Venezuela: Background and U.S. Relations

Venezuela remains in a deep political crisis under the authoritarian rule of President Nicolás Maduro of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Maduro, narrowly elected in 2013 after the death of Hugo Chávez (1999-2013), is unpopular. Nevertheless, he has used the courts, security forces, and electoral council to repress the opposition.

On January 10, 2019, Maduro began a second term after winning reelection on May 20, 2018, in an unfair contest deemed illegitimate by the opposition-controlled National Assembly and most of the international community. The United States, the European Union, the Group of Seven, and most Western Hemisphere countries do not recognize the legitimacy of his mandate. They view the National Assembly as Venezuela’s only democratic institution. Maduro’s inauguration capped his efforts to consolidate power. In 2017, protesters called for Maduro to release political prisoners and respect the opposition-led National Assembly. Security forces quashed protests, with more than 130 killed and thousands injured. Maduro then orchestrated the controversial July 2017 election of a National Constituent Assembly; this assembly has usurped most legislative functions.

During 2018, Maduro’s government arrested dissident military officers and others suspected of plotting against him. Efforts to silence dissent may increase, as the National Assembly (under its new president, Juan Guaidó), the United States, and the international community push for a transition to a new government. Venezuela also is experiencing a serious economic crisis, and rapid contraction of the economy, hyperinflation, and severe shortages of food and medicine have created a humanitarian crisis. President Maduro has blamed U.S. sanctions for these problems, while conditioning receipt of food assistance on support for his government and increasing military control over the economy. He maintains that Venezuela will seek to restructure its debts, although that appears unlikely. The government and state oil company Petróleos de Venezuela, S. A. (PdVSA) defaulted on bond payments in 2017. Lawsuits over nonpayment and seizures of PdVSA assets are likely. U.S. Policy The United States historically had close relations with Venezuela, a major U.S. oil supplier, but relations have deteriorated under the Chávez and Maduro governments. U.S. policymakers have expressed concerns about the deterioration of human rights and democracy in Venezuela and the country’s lack of cooperation on counternarcotics and counterterrorism efforts. U.S. democracy and human rights funding, totaling $15 million in FY2018 (P.L. 115-141), has aimed to support civil society.

Trump Administration has employed targeted sanctions against Venezuelan officials responsible for human rights violations, undermining democracy, and corruption, as well as on individuals and entities engaged in drug trafficking. Since 2017, the Administration has imposed a series of broader sanctions restricting Venezuelan government access to U.S. financial markets and prohibiting transactions involving the Venezuelan government’s issuance of digital currency and Venezuelan debt. The Administration provided almost $97 million in humanitarian assistance to neighboring countries sheltering more than 3 million Venezuelans.