On October 21st, CNN published a piece stating that two sources had confirmed that the United States would no longer be recognizing Juan Guaidó as caretaker president of Venezuela starting January 2023.
Even though the caretaker government’s influence had already been fading to the point of irrelevance and has been under fire because of issues like the scandalous management of Monómeros Colombo-Venezolanos, the Biden administration not recognizing it anymore would mean the final nail on the experiment’s coffin, and a shift in the country’s delicate political climate, one that’s inextricably linked to global geopolitics, and that could contribute to consolidating Maduro’s power for years to come.
All Venezuela observers know that the field on which Venezuelans dispute political power is terribly unequal. Nicolás Maduro and the PSUV control the nation’s security apparatus as well as the institutions responsible for checks and balances. Their abuses are thoroughly documented in investigations as the one by the UN Independent International Fact-Finding mission.
The opposition plays a completely different game. After failing to vote PSUV out of power, its only chance of leveling the field was securing an ally that was more powerful than the Maduro regime. Given that there’s nothing the opposition can give Maduro to have him release his grip because there’s nothing they have that he wants, the U.S. had to be the one to put pressure on Maduro. The sanctions, the warrants for arrest, and supporting the claim that the 2018 elections were fraudulent, were the big moves made to this effect.
U.S. support could give the opposition a fighting chance, but three years later, Maduro still occupies Miraflores.
Leaving the Field to the Contenders
If the U.S. stops recognizing Guaidó in January 2023, would that mean they recognize Maduro?
While possible, it’s unlikely. All this is happening in the runup to the 2024 presidential elections, and the opposition’s primaries to choose a unitary candidate are set (maybe) for June 2023; the U.S. has said it supports an electoral solution to Venezuela’s political conflict, but that the Maduro regime must ensure transparent and equal electoral conditions.
With the 2024 elections on the horizon, this may be the perfect opportunity for the U.S. to ease its way out of this complicated conflict by having all parties commit to elections, and accept the results, whatever they may be.
For this to work, Maduro and the opposition will need to agree on basic conditions to make the election minimally competitive. The setting for drawing up these agreements could be the Mexico talks that were suspended last year, after Maduro walked away demanding that the U.S. free Alex Saab. The U.S. withdrawing recognition of the Guaidó government could be tailored towards convincing Maduro that things are changing, and he should return to the table.
But why would the U.S. go against its own policy just to get Maduro to speak to the opposition? Well, the U.S.’ grand strategy has changed significantly.
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, oil has turned incredibly expensive again, and futures contracts show no sign of prices dropping to pre-war levels any time soon. This, combined with post-COVID economic consequences, has brewed up quite a storm.
The Biden administration approaches the November midterms and their own 2024 presidential elections facing the economic shocks brought on by the war, a serious nuclear threat from Russia, and even a possible war with China. Interests and incentives have shifted, and Biden’s focus has shifted to controlling oil prices. Venezuela’s crude oil reserves could greatly help them out going forward, and just like the U.S. has put its principles aside when dealing with Saudi Arabia, they may do it again to allow Maduro access to world oil markets.
To the U.S., the current state of the Venezuelan economic and political crisis doesn’t compare with the difficult issues it is yet to face in the coming years, so they will seek to move on from a problem they haven’t solved in over 20 years.
Maduro finds himself in a privileged position: by going back to the negotiations in Mexico, he has a chance to win big. If he sits down with the opposition and agrees to conditions for the elections, he could get the U.S. to stop recognizing Guaidó, dealing a blow to his local opponents. If Maduro respects the conditions he agreed to, he could get the U.S. to lift some of the heavy sanctions that keep him from accessing global oil markets.
There’s no reason why Maduro wouldn’t sit back down in Mexico if sanctions relief and demolishing the opposition are the incentives, especially considering that all it would take is negotiating with a fractured alliance, too weak to really stop him.
And if Maduro goes back to Mexico and negotiations don’t work out, he loses nothing, while the opposition would probably come out weakened by infighting. If they reach an agreement, and Maduro breaks it during the elections, he wouldn’t win anything but he wouldn’t lose either, he’d just be back to where he is now. Maduro may not even have to break the agreement considering that the opposition could easily implode during its primary, leaving Maduro to win the 2024 elections without much competition.
In other words, Maduro stands to make massive gains by playing along, while the worst-case scenario sees him stuck back where he already finds himself now. Lots to win, little to lose… This could be a big chance for him to consolidate power for years to come.