Opinion | As Maduro tramples democracy, Biden needs a new plan to confront him

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María Corina Machado, a former elected member of Venezuela’s National Assembly, has been gaining traction as the potential standard-bearer for that autocratic country’s democratic opposition in elections scheduled for next year. Credible polls project her to lead in this year’s Oct. 22 primary through which opponents of President Nicolás Maduro plan to select a single candidate to run against him.

But now it seems Ms. Machado might never get the chance. The Maduro regime announced June 30 that she is disqualified from holding public office — for 15 years — purportedly because of her past support for U.S. sanctions on Caracas. Ms. Machado vowed to continue her campaign, arguing, plausibly, that the attempt to ban her is a sign of weakness by an unpopular government that “knows it is already defeated.”

The fact remains that Mr. Maduro can probably force her to the sidelines if he is determined to do so, just as Nicaragua’s dictator, Daniel Ortega, barred his principal opponents from running in 2021. Two other leading opposition candidates in Venezuela face bans already. And the Maduro regime recently announced a complete replacement of the 15-member National Electoral Council, which will supervise the general elections in 2024. In charge of the hiring process: Mr. Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores.

All of the above threatens the already slim chances of a peaceful democratic transition in Venezuela, which desperately needs one after a decade of economic collapse, political repression and systematic corruption under Mr. Maduro.

U.S. policy failed to promote such change under President Donald Trump, who tried “maximum pressure” in the form of stepped-up economic sanctions and global diplomatic recognition of an interim government headed by opposition politician Juan Guaidó. President Biden abandoned that course in favor of a new one built around negotiations between the opposition and Mr. Maduro and the mobilization of frozen Venezuelan assets for a humanitarian aid fund. Caracas has been offered selective sanctions relief as an inducement to engage in good faith with its internal foes. The most important U.S. concession so far has been allowing Chevron to resume limited production in the oil-rich country.

Even before the regime’s latest repressive moves, the Biden approach seemed to be yielding diminishing returns. The regime has refused to resume formal negotiations with the opposition since November and demanded the lifting of all remaining sanctions as a condition for any agreement. Left-leaning governments in Colombia and Brazil have not fulfilled the administration’s hopes to facilitate a settlement; especially disappointing has been the posture of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who recently dismissed evidence of human rights violations in Venezuela as “a constructed narrative of authoritarianism.” And Mr. Lula declined to condemn Ms. Machado’s disqualification, protesting that he did not know all the “details.”

The time is fast approaching for the Biden administration to develop a Plan B, in coordination with like-minded governments, both within Latin America and beyond it. In that respect, unified rejection of the regime’s attempt to bar Ms. Machado from running — by the United States, Canada, the European Union, the Organization of American States, Britain, Chile, Uruguay, Colombia and Paraguay — was a good first step. The administration should demand that Mr. Lula join the chorus.

Yet Mr. Maduro, who has embraced Vladimir Putin’s Russia as an ally, has openly declared he is indifferent to international criticism. The Biden administration has no choice but to back up the promise that it made from the beginning of its new policy — and that the State Department reiterated June 30 in response to the crackdown on Ms. Machado: “to hold accountable those who seek to thwart the will of the Venezuelan people.” At a minimum, that should mean ruling out any more sanctions relief until all opposition candidates have their political rights restored, the regime has taken verifiable steps toward the establishment of a new, credible National Electoral Council and good-faith talks with the opposition have resumed.

Mr. Biden was right that his predecessor’s policy did not restore democracy and prosperity to Venezuela, whose desperate plight, along with the mass migration it triggered, has turned into a source of instability for the whole Western Hemisphere. Now, he has to adjust his own strategy, urgently, lest another such failure occur on his watch.

The Post’s View | About the Editorial Board

Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; Mili Mitra (public policy solutions and audience development); Keith B. Richburg (foreign affairs); and Molly Roberts (technology and society).

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