Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden attacked President Donald Trump on Monday for claiming to be open to meeting Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro — something Trump appeared to be mulling, but which Biden has actually done.
The former vice president, who played a central role in crafting the Obama administration’s foreign policy, criticized Trump on Monday for appearing to reverse his position on Maduro’s legitimacy in Venezuela.
Maduro’s last legitimate presidential term ended in January 2019, though, through control of the military, Maduro has refused to budge. Venezuela’s National Assembly used its constitutional powers to appoint a legitimate president, Juan Guaidó, that month. Maduro claims he should continue to be president as a result of a presidential “election” in May 2018, widely considered fraudulent, in which Maduro prohibited non-socialist candidates from running and attracted the lowest turnout in the nation’s history.
Initially, the assembly opted to appoint Guaidó interim president until a new election could be held. Those plans, though, were complicated by Maduro’s refusal to cede power. With no real commander-in-chief powers, Guaidó spends most of this time attempting to galvanize support for his legitimacy abroad through social media, while Maduro retains control of the day-to-day governing of the country.
Trump supported Guaidó in the aftermath of the dispute, officially recognizing him as president of Venezuela. In an interview published Sunday with the Washington, DC, outlet Axios, however, Trump said he could have “lived with” or “without” recognizing Guaidó and that he believed the decision was not “meaningful one way or the other.” Trump also signaled to Axios he was not “opposed” to potentially meeting with Maduro in the near future, much to the chagrin of Biden.
“Trump talks tough on Venezuela, but admires thugs and dictators like Nicolas Maduro,” the presumptive Democrat nominee said on social media in response to the remarks. “As president, I will stand with the Venezuelan people and for democracy.”
Biden’s tough rhetoric omitted that he had met with the Venezuelan dictator in the past. The two men encountered each other briefly at January 2015 inauguration of then-Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. The impromptu meeting appeared friendly, with Maduro and Biden photographed smiling and amicably shaking hands.
At the time, an official traveling with the then-vice president’s entourage told reporters Biden and Maduro had discussed ways to ease tensions between the U.S. and Venezuela. Maduro, according to the official, told Biden he was open to discussing ways to improve the relationship, but that any effort on his part would be contingent upon the U.S. easing economic sanctions — some of which had been signed into law only weeks prior by then-President Barack Obama. Biden, the official claimed, told the Venezuelan strongman that, if he was serious about starting anew, he should release a number of the opposition politicians his government had taken prisoner.
Even though Maduro would later describe the meeting as cordial, it failed to improve ties between the two countries. Only a month later, Maduro would accuse Biden of personally plotting with members of Venezuela’s opposition to stage a coup against him.
In the years since, the relationship between the U.S. and the Maduro regime have remained adversarial. Maduro, for his part, was able to consolidate power further, leading to widespread political oppression and corruption. The issue came to a head during the 2018 presidential campaign, in which Maduro’s government banned opposition parties from contesting.
The eventual results showed Maduro winning more than 66 percent of the vote, despite polls showing an overwhelming majority of citizens expressing reservations about his stewardship. The three largest countries in the Western Hemisphere — the U.S., Brazil, and Mexico, among others — opted not to recognize the victory due to “uncontrolled corruption” and rampant human rights abuses.
That action led to the National Assembly moving to not recognize Maduro as the country’s legitimate president, culminating in the ongoing standoff between him and Guaidó.