Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Europe’s Window of Opportunity on Venezuela Is Closing

If they act quickly, the EU and the US can achieve a greater alignment of diplomatic and economic pressure.
Nicolás Maduro holds up reports from the US government and the UN during a February press conference. Carolina Cabral/Getty Images
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This year keeps thrusting the European Union (EU) into ever-greater foreign policy challenges. To make matters worse, the highly anticipated realignment with the new Biden administration is proving more difficult on both sides of the Atlantic than initially envisioned.

If the EU is sincere about taking up Joe Biden’s offer of renewed multilateral engagement, it should look for places to ease into it. Venezuela represents an immediate opportunity for policy realignment. The EU needs to urgently revamp its negotiating posture and sanctions arsenal on Venezuela. Such a move would not only bring the EU in line with the US, but also with leading figures in the region, such as Colombia’s President Iván Duque, who has called for a more vigorous European role in resolving Venezuela’s crisis.

According to a report recently co-authored by the American Enterprise Institute and Spain’s Fundación Civismo, an EU-US policy realignment on Venezuela is still feasible, but the window of opportunity is closing quickly. Thus far, the EU’s diplomatic and pressure campaigns haven’t contributed meaningfully to protecting human rights and restoring democracy in the oil-rich country. Many of the Maduro regime’s complex work-arounds to US sanctions involve continued access to the European economy and the euro currency. Yet EU diplomacy, headed by former Spanish foreign minister Josep Borrell, seems unaware of this pressure point.

None of the EU’s member states want to see another Cuba in the Western Hemisphere, especially since Venezuela would present a broader set of more concerning security threats. Like the US, the EU also has a strong interest in a political transition in Venezuela and a return to free, fair, and internationally-observed elections.

Yet, Europe’s diplomatic corps and the EU bloc’s strategy keep falling short in a number of critical ways. Most importantly, the EU’s sanctions architecture remains skeletal. For instance, the EU has merely 55 individuals designated for sanctions, while Canada has 113 and the US has 160. The EU came perilously close to furnishing election observers for Venezuela’s recent parliamentary race, held in December 2020. What halted the process was the September 2020 release of a scathing United Nations report detailing unfathomable human rights abuses under the Maduro regime. That the EU came so close to legitimizing those elections exposes its misdiagnosis of Venezuela’s crisis and the fecklessness of the EU response.

After elections rife with fraud, the EU added a meager 19 people involved in election machinations to its list of sanctioned individuals. Nevertheless, recognizing this fraud failed to prevent a fall from grace for Interim President Juan Guaidó. In early January 2021, the EU downgraded his status to that of “privileged interlocutor.” Pressure from the US—including laying the foundations for a transition roadmap in the “day-after scenario”—has not been replicated enough east of the Atlantic.

With the aim of shifting toward a more effective Venezuela policy, our report recommends a number of steps for the EU and US to achieve a greater alignment of diplomatic and economic pressure. With respect to sanctions policy, the US should consider implementing a coordination mechanism with the EU, specifically for Venezuela sanctions, which would ensure consistency and actual enforcement across their territories. Such a mechanism could help to avoid embarrassing and costly blunders, such as the so-called “Delcygate,” when Venezuela’s sanctioned vice president, Delcy Rodríguez, gained permission to land at Madrid’s Barajas Airport. (She even met with a Spanish government minister.) Greater alignment and coordination of sanctions is also critical to increasing their effectiveness. To match the US architecture, the EU should strike the right balance between targeting individual human rights abusers, corrupt officials and state-owned entities. Thus far, however, the EU has shied away from such sanctions.

The eurozone should also beef up its banking regulations and financial scrutiny of inbound investment. Too often, Europe has served as a waystation for Venezuela’s kleptocratic, regime-controlled economy. The proverbial bolichicos have found Spain to be a preferential haven for their shell companies. Since the Chávez era, they have dedicated themselves to looting Venezuela’s oil wealth through bloated and fictitious contracts with the state-owned oil company. Astonishingly, the EU recently removed Venezuela from a list of countries considered deficient in anti-money laundering mechanisms, despite adding 12 other countries to the list.

One area of praise stands out: despite the Maduro regime’s obstinacy on humanitarian aid, the EU’s vast sums of assistance—nearing €200 million since 2018—have markedly alleviated the plight of Venezuelans trapped in the country. It has also supported burgeoning exile communities. The EU must retain its role as one of the most dynamic conveners and fundraisers of humanitarian efforts in Venezuela and for the diaspora, as it did in May of last year, despite competing domestic demands in Europe.

The actions of Cuba, China, Russia, and Iran to shore up Maduro’s regime have helped insulate him from significant US pressure. Yet, the length of this current respite depends in large part on the strength of the EU’s resolve to play a greater role in ending Venezuela’s crisis. Every day the wealth of Venezuelans keeps shifting to the offshore bank accounts of regime cronies, the country’s return to democratic prosperity recedes into the future. The Biden administration is right to expect more from the EU, as are the Venezuelans left to suffer under a crumbling and predatory state. A bloc of vibrant democracies committed to the fate of democracy and human rights in the world should aim for more than flowery declarations and Sakharov Prize ceremonies celebrating the Venezuelan opposition.

In general, President Biden is right to insist on the importance of multilateralism. The Maduro regime should be pressured to open space for opposition politics, to cut off the many avenues for participating in the illicit economy, and eventually, to achieve a long-sought return to democracy in Venezuela. For this to happen, however, the world’s leading democracies need to be on the same page.

Whether as part of an agenda of “strategic autonomy” or simply a shared transatlantic commitment to freedom and prosperity around the globe and in Latin America specifically, this may be the EU’s best chance to show that its advocacy on behalf of liberal democratic values is more than rhetoric and grandstanding. As far as Venezuela goes, it may also be the last.


Berg is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. González-Gallarza is a researcher at Fundación Civismo in Madrid. They are co-authors of Europe’s Last Chance: How the EU Can (and Should) Become the Indispensable Actor in Venezuela’s Democratic Restoration.

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Tags: European Union, Joe Biden, Nicolas Maduro, Spain, Venezuela
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