It’s Time to Look Beyond Venezuelan Presidential Elections

It’s Time to Look Beyond Venezuelan Presidential Elections

U.S. policymakers should instead focus on affecting change at the subnational level, such as gubernatorial and mayoral elections.

For a decade, as democratic institutions in Venezuela crumble, the United States has been paralyzed by a single choice: to engage President Nicolás Maduro or not. As his grip over the country remains steadfast, Washington is working for a breakthrough in supporting ongoing negotiations between the Maduro government and opposition. A potential opportunity opened last week when the United States hosted the first-ever Cities Summit of the Americas.

The United States has long overlooked the role of mayors and governors in restoring democratic institutions from within, yet the Cities Summit presents a unique opportunity to redefine U.S. policy towards Venezuela. The U.S. Department of State invited mayors from across the Western Hemisphere, including Venezuela, for a two-day conference to help local leaders develop solutions to global challenges, including “democracy renewal”—signaling a growing focus on city and state diplomacy. By applying this subnational approach to U.S.-Venezuela relations, the United States could breathe new life into a protracted situation.

Venezuela’s humanitarian and economic crises cause ripples across the hemisphere that will fundamentally alter regional stability if gone unresolved. With over seven million migrants and refugees, Venezuela’s population is the third largest group of internationally displaced people after Syrians and Ukrainians. The crisis leads to a steady stream of human suffering, strains host countries’ resources, and facilitates the rise of criminal networks. Formerly the United States’ largest single supplier of crude oil, Venezuela is entrenched in debt. At a time of growing tension with Russia and China, the decade-long crisis in the United States’ hemisphere weakens the country’s ability to compete across the world.

Some of the few bright spots in Venezuela over the last decade have been driven by local leaders. The United States should support this momentum and reorient its strategy around a new objective—not only presidential elections in 2024, but gubernatorial and municipal elections in 2025. By using a variety of levers across government and multilateral agencies, the United States can help support a long-term approach to restoring Venezuela's democratic institutions. The upcoming regional elections are an opportunity to show support for democratic actors across the political spectrum.

A closer look at the landscape of city and state leadership in Venezuela reveals great potential. Venezuela’s tradition as a federal republic has allowed local and regional leadership to continue exercising public functions and representation. Municipal elections have been held since 1989, and the 2025 subnational elections will appoint leaders to over 3,000 positions. While many Venezuelan opposition leaders have boycotted elections in recent years, individual candidates have had unexpected victories that revitalize the country’s opposition movement.

In 2021, opposition candidate Sergio Garrido defeated Maduro’s former foreign minister and preferred candidate in Barinas after a series of political setbacks. The opposition’s victory in what’s considered the political cradle of Chavism reignited hope in the promise of regional elections. The United States should set its sights on replicating victories such as Garrido’s, but local Venezuelan leaders currently face systemic obstacles that make Garrido an exception, not a rule.

The Maduro government has tried to marginalize local opposition politicians by limiting subnational resources and centralizing programs. As of 2020, the largest share of local government revenue came from central government grants and subsidies, which allows Maduro to control levers that reduce the power of mayors and governors. Starting in Hugo Chávez’s time, opposition leaders have lost authority to administer airports, toll roads, and local police. The tactic of weaponized centralization is most evident by the decrease in local government expenditures, which have dramatically declined from 7.1 percent of GDP before 2014 to 1.8 percent in 2020.

The launch of the first-ever Cities Summit is an opportune moment to kickstart a new approach to subnational engagement in Venezuela. As State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs and Unit for City and State Diplomacy brainstorm next steps after the Summit, they should consult with partners in the Venezuela Affairs Unit and on the ground to understand how future summits could fit into broader U.S.-Venezuela policy. The United States could consider convening country-specific subnational conferences or regional conferences between mayors from border communities, and should start by helping to connect Venezuelan cities to international networks such as C40 Cities, Metropolis and Strong Cities Network. In the coming months, the State Department should consider including a Venezuelan city in the Cities Forward initiative, a three year program announced at the summit that will help cities in Latin America and the Caribbean develop and fund action plans.

The United States should also take decisive action to include subnational diplomacy in its long-term approach to Venezuela. In calling for a timetable for credible elections to be announced in the context of Venezuelan-led negotiations, the United States should also urge the Maduro government to reinstate the powers of municipalities. According to the Venezuelan constitution, municipalities have a broad mandate to govern policies relating to their interests and local life, including urban roadways, waste collection, and city police services—many of which have been assumed by the central government.

In addition to restoring municipal powers, it’s also crucial to help Venezuelan cities access funding sources so that they can implement programs for their communities. While Maduro has abolished many of the revenue structures established in the constitution, the United States should pull together experts from domestic and multilateral agencies to identify strategies for supporting local private sector investment that supports city budgets. Specifically, the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control and the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security could lead this initiative, in consultation with the Inter-American Development Bank given their regional expertise on subnational financing.

Local Venezuelan leaders can also help implement the multibillion-dollar Social Agreement signed by the Maduro government and opposition in November 2021, in the context of the ongoing negotiations process. The Social Agreement aims to address crises in the electric, public health, and education systems, and when fully implemented will be managed by the United Nations. Mayors and governors are best equipped to help reconstruct state infrastructure given their first-hand experience helping communities manage blackouts, healthcare crises, and gaps in education, and the United States should encourage the UN to work with them to carry out this historic package.

The United States can tap into the momentum following the inaugural Cities Summit to initiate a new approach to Venezuela that sidesteps Maduro to engage directly with mayors. While most international attention is drawn to next year’s presidential elections, the United States must not lose sight of long-term strategy. There is still time to support transformative change ahead of the 2025 regional elections. In a broader region all too familiar with democratic backsliding, a U.S.-Venezuela subnational policy could inspire broader strategies for engaging with local leaders who are fortifying their base of democracy and sparking hope in future generations, against all odds.

Willow Fortunoff is an assistant director at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center. She leads the Center’s work on city and state diplomacy and is a 2023 Fulbright recipient studying subnational diplomacy between the United States and Ecuador.

Adriana D’Elia is a senior counselor at the Office of the Executive Director for Panama and Venezuela at the Inter-American Development Bank and former General Secretary of Government of Miranda State, Venezuela (2008–2015). She is also a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.

Image: Edgloris Marys/Shutterstock.