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Biden's Venezuela Policy Contradicts Itself
American policy toward the country is inconsistent, but the humanitarian disaster and political repression there are unchanged.
LAST MONTH, THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION announced a new deal with Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro: The United States will lift sanctions on Venezuelan oil and gas if Maduro ensures free presidential elections next year. Meanwhile, the United States resumed deporting Venezuelans directly to Caracas after a four-year hiatus precipitated by the political repression and humanitarian conditions in the country. Do these moves suggest that the political situation in Venezuela is improving? Hardly.
Within days of Maduro’s pledge to hold free elections in 2024, the country’s attorney general launched a criminal investigation into the winner of the opposition party’s presidential primary, Maria Corina Machado, who intends to challenge Maduro next year. The Biden administration’s eagerness to ease relations with Maduro has far more to do with domestic U.S. politics than it does with conditions in Venezuela, which remain dire.
Venezuelans have become the largest group of illegal border crossers for the first time ever in September, when nearly 55,000 were apprehended. The flood of Venezuelans fleeing oppression at home is nothing new—some 7.7 million have left their country in recent years, a quarter of the entire population—but only recently have they begun to arrive en masse at U.S. borders. Initially, most Venezuelans fled their homeland to neighboring Latin American countries, but those countries’ economies have been slow to recover from the effects of the pandemic. As a result, by 2021, Venezuelans started coming to the United States in large numbers directly from their home country as well as from secondary countries where some had temporarily resettled. The National Immigration Forum conducted an in-depth analysis of what led to the mass migration to the United States from Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, but the clear theme is the political repression—often violent—that plagues all three countries.
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David Smolansky Urosa knows first-hand what that repression looks like. In 2013, he was elected mayor of El Hatillo, one of five municipalities of Caracas, Venezuela’s capital. It sits at the base of Picacho de El Volcan—which despite its name has never been recorded to have erupted—with mountain ranges and the Guarire River completing spectacular, verdant vistas in all directions. Smolansky didn’t leave El Hatillo by choice. He fled after Maduro removed him from office and then issued an arrest warrant in 2017. He hid for 35 days, eventually crossing the jungle on the country’s border with Brazil. He now lives in the United States, where he is a visiting fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, having previously served as special envoy on migration to the secretary general of the Organization of American States.
Smolansky is concerned about the Venezuelans who are being flown to Caracas by the Biden administration. “I understand when the United States needs to deport people who have committed crimes in the U.S.,” he told me last week, “but the majority are innocent.” He pointed out the irony in putting some 400 Venezuelan asylum seekers on airplanes to Caracas while having just granted an additional 500,000 others temporary protected status “because they are not safe to return home.” But to be eligible for temporary protected status, which will allow Venezuelans not only to stay temporarily but also work, they must have been present in the United States before July 31, 2023. The deportation plan was clearly meant to discourage more migrants from showing up at the southern border.
The get-tough measures may be working. According to the Washington Post, apprehensions of Venezuelans at the southern border are down 50-60 percent since the administration announced the beginning of deportations on October 5. In fairness, the administration has tried to set up alternatives to simply showing up on America’s doorstep for certain asylum seekers, including those from Venezuela. They can apply through a mobile app for an appointment with border officials at a specific time and location or apply through a U.S. sponsor for humanitarian parole. But several Republican state attorneys general have already brought a legal challenge to the parole program, which could be shut down if a Trump-appointed judge rules in their favor.
Meanwhile, little to nothing has changed in Venezuela to make it safe for those who’ve fled to return. According to the State Department’s 2022 Human Rights Report, abuses include:
credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by regime forces; forced disappearances by the regime; torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest or detention by security forces; political prisoners or detainees; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; unlawful interference with privacy; [and] unlawful recruitment or use of child soldiers.
The list goes on. These are exactly the kinds of abuses our asylum laws were intended to protect those seeking refuge in the United States from enduring.
The United States has a mixed history with respect to welcoming people seeking refuge from persecution. In May 1939, on the eve of World War II, U.S. immigration officials famously refused entry to nearly a thousand Jews fleeing Germany aboard the ocean liner St. Louis on the grounds that admitting them would exceed the existing quota on German and Austrian immigrants. After the ship was turned back to Europe, many of those refugees died in the Holocaust. But since that disgraceful episode, the United States has welcomed people fleeing persecution, war, and natural disasters, especially those from communist countries including Hungary, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and the former Soviet Union. The Immigration and Naturalization office first adopted asylum procedures in 1972 to ensure that individuals already in the United States not be sent back to countries that would persecute them.
Not everyone who shows up at our southern border has a legitimate claim to asylum, which is why under existing law migrants must provide evidence of credible fear of persecution to an immigration judge’s satisfaction. But the backlog of immigration cases is horrendous—2.8 million were pending as of the end of September. Perhaps we need to modify existing law—but those lawmakers screaming loudest about abuses are the very ones who’ve stood in the way of changing immigration laws for almost 20 years. Yes, we need an orderly process for those fleeing persecution to seek refuge here. But even when the administration comes up with such a plan—as it did with humanitarian parole for Venezuelans, Cubans, Nicaraguans, and Haitians—Republicans try to shoot it down.
Negotiating with dictators will bear little fruit for the administration. And Republicans would rather have a red-meat issue to feed their MAGA voters than to solve the crisis at the border. Meanwhile, hundreds, maybe thousands, of Venezuelans who sought refuge from persecution will find their hopes dashed on a tarmac in south Texas or Florida as they board planes taking them back to Maduro’s Venezuela.