Soon after Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro secured a second term in an election that has since been widely regarded as rigged, the president enthusiastically greeted crowds of Venezuelans gathered outside the presidential palace in Caracas for an election night celebration. “This was a historic day! The day of a heroic victory! The day of a beautiful victory — of a truly popular victory,” Maduro said.
But other countries don’t exactly share Maduro’s gusto for those re-election results. The Venezuelan leader has faced international backlash in the past year because he had intimidated or barred from opponents from running. In January, opposition leader Juan Guaido assumed an interim presidency amid public outcry against the corrupt Maduro regime, advocating for free and fair elections. The United States, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Peru, Britain, Germany, France, Spain and more than a dozen other members of the European Union have all recognized Guaido as the legitimate leader of Venezuela, and there are indications of rising military defections from Venezuela.
Less than a week ago, El Salvador’s president Nayib Bukele announced that the country would be severing diplomatic relations with Venezuela. As part of this decision, Venezuelan diplomats were given 48 hours to vacate the Venezuelan embassy. In retaliation, Maduro chose to expel the El Salvadorean diplomats from Venezuela, making it clear that relations between the two countries reached an all-time low. The abrupt diplomatic shift has caught the attention of other countries; Guatemala’s government has since indicated an interest in breaking ties with Maduro’s government on Twitter as well. Why all the hostility around Maduro’s election and past political position? Venezuela’s political stability has been the center of international conversation as a result of former President Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro’s recent terms, which have spurred what some have termed the country’s “free fall”: Hyper-inflation, food shortages, stifled dissent and mass migrations out of the country have led many to believe that the ongoing systemic crisis in Venezuela is exacerbated by an unresponsive and corrupt president. In particular, the recent waves of food and water shortages have had devastating effects on Venezuelans. Earlier this summer, BBC reported on power cuts throughout the country that forced some families in Venezuela to forgo cool air in the summer and eat rotting meat that decomposed in no-longer-cool fridges. Thus, El Salvador’s government has maintained the claim it is no longer worth it to continue diplomatic negotiations with a country whose leadership has shown an unwillingness to change its disturbing behavior.
However, it would be wise to exercise some restraint in any decision to cut off negotiating efforts. Even if El Salvador has decided to cut ties with Venezuela, the United States should carefully consider its own posture towards the increasingly dictatorial regime. One relevant consideration is that sanctions and embargoes have mixed legacies both in the United States and abroad; empirical studies have shown that these policy tools are more likely to create economic pressure without the necessary political pressure to spur regime change. Failing sanctions on Iran have correlated with increasing Iranian violations of the nuclear deal, and the Cuban embargo has only further cemented the rift between Cuba and the United States, without much political progress. Democratic countries should recall that attempts to isolate other governments can only further drive Venezuela away from the ideals they wish to uphold.
Even if we believe that Maduro is to blame for the crisis in Venezuela — even if we choose to forget the oft-forgotten history of U.S. meddling in South and Central America — the Maduro’s claim that the West has acted to intervene in Latin American politics for personal imperialist gain certainly becomes much more persuasive when other countries refuse to make deals with Venezuela. Abandoning diplomacy only risks further pushing Venezuela into the arms of countries that will allow further oppression at Maduro’s hands. Indeed, Maduro’s solid grip on political power in Venezuela despite the mass unrest within the country has been sustained by close ties to allies such as Russia. Russia’s overall motivations in Venezuela are likely too complex to fully explore here (oil plays a large role in the two countries’ relations), but a side effect (intentional or otherwise) of the recent Russian-Venezuelan alliance is its effect as a “spoiler” for United States-based efforts in Latin America.
Even if negotiations between the United States and Venezuela are difficult, the risk of some political deal remains possible yet distant given the right positive incentives.
But decision has closed that future off entirely, as well as attracted the ire of a country already teetering on domestic pressures and instability. The United States should be wary of attaining the same result: After all, it’s conventional wisdom, and perhaps intuitive political reasoning, that honey works better than vinegar.
Allison Pujol can be reached at email@example.com.