Venezuela: Political Crisis and U.S. Policy



Updated March 10, 2021
Venezuela: Political Crisis and U.S. Policy
Venezuela remains in a deep crisis under the authoritarian
production on the country’s economy. The Economist
rule of Nicolás Maduro of the United Socialist Party of
Intelligence Unit estimates Venezuela’s economy has
Venezuela (PSUV). Maduro, narrowly elected in 2013 after
contracted by more than 75% since 2014. Economic
the death of populist President Hugo Chávez (1999-2013),
conditions deteriorated further in 2020 because of gasoline
began a second term in January 2019 that is widely
shortages, COVID-19, and U.S. sanctions. Nevertheless,
considered illegitimate. Despite U.S. and international
Maduro has rewarded allies, including the military, with
pressure on him to leave office and a worsening economic
income siphoned from state industries and illegal gold
and humanitarian crisis , Maduro remains firmly in power.
mining, drug trafficking, and other illicit activities.
His party now controls a de facto National Assembly seated
on January 5, 2021.
Shortages in food and medicine, declines in purchasing
power, and a collapse of social services have created a
Since January 2019, the United States has recognized Juan
humanitarian crisis. According to a 2019-2020 household
Guaidó, president of the democratically elected, opposition-
survey, the percentage of Venezuelans living in poverty
controlled National Assembly elected in December 2015, as
increased to 96% in 2019 (80% in extreme poverty). A
interim president. Guaidó, once recognized as Venezuela’s
February 2020 World Food Program (WFP) assessment
leader by more than 55 countries, has been losing
estimated that 9 million Venezuelans were food insecure.
international and Venezuelan domestic support. Although
Maduro continues to block the establishment of a WFP
the Biden Administration and many in Congress support
program in the country, preferring to provide food aid
Guaidó, some are calling for a new strategy for Venezuela.
through a program tied to support for his government.
Health indicators, particularly infant and maternal mortality
Political Situation
rates, have worsened. Previously eradicated diseases such
Maduro, reelected in May 2018 in an election widely
as diphtheria and measles have returned and spread.
deemed to be fraudulent, has used the Venezuelan courts,
security forces, and electoral council to quash dissent.
The government reported 1,400 deaths from COVID-19 (as
Security forces have detained and abused Maduro’s
of March 9), but experts maintain the actual number is
opponents, including military officers and opposition
much higher. The pandemic could decimate Venezuela’s
politicians. As of March 8, 2021, the government held 321
hollowed-out health system. A June 2020 Maduro-Guaidó
political prisoners. The U.N. Office of the High
agreement to allow the Pan-American Health Organization
Commissioner for Human Rights documented thousands of
to address COVID-19 in Venezuela has expanded to
extrajudicial killings and other abuses committed by
include vaccine purchasing and distribution.
security forces that it described as crimes against humanity.
Electoral authorities convened December 2020 legislative
As of February 2021, U.N. agencies estimated 5.5 million
elections boycotted by the opposition; plagued by
Venezuelans had left the country. Some 4.6 million of those
irregularities; and rejected by the United States, the
migrants fled to other Latin American and Caribbean
European Union (EU), and most Latin American countries.
countries. Migrants have faced obstacles maintaining jobs
and accessing health care during the pandemic. Colombia
The Venezuelan opposition is weak and divided, with many
recently announced an initiative to provide 10-year
of its leaders in exile. Although Guaidó challenged
temporary protective status to Venezuelan migrants.
Maduro’s authority in 2019, his support has since faded.
After Norway-led negotiations stalled in mid-2019, the
International Response
Maduro government increased persecution of Guaidó’s
The international community remains divided over how to
supporters. Since March 2020, restrictions put in place to
respond to the crisis in Venezuela. The United Kingdom
combat the spread of the Coronavirus Disease 2019
and some Western Hemisphere countries still recognize
(COVID-19) have limited Guaidó’s ability to convene
Guaidó as interim president, although EU countries have
protests. Guaidó also lost support after reports emerged that
not labeled him as such since January 5, 2021. The United
he condoned a plan that ended in a botched raid against
States, EU, Canada, and 11 Western Hemisphere countries
Maduro in May 2020. Guaidó and other opposition
that are parties to the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal
legislators now face prosecution by judicial authorities, who
Assistance (Rio Treaty) have imposed targeted sanctions
assert the legislators no longer have immunity since their
and travel bans on Maduro officials. The EU and most
legislative terms ended in January 2021.
Western Hemisphere countries oppose military intervention
to oust Maduro. The EU and some Latin American
Economic and Humanitarian Crisis
countries endorsed 2019 negotiations led by Norway, but
By most accounts, Maduro’s government has mismanaged
those efforts did not prove successful.
the economy and engaged in massive corruption,
exacerbating the effects of a decline in global oil prices and
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Venezuela: Political Crisis and U.S. Policy
Russia, Cuba (which has provided military and intelligence
that government unless authorized as part of efforts to
support), Turkey, Iran, and a few other countries support
aid the Venezuelan people (E.O. 13884)
Maduro. Russia and China have provided aid to Maduro
In March 2020, the Department of Justice indicted Maduro
and blocked efforts against him at the U.N. Security
and 14 top officials for narco-terrorism, drug trafficking,
Council. Russia has supported Venezuela’s struggling oil
and other crimes .
industry, helped Venezuela skirt U.S. sanctions, and sent
military personnel and equipment. China continues to
U.S. Assistance. The United States is providing assistance
purchase Venezuelan oil and provides surveillance
and helping to coordinate the regional response to the
equipment and other technology. Since May 2020, Iran has
Venezuelan migration crisis. From FY2017 to FY2020, the
shipped gasoline to Venezuela in exchange for gold.
United States provided $1 billion to Venezuela and
Recent U.S. Policy
countries sheltering Venezuelans. As of December 2020,
the United States had provided nearly $13.7 million for the
The U.S. government ceased recognizing Maduro as
Venezuela’s legitimate president in January
COVID-19 response in Venezuela. Since FY2018, USAID
2019. Although
also has provided $125 million for democracy,
the Trump Administration initially discussed the possibility
development, and other health programs in Venezuela.
of using military force in Venezuela, it ultimately sought to
compel Maduro to leave office through diplomatic,
Congressional Action. The 116th Congress supported the
economic, and legal pressure.
Trump Administration’s efforts to promote a restoration of
democracy in Venezuela without the use of military force
U.S. efforts to date have failed to dislodge Maduro and
and provide humanitarian assistance to Venezuelans. Some
enable the convening of free and fair elections, raising
Members expressed concerns about the humanitarian
questions for the Biden Administration about whether to
impact of broad U.S. economic sanctions.
intensify, roll back, or otherwise change U.S. policy. Biden
Administration officials aim to focus on supporting the
In December 2019, Congress enacted P.L. 116-94, which
Venezuelan people and engaging in multilateral diplomacy
appropriated $30 million in FY2020 for democracy
to press for a return to democracy and to hold corrupt and
programs in Venezuela and incorporated the Senate-
abusive Maduro officials accountable for their actions. As
reported version of the VERDAD Act (S. 1025), a
part of efforts to support the Venezuelan people, on March
comprehensive bill to address the crisis in Venezuela. In the
8, 2021, the Biden Administration designated Venezuela as
FY2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA; P.L.
a beneficiary country for Temporary Protected Status (TPS)
116-92), Congress prohibited the Department of Defense
for 18 months. On January 19, 2021, the Trump
from contracting with persons who do business with the
Administration had ended removals of Venezuelans eligible
Maduro government.
for Deferred Enforced Departure (DED). U.S. officials also
are reviewing the humanitarian impacts of U.S. sanctions.
For FY2021, the Administration requested $200 million in
democracy aid to support a democratic transition in
Diplomacy. In recent years, the United States has
Venezuela and $5 million in global health assistance. The
encouraged countries to recognize the Guaidó government,
Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 (P.L. 116-260),
sanction Maduro officials, hold the Maduro government
provided not less than $33 million in Economic Support
responsible for human rights violations, and provide
Funds for democracy programs in Venezuela and an
humanitarian aid. U.S. officials have denounced Cuban,
unspecified amount of humanitarian support for countries
Russian, and Iranian support of Maduro.
sheltering Venezuelan refugees. H.Rept. 116-617
accompanying the FY2021 NDAA (P.L. 116-283) required
Sanctions and Indictments. Sanctions are key parts of
a briefing for certain committees on the contents of the
U.S. policy toward Venezuela. They include the following:
report required by P.L. 116-94, as well as an update on the
Individual sanctions for terrorism; drug trafficking;
crisis in Venezuela and its regional implications.
and those who have committed antidemocratic actions,
human rights violations, or corruption (see Executive
Congress is likely to provide input to the Administration on
Order [E.O.] 13692; P.L. 113-278; P.L. 114-194)
sanctioning human rights abuses, corruption, and
antidemocratic actions by the Maduro government and its
Financial sanctions restricting access to U.S. financial
backers. The 117th Congress may examine new policy
markets of the Maduro government and state oil
approaches by the Biden Administration and further
company, Petróleos de Venezuela (PdVSA), (E.O.
legislative options, such as additional sanctions against the
13808); prohibiting transactions using cryptocurrency
Maduro government and its foreign enablers or
(E.O. 13827); or purchasing Venezuelan debt (E.O.
humanitarian assistance to Venezuelans.
13835)
Sectoral sanctions blocking assets and prohibiting
See also CRS Report R44841, Venezuela: Background and
unlicensed transactions with PdVSA, Venezuela’s
U.S. Relations; CRS In Focus IF11029, The Venezuela
central bank, and the state gold mining company, among
Regional Humanitarian Crisis and COVID-19; CRS In
other entities (E.O. 13850)
Focus IF10715, Venezuela: Overview of U.S. Sanctions.
Sanctions on the Maduro government blocking assets Clare Ribando Seelke, Specialist in Latin American
in the United States and prohibiting transactions with
Affairs
IF10230
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Venezuela: Political Crisis and U.S. Policy


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