The Biden administration is banking on a new strategy toward Venezuela, which has grappled with economic and political turmoil under an authoritarian regime, in an attempt to stem mass migration and stabilize the country.
Poor economic conditions, food shortages and limited access to health care have pushed more than 7.7 million people to flee Venezuela, marking the largest displacement in the Western Hemisphere – and many are choosing to go north.
The unprecedented migration has posed a unique challenge for the Biden administration on a politically delicate issue – the handling of the US-Mexico border – and fueled concern among allies domestically. On Thursday, as the president prepared to gather with Western Hemisphere leaders, the mayors of Chicago and Denver met with senior White House officials over the influx of migrant arrivals in their cities.
President Joe Biden’s meetings with Western Hemisphere leaders are part of a broader administration approach to stem migration, establish legal pathways to the US and bolster economies in the region, which is a focus of this week’s gathering with nine leaders. The foreign ministers of Mexico and Panama will be representing their respective countries.
“Twelve countries committing to drive innovative approaches to shared challenges,” Biden said. “To grow our economy from the bottom up and the middle out … and to increase opportunity and decrease inequity, to harness the incredible economic potential of the Americans and to make the Western Hemisphere the most economically competitive region in the world.”
He said the countries had worked together over the past year and a half and had “stepped up together.”
“All we need to do is keep going, keep delivering on a positive vision we all share for a region that is secure, prosperous and democratic. From Canada’s northern most reaches to the southern tip of Chile,” Biden said.
The focus of Friday’s gathering of Western Hemisphere leaders at the White House is on economic prosperity in the region, including modernizing infrastructure, developing entrepreneurs and bolstering supply chain competitiveness, according to senior administration officials.
“The bottom line is that President Biden believes that targeted economic investment in top refugee and migrant host countries is critical to stabilizing migration flows,” a senior administration official told reporters.
But already, Venezuela has been a topic of discussion.
The increase in migration and upcoming elections in Venezuela opened the door for the administration to move forward with a new set of actions. After months of internal policy debates – including skepticism from Biden – the administration softened its stance on Venezuela and began to peel back the sanctions imposed under the Trump administration.
Officials wrestled with whether to accompany relief based on steps taken by the regime or “go big at the very beginning,” according to a senior administration official. They opted for the latter.
The senior administration official described it as an “opening salvo.”
“We saw the steps toward election in 2024 as a last opportunity to try something different on Venezuela, and maybe try to support an electoral outcome,” the senior administration official said.
On Thursday, Chilean President Gabriel Boric, who sat down with Biden, said he expressed his appreciation for the lifting of sanctions on Venezuela.
“The mood in the region has shifted and there’s a greater desire to bring Venezuela back into the fold,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, adding that the flow of people leaving Venezuela has become contentious in multiple countries.
The easing of sanctions on Venezuela hinges on the country’s ability to hold competitive elections in 2024, though critics have cast doubt on whether elections can be free and fair in the country’s repressive political climate.
“The United States welcomes the signing of an electoral roadmap agreement between the Unitary Platform and Maduro representatives,” senior Treasury official Brian Nelson said in a statement last month.
As a result, the Treasury Department issued general licenses authorizing transactions involving Venezuela’s oil and gas sector and gold sector, as well as removing the ban on secondary trading.
Administration officials are anticipating breakdowns and determining which of those breakdowns are seen as minor and which are more serious and could prompt consequences. The US has pushed for the European Union and the Carter Center to assess how the elections are carried out.
“We’ve made clear that these are observers, meaning that they should have full access to all the voting stations to be able to do their job and actually make an assessment of whether the elections are being carried out in a way that is competitive and inclusive,” the senior administration official said.
Taken together, the White House’s approach amounts to a marked shift from the Trump administration, which took a series of sweeping actions targeting Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, including issuing an executive order banning Americans from doing business with Maduro’s government and freezing its assets and associated entities unless specifically exempted.
Biden administration officials disagreed with that approach, viewing the crippling sanctions as detrimental to Venezuelans, and contributing to people fleeing the country.
“There was a moment when popular protest might topple the Maduro regime and sanctions were designed to help topple the government. That’s no longer the case,” Selee said. “Latin American governments are reengaging with Venezuela and the US government is following that.”
Many countries in the region have grappled with an influx of Venezuelan migrants – straining resources across the region and fueling political tensions.
At the US-Mexico border, border authorities grappled with a historic wave of Venezuelan arrivals. For years, the US was generally unable to deport them because of frosty diplomatic relations with Venezuela. But last month, the Biden administration announced plans to restart deporting Venezuelans directly to Venezuela, marking a significant breakthrough.
It was the latest effort by the Biden administration to levy consequences against those who unlawfully cross the US-Mexico border, while highlighting other lawful pathways available to certain migrants who want to migrate and offering work permits to certain Venezuelans already in the US.
In return, the US agreed to take steps toward the possible resumption of commercial flights – a process that is expected to take months.
Homeland Security officials have cited the resumption of deportations to Venezuela as contributing to a recent drop in border crossings.
In a Senate panel hearing Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told lawmakers, “Our ability to repatriate individuals to the countries of origin when they do not qualify for relief under our laws is of vital importance. And what we have been able to accomplish with respect to Venezuela is a very powerful example of that.”