks. Why has Maduro proved to be the exception to the rule?
Given Latin America’s long history of foreign interventions, state sovereignty has often been seen as sacrosanct—even when it means extending recognition to dictators. The region’s aversion to interventionism has, in the past, united otherwise diametrically opposed governments of the right and left. During the Cold War, authoritarian power grabs rarely led to the severing of diplomatic ties among Latin American states, even when they caused diplomatic friction: Mexico was the only Latin American country to break off relations with Chile under dictator Augusto Pinochet. Although the entire region, save Mexico, joined the United States in isolating Cuba’s Fidel Castro during the 1960s, it was a short-lived exception. By the 1970s, governments across the region swung back to recognizing Havana. In Venezuela, even as Chávez pushed his country in a more authoritarian direction, Latin American leaders rarely said a word. Far from rupturing relations, Chávez’s promises of cheap oil helped him to deepen regional ties.
That made it surprising when most of Latin America joined the United States in isolating Maduro in 2019. But diplomacy within the region had changed, becoming increasingly beholden to ideology. The right-of-center governments in office across much of the region were eager to oppose Maduro. Some, like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, seemed to be playing mostly to domestic audiences, having won office by stoking fears that domestic leftist rivals would mount a Venezuela-style authoritarian takeover. Regardless of their motivations, it wasn’t hard for presidents across the region to justify freezing out Maduro, whose police and security forces had killed 19,000 people between 2016 and 2019, jailed hundreds of political prisoners, and tortured opponents, according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The movement to isolate Maduro quickly picked up steam. In 2017, thirteen countries from Latin America and Canada formed the Lima Group to work on resolving Venezuela’s crisis. In September 2018—after all EU member states but France had recalled their ambassadors to Venezuela—five Lima Group members referred Maduro to the International Criminal Court, which launched an investigation into alleged crimes against humanity.
By early 2019, besides a half dozen or so holdouts, every country in Latin America had switched recognition from Maduro to Juan Guaidó, the Venezuelan opposition leader. The United States had already recognized Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president. The Trump administration took isolation the furthest, ratcheting up sanctions. Yet for Maduro—whose Socialist Party professes Latin American solidarity as one of its ideological pillars—abandonment by Venezuela’s neighbors had to sting too.
The freeze-out didn’t last long. The anti-Maduro coalition began to show cracks as soon as the Trump administration floated military intervention—an option condemned by the Lima Group. Maduro did his part by “isolation-proofing” his regime. He deepened diplomatic, military, and economic ties with other regimes under sanctions, including Iran, Turkey, and Russia. A shadow trade in illicit gold and drugs—trafficked abroad by criminal groups under the watch of the military—raked in hard currency. So did the export of crude oil to India and China via Russian intermediaries. Opaque privatizations and de facto dollarization restored some measure of stability to the economy at the price of driving up already sky-high levels of inequality. It was enough to keep most regime insiders from defecting. Meanwhile, Guaidó’s interim government fumbled under pressure, falling prey to infighting and scandals. By December 2019, Guaidó was polling as badly as Maduro.
Then came the thaw. From late 2019 to late 2022, leftist presidents won elections in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Honduras, Peru, and Mexico. Slowly but surely, they brought Maduro in from the cold, driven both by pragmatism and some measure of sympathy for the nominally socialist autocrat. The first sign of change came in Bolivia’s mountainous capital, La Paz, where recently elected leftist president Luis Arce made a last-minute decision to invite Maduro instead of Guaidó to his November 2020 inauguration. Then Arce restored diplomatic ties. Peru was next to normalize, following the 2021 election of leftist Pedro Castillo as president. In 2022, Colombia elected its first leftist president in decades. Although Gustavo Petro called Maduro a “dictator” on the campaign trail, once in office he quickly restored bilateral relations, reopening the Colombia-Venezuela border and returning control of a Venezuelan state-owned enterprise based in Colombia to Maduro. After Argentina, Mexico, and Bolivia left the Lima group, it crumbled. Argentina upgraded its diplomatic representative in Caracas to full ambassador, and soon Portugal did the same. Spain and France are now mulling following suit. In January 2023, Brazil’s leftist president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, asked his foreign minister to restore ties
Post-Washington Latin America
Not all of the region’s leftist presidents sympathize with Maduro—Chile’s Gabriel Boric is an unsparing critic—but most apparently do. At the January 2023 summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, a regional body founded by Venezuela, Honduras’s leftist president, Xiomara Castro, denounced “the policies of aggression and economic boycott against Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela” and thanked “Nicolás and the Commander Hugo Chávez.” On the sidelines of the conference, Lula said Guaidó’s interim presidency was “abominable for democracy” and likened the isolation of Maduro to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The comparison, however puzzling, speaks to the Latin American left’s distaste for interventionist foreign policy, at least when it targets one of their own. When Castillo attempted an authoritarian power grab in late 2022 and was impeached by Peru’s right-leaning Congress, the region’s leftist presidents showed no such hesitancy to intervene, instead rushing to Castillo’s defense—further sign that ideology-tinged diplomacy has become the norm in the region.
Washington’s approach to Maduro has shifted, too. But rather than setting the trend, the Biden administration has followed in Latin America’s footsteps. That, itself, is a sign of the times. In an increasingly multipolar world, Latin American presidents—even those who present themselves as Washington’s partners—are no longer hesitant to challenge orthodoxy or set their own agenda. Since last March, Biden administration envoys have met with Maduro, secured the release of U.S. prisoners, and scaled back some sanctions. The stated goal is to nudge Maduro back to the negotiating table with the opposition. Since November 2022, opposition delegates have begun an internationally monitored negotiation process with the regime—the fifth to take place in eight years.
But Maduro seems unlikely to cede much ground, if any. Not only did his delegates force the opposition to ditch one of its negotiators, but Maduro also appeared on Venezuelan TV alongside regime insider Diosdado Cabello as the latter intoned “there will not be primaries,” referring to opposition plans for choosing a new unity candidate ahead of the next Venezuelan presidential election in 2024. It won’t be hard for Maduro to meddle in that contest. But for now, the opposition is still relying on the regime-controlled National Electoral Council to organize the primary.
The New Playing Field
Venezuela’s neighbors say they want to help put the country on a path toward democracy. Both Brazil’s Lula and Colombia’s Petro have expressed a desire to mediate between Maduro and the opposition ahead of the 2024 election. In early March, Lula sent a top foreign-policy aide to Caracas to meet with regime officials and an opposition leader. Petro floated the idea of convening a forum in Bogotá to bring together Venezuelan opposition leaders.
But there are reasons to be skeptical. Petro has anchored two of his top domestic goals—a green energy transition and a peace deal with rebel groups—on Maduro, who has agreed to sell natural gas to Colombia and support dialogue between Petro’s government and a rebel faction operating from bases inside Venezuela. Lula’s international ambitions—which include a far-fetched aspiration to negotiate an end to Russia’s war on Ukraine—go far beyond Venezuela.
It seems doubtful that Lula or Petro, who face political headwinds at home, would put their own interests at risk to prod a reluctant Maduro toward accepting freer or fairer elections. In the best-case scenario, they might act as genuinely neutral mediators. But in the worst-case scenario, either or both could end up helping to whitewash electoral fraud.
Most likely, whatever role they play will fall somewhere in between. Even though the 2024 presidential election isn’t expected to be free and fair, Maduro’s neighbors will likely recognize the result. Unfortunately, that could give Maduro a patina of legitimacy and defrost relations with EU member states. If Washington is the only government still refusing to recognize Maduro, he will resemble a latter-day Fidel Castro: isolated from the United States but connected to most of the rest of the world. Perhaps that was his goal all along.
But Venezuela’s new reality is not all bad news for the Venezuelan people and the country’s prodemocracy forces—at least not necessarily. Much will depend on whether Venezuela’s restored diplomatic and commercial ties sow divisions among regime insiders, or whether Maduro keeps a firm grip on his coalition of party bureaucrats, crime bosses, and military men. There are already signs of jostling among regime insiders: In mid-March, Energy Minister Tareck El Aissami resigned his post, elected officials and judges were ousted, and twenty people were arrested, including a private-sector leader—all part of what Maduro claims is a crackdown on corruption in Venezuela’s state-owned oil company. Whether the ousters and arrests are really about corruption or are an attempt to sideline internal rivals remains unclear. Using carrots, sticks, or both, Maduro will have to ensure the loyalty of the new class of businesspeople that has emerged out of Venezuela’s limited economic rebound—or face a new set of internal rivals.
Maduro has gained a reputation as a wily, adaptative autocrat. Ironically, it might have been easier to lord over an isolated enclave than to deal with the complex new realities of an internationally connected Venezuela: It was one thing for Maduro to control a nearly uniformly impoverished population amid a cratered economy. But new revenue streams and diplomatic channels connecting Venezuela to the world are producing a new, messier reality that will require Maduro to recalibrate his balancing act. By the same token, however, the opposition may discover new fault lines in the regime coalition ripe for exploitation.
Still, it would be a mistake to underestimate Maduro. To Venezuelans’ and Latin America’s great misfortune, he has an undeniable knack for survival.
Copyright © 2023 National Endowment for Democracy
Image Credit: Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images