Foreign policy often plays a secondary role in a U.S. presidential platform. But Venezuela is mentioned in the second sentence of U.S. President Donald Trump’s reelection pledge as an example he gives of the failures of socialism.
And the issue of Venezuela galvanizes the Latino population in few states like it does in Florida, where Trump kicked off his reelection campaign in June 2019. But the Sunshine State is key for either candidate to win in November. As one Republican strategist told The New Yorker’s Jonathan Blitzer, “If you solve the Venezuela problem, you get three for the price of one…You’ll make the Colombians, Nicaraguans, and Cubans in Florida very happy.” At his third State of the Union address on February 4, one of Trump’s guests of honor was Juan Guaidó. The 36-year-old, now in his second year as interim president of Venezuela, received a bipartisan standing ovation from the U.S. Congress.
Where the Democratic presumptive nominee Joe Biden stands on policy and positions toward Caracas is no fringe issue, either, if he wants to win Florida on the road to the White House. While a myriad of issues is swirling in a tumultuous 2020 election season, it is notable that Biden won his first primary contest (South Carolina) six days after an interview with early frontrunner for the Democratic nomination Bernie Sanders aired on February 23 in which the Vermont senator was less than critical of the late chavista ally Fidel Castro. Biden went on to overtake Sanders in national polls in early March.
As such, U.S. policy toward Venezuela—especially opposition to Nicolás Maduro and support of Guaidó—is one of the few policy areas with support on both sides of the aisle in Congress, especially among the Florida caucus. Trump won Florida in 2016 with 49.1 percent of the vote to Hillary Clinton’s 47.8 percent. Biden led the incumbent by at least 5 points in most June 2020 Florida polls.
In Venezuela, legislative elections are scheduled for December 6, and Guaidó’s interim presidency is based constitutionally on his role as president of the National Assembly. Starting in June, however, the Maduro regime orchestrated moves to disqualify party leaders, install its own supporters into key roles in three major opposition parties—including Guaidó’s—and stack the National Electoral Council with chavista-friendly officials. The Organization of American States (OAS) passed a June 26 resolution rejecting the moves and therein the legitimacy of the December elections.
Meanwhile, 96 percent of families in Venezuela were living in poverty at the close of 2019, including 80 percent in extreme poverty, according to a national survey released by a local university on July 7. Moreover, the country is under-equipped for the COVID-19 pandemic, as barely half of virus-dedicated hospitals have regular water supply.
Here is where the presidential rivals stand on U.S. policy toward Venezuela.
- Biden voiced his support for Guaidó on February 9, less than three weeks after the latter took the oath of office as interim president of Venezuela on January 23, 2019, making Biden one of the first Democratic contenders to do so.
- Biden says that, if elected, he will extend Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Venezuelans “seeking relief from the humanitarian crisis brought on by the Maduro regime.” TPS grants legal status to U.S.-based foreign nationals for limited periods—frequently subject to extensions—in cases of armed conflicts or natural disasters in their home countries. There were 395,000 Venezuelans in the United States in 2018, of whom about 200,000 Venezuelans would be eligible for TPS, per the Congressional Budget Office.
- In March 2020, Biden also told Americas Quarterly of his intention to extend TPS to Venezuelans, saying, “The international community also has a responsibility to help Venezuela’s neighbors like Colombia to manage the grave humanitarian crisis created by the millions of Venezuelan migrants who’ve fled the country.”
- Biden supports stronger multilateral sanctions and increased sanctions on individual Maduro supporters.
- In March 2020, Biden told Americas Quarterly, “Maduro is a dictator, plain and simple.” But he added that Washington “should not be in the business of regime change” but rather “to press for a democratic outcome through free and fair elections, and to help the Venezuelan people rebuild their country.”
- In July 2019, Biden said that the Maduro regime uses dialogue “as a tactic to delay action and concentrate power.”
- In March 2014 the OAS passed, with 29 votes in favor and the United States as one of only three objections, a resolution in “solidarity” with the year-old Maduro administration. At the time, then-Vice President Biden called the situation in Venezuela “alarming,” discredited the possibility of a “genuine dialogue,” and said the situation in Venezuela reminded him of “previous eras, when strongmen governed through violence and oppression … and human rights, hyperinflation, scarcity, and grinding poverty wrought havoc on the people of the hemisphere.”
- In step with the Lima Group, the Trump administration was one of the first governments to recognize Guaidó as interim president of Venezuela.
- On March 31, the U.S. State Department proposed the Democratic Transition Framework for Venezuela, which, among other things, creates guidelines for the conditions for free and fair elections to be held, including that neither Guaidó nor Maduro be party to a transition team. Members of the Lima Group, as well as the European Union supported the plan, but there’s been little commitment by Maduro to engage with it.
- The Trump administration quashed a bipartisan congressional effort to grant TPS to Venezuelans in the United States in July 2019. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Acting Director Ken Cuccinelli wrote then that while the administration “continues to monitor” the situation in Venezuela that there “may be other immigration relief measures available.” He also said the administration is reluctant in general to grant TPS to new groups since courts had denied the president’s previous attempts to end it for others, thus making TPS a permanent situation rather than a temporary one.
- Still, some think the president could grant TPS to Venezuelans in the months leading up to the November general election as a way to carve out an edge in a must-win state. One in every three Venezuelans in the United States arrived after 2015, and 53 percent of all U.S.-based Venezuelans are in Florida.
- In addition to continuing individual sanctions, the Trump administration upped the ante in 2019 and sanctioned state-owned oil firm PDVSA and subsidiaries, as well as Venezuela’s Central Bank. The U.S. Department of Justice also charged Maduro and 14 other officials with narco-terrorism and drug trafficking in March 2020.
- In a June 19 interview with Axios, Trump said he “would maybe think about” meeting with Maduro, as he’s “never opposed to meetings” in general. The comments are in line with September 2018 remarks, when the president said he’d “certainly be open” to meeting with the de facto leader as he likes to keep “all options on the table” (including military intervention, speech Biden referred to as “saber rattling”). Also in the Axios interview, the president said he could have lived “with…or without” the decision to recognize Guaidó. The Washington Post reported that Florida Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott “gently took issue” and reaffirmed support for Guaidó with the president. Trump then tweeted on June 22 that he would only meet with Maduro if it were to negotiate the Venezuelan leader’s departure from office.
- Trump’s remarks underscored the account presented by former National Security Adviser John Bolton in a new book that Trump had cooled on Guaidó and thought he was “weak,” while Maduro was “tough.” Members of the Trump administration widely denounced Bolton’s account of his time in office, though in a September 2019 tweet, Trump wrote that, “In fact, my views on Venezuela, and especially Cuba, were far stronger than those of John Bolton. He was holding me back!”