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Lessons from the Failure of Democracy Promotion in Venezuela – Council on Foreign Relations

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Why did the US effort to promote democracy in Venezuela fail? The lessons learned there should inform democracy promotion efforts around the globe. 
by Elliott Abrams
November 5, 2021 4:10 pm (EST)
From January 2019 through the end of the Trump administration, the United States imposed pervasive sanctions on the Venezuelan economy and conducted a vast diplomatic campaign against the Maduro regime there. Many elements of that policy have been maintained by the Biden administration. Yet the policy failed to dislodge Maduro or to improve the human rights situation in Venezuela, much less return that country to democracy. 
Why did it fail? The answers could shed light not only on Venezuela but on conditions and policies elsewhere as well.  Here are ten brief answers that help explain the policy failure and that policymakers and human rights advocates should keep in mind when addressing other countries and regimes. 
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Outside support can allow even a weak or unpopular regime to survive. The United States achieved considerable success in bolstering efforts to end military rule in Latin America in the 1980s, but those regimes had very little outside support. The Maduro regime has received intelligence assistance from Cuba, Russia, China, and Iran, diplomatic support from other autocracies as well as from some Western Hemisphere democracies, and has gotten massive loans from Russia and China. So the regime does not feel isolated and the impact of both international criticism and economic sanctions is weakened. 
The population at large must see clearly how it will benefit from political change. The Venezuelan opposition was never able to show citizens that removing the regime would lead to greater prosperity for the country. Polls showed that voters blamed the regime far more than U.S. sanctions for the country’s economic collapse, but that did not mean they believed the opposition could bring better days. Here the United States and other supportive democracies failed. The U.S. State and Treasury Departments had detailed economic plans that would have given cash to every Venezuelan family and jump-started the economy. The plans were never publicized — a missed opportunity to reinforce the regime’s culpability for the country’s extreme poverty.   
Military leaders must see a future both for themselves and for their institution. Despite some efforts by both the United States and the Venezuelan opposition, the military was never persuaded that in a post-Maduro period they would have an important, protected, and honored role. Because they hold the guns, military leaders can prolong or shorten a regime’s period in power, and can press for hard lines or compromise in any negotiations. In Venezuela as in many other cases, the nation needs a capable military when it returns to democracy, and plans for maintaining the institution’s national role should be made very clear. 
The United States and other democracies were unable to protect democratic leaders in Venezuela. Opposition leaders faced beatings, exile, and prison. The nations supporting a return to democracy did not do enough to protect them and their families. In some cases, families of political prisoners needed financial support while they were jailed, and the prisoners needed much more concentrated international pressure to secure their release. In other cases, opposition activists needed visas so they could escape prison and escape Venezuela. These men and women were on the front line, and no democratic movement can succeed if they are unable to keep up the fight. Much more must be done, in dozens of authoritarian countries, to help them. 
Serious support for the opposition should include financial support, but the opposition is weakened if it becomes a bureaucracy and is less dependent on winning public support. In a case like Venezuela, the regime dominates the economy and the public sphere, and depriving the opposition parties, NGOs, and civil society groups of money is a key regime goal. The United States and other democracies should help them survive, through democracy-support programs that many countries now maintain. But there is a danger that they become dependent on outside support rather than building greater domestic backing, and a danger that opposition organizations become bureaucratized when they should be nimble political forces dedicated to winning the public’s backing. Outside supporters of democracy must work hard to maintain a proper balance. 
Even if the United States had done better in all these ways, the Maduro regime might successfully have clung to power. At its core, the regime is not a military dictatorship, rather, it is a criminal enterprise, whose elites are closely linked to drug trafficking and other illicit activities. Those regime leaders fear that any political change will mean that they have to pay for their crimes, and they will resist.  But the chances of success in restoring democracy will certainly be higher anywhere if these lessons are kept in mind. 
This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy. 
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