Yesterday evening, the Biden administration announced that it will once again extend recognition to Juan Guaidó as interim president of Venezuela for an additional year. Guaidó’s claim to Venezuela’s presidency is based on a controversial interpretation of an article of the country’s Constitution that allows the National Assembly president, in the absence of an elected president, to temporarily take charge of government while new elections are called. Since Nicolás Maduro’s 2018 re-election was neither free nor fair, Guaidó’s supporters claim, the president of the National Assembly at the time at which a new presidential term began must continue to hold office until Maduro abandons power. On Monday evening, a group of legislators of the National Assembly elected in 2015 reaffirmed this interpretation, extending Guaidó’s interim presidency by an additional year.
Guaidó’s claim is tenuous both legally and politically. He has never won a national election, his term as legislator expired more than a year ago, and his poll numbers are as low as Maduro’s. His interpretation of the Constitution is highly disputed, especially after the National Assembly’s five-year term expired in 2021. His administration of public funds has come under intense criticism – including by top members of his coalition – for its lack of transparency and associated corruption scandals. Monday’s decision counted with the support of less than half of the principal legislators elected in 2015 – though the official tally was inflated through the questionable practice of incorporating substitutes of principal legislators who do not recognize the validity of the sessions.
Many of Guaidó’s international backers recognize that his claim is problematic yet argue that continued recognition of his interim government is needed to bar Maduro from accessing the nation’s funds abroad and using them to consolidate his rule. The argument illustrates all that is wrong with the Venezuela policy that U.S. President Joe Biden inherited from his predecessor and is about to double down on.
The central idea of this “maximum pressure” approach – implemented by Trump and Biden both through economic sanctions and by the transfer of control of Venezuelan government funds to Guaidó’s interim government – is that depriving the country of the funds needed to sustain its economy will bring about regime change. It hasn’t, and it won’t. It will simply contribute to worsening the country’s humanitarian crisis, fuel animosity toward the United States, deepen opposition divisions, and weaken civil society.
In a new study published today as part of the Sanctions and Security Research Project, I argue that U.S. economic sanctions toward Venezuela – which, in contrast to those of other nations, block the country’s access to export and financial markets – have played a crucial role in limiting the country’s access to foreign exchange, contributing to a collapse of 72 percent in the country’s per capita income – the equivalent of four Great Depressions and the largest contraction ever documented in Latin America. Aggregate data show that oil…