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The Trump administration should create an 'oil-for-aid' program for Venezuela

Washington's chest-thumping over Venezuela has failed to restore democracy. The Venezuelan people need to be the focus of US policy by creating a means to address the food crisis.
20 Nov 2019 – 10:04 AM EST
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The food shortage is one of the main grievances of anti-government protestors in Venezuela. Crédito: Getty Images

Almost ten months ago, Vice President Pence declared on behalf of a confident Trump administration: “Today, freedom broke out in Venezuela with the recognition of a new interim president in Juan Guaidó.”

As is sadly clear nine months later, those words did not herald freedom’s return to Venezuela, but were instead the first in a string of bold – but ultimately empty – proclamations and failed efforts by the Trump Administration in Venezuela.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Brash foreign policy pronouncements that lack realistic implementation plans are the defining feature of this administration. As Ben Rhodes and I warned in an opinion piece for the Washington Post shortly after U.S. recognition of Guaidó, “chest-thumping declarations that melt away over time weaken American power and credibility.”

Of course, Maduro is a brutal dictator and America is right to seek a return to democracy in Venezuela. But there is a right way to try to bring an end to the Maduro nightmare, and a wrong way. And, predictably, Trump has chosen the wrong path, and in the process may be further cementing Maduro’s hold on power.

The Venezuelan people need to be the focus of our policy, because they are suffering. 3.7 million people are malnourished, and 4 million people have already fled the country. Maduro’s corruption and incompetence set the stage for the current crisis, but the Trump administration’s decision to compound early strategic mistakes by imposing oil sanctions, without any realistic plan to oust Maduro, risks implicating the United States in Venezuela’s humanitarian nightmare.

Venezuela imports roughly 70 percent of its food, using money it generates through oil sales. But since the sanctions were put in place, imports have been cut in half as Venezuelan oil production has fallen by 36 percent. By crippling Venezuela’s economy even further, our sanctions are making the limited amount of food in the country even scarcer and contributing to the exodus of Venezuelans from the country.

President Trump clearly hopes his oil sanctions will topple Maduro’s dictatorship. There is no sign that this strategy is succeeding, just as sanctions didn’t topple Castro or Putin or Khomeini. In fact, U.S. sanctions that lead to food shortages are playing right into the hands of Maduro, allowing him to avoid blame for the humanitarian nightmare by shifting responsibility to the “imperialist Americans.”

But Trump doesn’t have to give up sanctions for them to be effective; all he needs is to create a relief valve to address Venezuela’s food crisis.

Trump could do this through an international relief exchange program, where revenue from oil sales could be used to purchase food, medicine, and other necessities. Of course, the one time we tried something similar—namely, Oil-for-Food in Iraq—it was a case study in corruption.

The program allowed Baghdad to choose both oil buyers and food vendors, and Saddam exploited this loophole to tack $1.7 billion worth of kickbacks onto transactions, widening his corrupt control of oil revenues. But we can learn from those mistakes to develop a robust, transparent relief exchange program for Venezuela.

Revenue from Venezuelan oil sales could go into escrow accounts partially managed by the democratically-elected National Assembly. Distribution of food, medicine, and other necessities purchased through these accounts could be handled by a combination of the National Assembly, international organizations, and NGOs. This would block Maduro from using oil revenue illicitly, while also alleviating the adverse impact of oil sanctions on food imports.

Venezuelan opposition hardliners may balk at the idea of such a program, but there could be real upsides—both in assuaging the food crisis, but also in changing the stagnant political dynamics.

Many rightly doubt that Maduro would willingly participate in a relief exchange. But if he refuses to cooperate, his claim that food scarcity is solely due to sanctions will be exposed. And with the eyes of the world upon him, he would be forced to choose between siphoning oil revenue into his own coffers or feeding his people. The offer of a relief exchange would dramatically weaken Maduro’s argument that the U.S. is to blame for the suffering of the Venezuelan people.

If Maduro does participate, an independent relief exchange program would undercut the value of regime-backed aid programs and allow more people to protest without fear of retribution. This program would also bring countries like India, which continues to import Venezuelan oil, out of the shadows in a way that both meets their energy needs and doesn’t channel money to Maduro and his cronies.

And finally, any such program would require productive conversations between the opposition and the regime. By encouraging a focus on improving the lot of the Venezuelan people rather than zero-sum power politics, a relief exchange could open diplomatic channels for a negotiated settlement to the wider conflict.

Whether it’s Venezuela or Iran, the White House seems to believe that if they just squeeze hard enough, a regime will fall. But in fact, broad sanctions and military threats can actually bolster a regime, giving them a scapegoat and allowing them to tap into national pride. Sanctions may make the U.S. feel tough, but there is decreasing evidence that sanctions alone actually change behavior for the better.

Trump’s maximalist approach to Venezuela isn’t working. Worse, it’s making a mockery of U.S. policy, as Maduro and his allies thumb their nose at our tough talk. A relief exchange program would be a good first start to both relieve the legitimate economic hardship of the Venezuelan people and begin to undercut Maduro’s hold on power.

But, this has to be followed up by other moves that recognize the actual facts on the ground in Venezuela today. For instance, the Trump administration says there can be no sanctions relief until Maduro has abandoned the presidency. While Maduro’s departure would be ideal, the truth is that it is highly unlikely, and something that even the moderate majority in the opposition understands as unrealistic.

Instead, Guaidó’s negotiators are open to phased sanctions relief in exchange for other significant political concessions, such as naming a new electoral authority, conducting an audit of the voter registry, and allowing robust international electoral observation – reforms that would give them a fair shot to oust Maduro at the ballot box.

Skepticism is understandable; Maduro will likely reject a relief exchange program, and he has routinely used “dialogue” as a stalling tactic. But the status quo is unacceptable, and it’s time for President Trump to realize that his Venezuela policy has failed, badly.

The White House needs to stop pretending that chest thumping is policy, put aside the triumphalist rhetoric and maximalist strategy, help revitalize the Norway-facilitated talks, and lend a hand to the Venezuelan people to break the current, unsustainable stalemate.

Chris Murphy is the junior U.S. Senator for Connecticut and a member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.