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.
A study of social media content shows that Venezuelan opposition figures often take harder anti-government lines if they flee abroad. Exiles’ voices are important, but those trying to end Venezuela’s crisis should listen to others as well, recalling that compromise offers the only peaceful exit.
Diplomatic efforts resumed to resolve political crisis, and clashes erupted between military and Colombian guerrilla group at border with Colombia. Norwegian delegation 9 March arrived in capital Caracas in attempt to revive comprehensive talks between President Maduro’s govt and mainstream opposition; initiative comes as civil society organisations and opposition faction led by former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles have been trying to negotiate with govt appointment of more inclusive National Electoral Council (CNE) ahead of regional and local elections due by late 2021. Mainstream opposition leader Juan Guaidó 3 March said he would support appointment of new CNE only if its members were not chosen unilaterally by govt-controlled National Assembly. National Assembly 16 March extended deadline for appointing CNE by two weeks, potentially allowing mainstream opposition to put forward candidates; but opposition did not take up opportunity. During visit to Caracas, Spanish deputy FM Cristina Gallach 28-29 March discussed political crisis with govt, opposition and business representatives. Guaidó, recognised by U.S. as Venezuela’s legitimate president, and U.S. Sec State Antony Blinken 2 March discussed “return to democracy in Venezuela through free and fair elections” and “urgent humanitarian needs”. UN Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela 10 March said police forces committed at least 200 extrajudicial killings in 2021, and UN human rights chief Bachelet next day called for “prompt and independent investigations” into ongoing “extra-judicial executions”. Clashes between military and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) dissidents 20-21 March erupted in Apure border state, leaving at least two Venezuelan soldiers dead; Colombian govt 28 March said 4,700 had sought refuge in Colombia since fighting started; refugees reportedly accused Venezuelan soldiers of abuses, including killing civilians. U.S. 8 March granted Venezuelan migrants temporary protected status, allowing them to stay and work in U.S. for 18 months. Amid negotiations between govt and mainstream opposition for access to COVID-19 vaccines under World Health Organization’s COVAX mechanism, mainstream opposition 19 March said it would seek to use $30mn in govt funds – frozen in U.S. accounts as part of sanctions against Maduro’s govt – to pay for vaccines. Maduro however reiterated refusal of AstraZeneca vaccine, one of main vaccines under COVAX, citing side effects.
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.
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.
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.
Opposition politicians in Venezuela face a difficult set of choices. But the sooner they face up to them, the sooner Venezuela can begin to tackle the enormous challenges of a much-needed political transition and economic reconstruction.
Originally published in World Politics Review
This week on Hold Your Fire!, Naz Modirzadeh, Richard Atwood and Ivan Briscoe, Crisis Group’s Latin America Director, talk about COVID-19’s devastation, polarisation and populism in the region, as well as the Venezuela crisis and violence in Mexico.
This week on Hold Your Fire!, Naz Modirzadeh and Richard Atwood discuss the “maximum pressure” sanctions that the U.S. has imposed upon Iran and Venezuela. Their guests are Crisis Group’s experts on these two countries, Ali Vaez and Phil Gunson.
The Maduro government’s latest power play – in which loyalist judges appointed the board that will oversee end-of-year elections – is evidence to many in the Venezuelan opposition that talking is fruitless. But negotiations remain the only route to a stable outcome for the country’s protracted crisis.