Venezuela is in the midst of a tense political standoff and socio-economic meltdown, with hyperinflation, rising crime and food shortages pushing some three million citizens to flee the country. Incumbent President Nicolás Maduro has grabbed power for the executive and engineered his re-election in a dubious vote, triggering moves backed by the U.S. and allies to unseat him and instal an interim president. A negotiated restoration of democracy and urgent economic reform are vital if the country is to avoid violence and reduce mass emigration. Crisis Group aims to engage national, Latin American and international players to build momentum for talks, strengthen human rights protections and help restore credible democratic and judicial systems.
Following legislative elections, President Nicolás Maduro controls all of Venezuela’s major political institutions. Meanwhile, the country’s crisis deepens apace. An exit remains possible if the government and opposition adjust their zero-sum thinking to admit the need for compromise. The new U.S. administration can help.
President Maduro secured vast parliamentary majority, regaining control of last branch of power outside his grasp. In 6 Dec legislative elections, ruling party won over 90% of 277 seats in National Assembly; electoral authority same day reported turnout of 30.5%. Main opposition parties boycotted polls, saying conditions for free and fair vote were not met. Mainstream opposition leader Juan Guaidó 8 Dec said outgoing opposition-controlled National Assembly would remain only legitimate legislature until free and fair elections are held. In bid to demonstrate retained support from electorate, mainstream opposition 7-12 Dec held “popular consultation”, inviting participants to declare new legislature illegitimate and repudiate Maduro’s “usurpation” of presidency; organising committee 13 Dec said more than 6.4mn voted, but later reduced figure by around 670,000, citing technical difficulties. Guaidó 13 Dec called for nationwide demonstrations on 5 Jan to reject inauguration of new National Assembly. Guaidó-led assembly 26 Dec extended its term – due to expire 4 Jan – for another year and delegated assembly’s functions to small group of legislators, although largest party in Guaido’s coalition, Democratic Action, abstained. Maduro 28 Dec called move “unconstitutional”, and Supreme Court 30 Dec ruled term extension invalid. U.S. Sec State Mike Pompeo 7 Dec said Washington would continue to recognise Guaidó-led assembly as only legitimate legislature; U.S. Treasury 18 Dec issued new round of financial sanctions on several individuals and company for abetting “fraudulent” elections. Office of International Criminal Court’s Prosecutor 14 Dec reiterated there was “reasonable basis” to believe crimes against humanity had been perpetrated in Venezuela since 2017 anti-govt protests, committing to determine in 2021 whether to open full investigation.
Geography, economics and migration patterns dictate that Colombia and Venezuela, which severed diplomatic ties in 2019, will confront the coronavirus pandemic together. The two countries should temporarily mend their relations, and the Venezuelan factions should pause their duel, to allow for a coordinated humanitarian response.
Venezuela’s political showdown appears deadlocked. President Nicolás Maduro remains firmly in place over a year after the opposition behind Juan Guaidó mounted its campaign to supplant him. The gap between the sides is wide, but conversations with pragmatists reveal the outlines of a potential compromise.
Power in Venezuela is slipping away from state institutions and concentrating in the hands of criminals, guerrillas and other non-state actors. Any new negotiations between government and opposition must consider how to defang these armed irregulars, who might otherwise scuttle an eventual settlement.
The standoff between Venezuela’s government and opposition has reached a worrying juncture, with negotiations falling apart, side deals emerging and regional states rolling out new sanctions on Caracas. Resuming the talks is the safest path to an exit from the country’s ever deepening crisis.
The struggle over Venezuela’s political future will likely turn on the armed forces’ disposition: the top brass could ease or thwart a move away from President Nicolás Maduro. Sponsors of transition talks should include military representatives in the discussions sooner rather than later.
Unless he [Guaidó] is able to reinvent himself in some way, I think the Guaidó plan has clearly failed.
[Venezuela's] health service had collapsed long before sanctions were imposed.
[The Venezuelan Government] want[s] to make it quite clear that Guaidó is history.
If there's mass social unrest [in Venezuela] they are not really in a position to control it and I think that's the government's nightmare scenario.
What the [Venezuelan] regime is facing now is much more grave than they’ve ever faced before.
If the virus were to take off in Venezuela, and the country were not to receive a huge injection of international support, it would face an absolute disaster.
Venezuela has so far been spared the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the global economic crisis sparked by the coronavirus, on top of the existing humanitarian emergency and the impact of U.S. sanctions, threatens to produce a catastrophe. In this excerpt from the Spring Edition of our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to support a resolution of the political crisis and to take measures to alleviate the humanitarian emergency.
Just as Venezuela’s number of COVID-19 cases topped 100, the U.S. indicted President Nicolás Maduro and others on drug trafficking charges. This ill-timed move will likely fail. The only sensible course is sanctions relief and negotiations between government and opposition over a humanitarian truce.
As Venezuela’s economy plumbs the depths of collapse, a new cohort of refugees is trekking across parched landscapes to Colombia. It consists of the most vulnerable, including poor expectant mothers, unaccompanied children and the sick, people with no defence against the predations of armed bands.