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March 4, 2024

The Case for Containing, Not Coddling, Maduro

By R. Evan Ellis

The inability of the U.S. to facilitate a return to democracy in Venezuela does not justify accommodating dictatorship in the name of engagement.

From 2019 to 2020, I had the honor of serving on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s policy planning staff (S/P). One of my priority focus areas was the dictatorship of Nicholas Maduro and the dangers it posed to the Venezuelan people and to the region.  The Maduro regime’s expulsion of the office of United Nations High Commission for Human Rights from the country, and the arrest and forced disappearance of activist Rocio San Miguel on charges of supposed conspiracy against the regime made me reflect on the objectives, and perils of U.S. policy toward Venezuela. Maduro’s latest demonstration of disrespect for democracy and human rights in the country came on top of news of the resignation of National Security Council Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere Juan Gonzalez, who played a key role in the Biden Administration’s Venezuela policy, suggesting the possibility for a re-orientation of the U.S. approach toward Maduro as well.

While, for me, during my tenure at S/P, the restoration of democracy in Venezuela was a key goal, it was not the only one. I increasingly saw that complicity in criminal activities by the Venezuelan military and other Maduro-affiliated elites, and their penetration by Cuban intelligence made regime change from within and the restoration of Venezuela democracy virtually impossible on our watch, but that it was better to contain a malevolent actor than to be seduced by confidence in our own abilities, that we could fruitfully negotiate with it.   

In this work, I seek to make the case for a shift in U.S. policy toward Venezuela from futile attempts to negotiate regime transition with an entrenched dictator, towards a policy of “compassionate containment.”

From my time in the private sector in the early 2000s working on Venezuela-related contracts, through my time in academia and government, I watched indignant friends and colleagues of the Venezuelan opposition ...

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Background image from Wikimedia Commons (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f8/Nicol%C3%A1s_Maduro_2019_Inauguration.jpg)