AMONG THE various governments seeking the attention of the Biden administration is the Chavista regime of Venezuela, which was battered — but not broken — by the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy. In the past several weeks, President Nicolás Maduro, who has further entrenched and criminalized the autocracy first established by Hugo Chávez, has taken several steps clearly intended to appeal to Washington — including releasing six jailed executives of the Citgo oil company to home custody, and appointing two independent members to the five-member council that oversees national elections.
On Wednesday, Mr. Maduro said he would agree to negotiations with Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader who since 2019 has been recognized by the United States and dozens of other countries as Venezuela’s acting president. Meanwhile, some Democrats in Congress are urging the Biden administration to “increase engagement with the Maduro government,” as House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.) put it. The International Crisis Group says President Biden should ease some of the crippling sanctions applied to Caracas by the previous administration.
The case for such a policy shift starts with the failure of the U.S. campaign to force the ouster of the Maduro regime through such drastic steps as blocking its sales of oil, the country’s dominant revenue source. Even before that, Venezuela was undergoing one of the worst economic collapses of any country in peacetime; the U.S. measures accelerated what has become an exodus of 5 million people, or one-sixth of the country’s population. Those who remain are afflicted by dire shortages of power and essential goods, including vaccines for the coronavirus.
To a large extent, Venezuela has become a failed state. Colombian guerrillas and other armed groups control large parts of the countryside, where they loot minerals and traffic in drugs. But, backed by Cuba and Russia, Mr. Maduro has held fast in Caracas with the help of deeply corrupted military and police commanders. Repeated attempts by the opposition to force out the government through mass demonstrations or a military rebellion have failed, while thousands of opposition activists have been killed or imprisoned.
Mr. Guaidó implicitly acknowledged the need to change course this week in a video calling for a “national salvation agreement.” As he outlined it, the deal would include a plan for covid-19 vaccinations, internationally monitored parliamentary and presidential elections, and the gradual lifting of international sanctions. It’s easy enough for the Biden administration to support this agenda, and it quickly did so. “The only solution to this crisis is a comprehensive agreement leading to a democratic outcome,” tweeted Julie Chung, the State Department’s acting chief diplomat for Latin America.
The harder problem is what to do when, as all expect, the Maduro regime refuses to accept genuinely democratic elections or even negotiate in good faith — as it has during multiple previous rounds of mediation. Should the United States relax some sanctions to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, in exchange for further partial concessions from the regime? Perhaps — but at a minimum, those concessions must include the release of all political prisoners, and the acceptance of media freedom and peaceful opposition activity.