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House Democrats want Biden to change his approach to Venezuela


President Joe Biden is under pressure from members of his own party to change his approach to Venezuela. A group of House Democrats sent Biden a letter last week saying, in effect, sanctions are hurting Venezuelan people more than the government of Nicolas Maduro, and it's time to change course. Congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and he was one of the letter's authors. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JOAQUIN CASTRO: Hi. Great to be with you.

SHAPIRO: Sanctions have been in place against Venezuela for a few years now. So what made you and the others who signed this letter think now is the moment to let up sanctions?

CASTRO: Well, I think we've got to keep in mind what our goal is with sanctions. Any time we're sanctioning leaders in a country or sectors in a country, what we want to see for Venezuela is freedom, democracy and opportunity for the people. And even with these very heavy sanctions that were put in place by the Trump administration, that has not happened, and Maduro is still in power. And there are millions of Venezuelans who are living in destitution and poverty, who are giving up hope, and millions who are also fleeing the country, including tens of thousands, if not more, to the United States.

SHAPIRO: The balancing act that you're describing between the pressure on civilians and pressure on the government is one that comes up all the time in debates about sanctions. I mean, Afghanistan is a very similar example. What do you think makes Venezuela different from some of these other cases?

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CASTRO: No, you're right. You know, I don't think it's one of those things where you can say we 100% know how this is going to turn out. There were folks that were convinced, for example, that with the sanctions and with Guaido making his move in Venezuela...

SHAPIRO: The opposition leader that the U.S. recognized, right?

CASTRO: That's right - you know, that that would be the answer and that Maduro would be gone by now, and that hasn't happened. And so what we're saying is that we ought to look at being willing to ease some of those sanctions, particularly sectoral sanctions. If Maduro is willing to allow for free and fair elections, there is the opposition groups known as a unitary platform who are, in fact, advocating for this, who are OK with this and who understand what everybody should want is for Venezuelans to be able to choose their own leader, but also to be living in a country where there's actually opportunity, where people can get a job, where they can feed their families and where they don't feel like they're forced to leave the country.

SHAPIRO: The secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said a year ago that the U.S. would review its sanctions policies in response to constructive steps from the regime. You're saying allowing free and fair elections should be enough to qualify. How much space do you think there is between your position and the administration's position right now? Have you heard back from them?

CASTRO: Well, I think that's an essential part of it, and that's the base part of it. But we're also looking at things like respecting human rights, allowing for protests and political opposition, which Maduro, as you know, had tried to essentially stomp out. So free and fair elections are the cornerstone, but there are other important human rights and political rights elements as well. And I think Maduro, you know, from what I've gleaned - and I could be wrong, but I think that he himself is desperate, and he himself is looking for a way out of a nation that he has helped run to the ground.

And so with both sides willing to talk, I think that the United States should take the lead, because if not, what we do is the longer this goes on, the more you're going to see Venezuela run to the arms of China, run to the arms of Russia and other countries where democracy is not necessarily important to them and human rights are not as important to them. And I don't want to see that.

SHAPIRO: So how do you respond to the argument that relaxing sanctions without any significant change from the regime is, in effect, rewarding bad behavior?

CASTRO: Well, I would say I'm not asking for insignificant things. I'm asking for significant concessions on pro-democracy - respect for democratic institutions, for free and fair elections, respect for human rights and political rights that's more than just words, coming together with Maduro, sitting across the table with the opposition and actually being able to come to agreements on these things. And again, that is what the Venezuelan opposition is asking for at this point.

SHAPIRO: That's Congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas, a Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Thank you very much.

CASTRO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.