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U.S. embargo on Venezuela raises stakes for Russia and China

Nicolas Maduro speaking at a lectern
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro speaking in Caracas. Photo: Matias Delacroix/Getty Images)

In the absence of a foreign policy victory in Venezuela, President Trump's economic embargo on the country shows his sights resettling on the prospect of regime change.

The big picture: Despite Washington's anointment of Juan Guaidó as the country's democratically elected leader and its tightening asset freeze on government property, regime change remains a high hurdle. Behind the administration's recent move is the untested wager that the renewed threat of extraterritorial sanctions against Venezuela's trade partners China and Russia could erode their support for President Nicolás Maduro.

Context: Venezuela has generally not been a bargaining chip in broader geopolitical games, apart from U.S. lines drawn around military meddling in the region by non-hemispheric powers, but more great power politics are now in play.

  • While it may be rational for China and Russia to back down and realize the economic benefits of the transition in Venezuela sought by the U.S., national pride is also at stake.
  • If Washington cannot convince China and Russia through arguments around economic self-interest, gaining traction with them becomes much harder.

Between the lines: Trump faces a steep challenge, but it's not all downside for him.

  • Even if greater economic pressure fails to drive out Maduro, going all-in could have the convenient side benefit of strengthening his 2020 reelection chances in Florida, where, along with Cuban-Americans, Venezuelan-Americans are key swing voters.
  • Supposing Maduro remains in power, Temporary Protected Status or its equivalent for U.S.–based Venezuelan migrants would be a valuable consolation prize to deliver in an election year.

What to watch: Maduro, always spoiling for a fight with the White House, will likely use the embargo to further scapegoat the U.S. for Venezuela's economic collapse.

  • Maduro's next counter-moves could involve insisting his delegation is still committed to Norway-sponsored mediation with Guaidó while laying the groundwork for condemnation of harsh American sanctions at the UN.
  • Trump could face a choice to escalate his embargo to a full blockade if the new economic pressure does not tilt support toward Guaidó.
  • Reluctant to enter the fray, China and Russia may still be drawn in should the U.S. turn to military might to enforce its embargo — and it's unclear what lengths they would go to in defense of Maduro.

Michael McCarthy is a research fellow at American University’s CLALS, an adjunct professor at George Washington University's Elliott School for International Affairs, and the founder and CEO of Caracas Wire.