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 fresh series of talks to address Venezuela’s profound political crisis are afoot in Mexico City. The discussions will likely be long and cumbersome, but there is space for partial and early agreements that could improve everyday life for Venezuelans.
Govt and main opposition alliance reached limited agreements in Norwegian-facilitated talks, and President Maduro joined regional summit in first trip abroad in many months. Govt and opposition Unitary Platform made progress during second (3-6 Sept) and third (25-27 Sept) rounds of Norwegian-facilitated talks in Mexico City, reaching three partial agreements. First, parties reaffirmed country’s sovereignty over Essequibo region disputed with Guyana and rejected jurisdiction of International Court of Justice. Second, they agreed to set up six-person committee, National Board of Social Care, with three representatives from each side to address humanitarian crisis, including shortage of COVID-19 vaccines, and four-person working group to review problems arising from “overcompliance” with U.S. sanctions. Third, they agreed to begin process of setting up “consultation mechanisms” with “social and political actors” not represented at negotiation table. In move that threatens to stir tensions, govt 14 Sept however said it wished to include in talks businessman Alex Saab who is currently facing extradition from Cape Verde to U.S. on money-laundering charges; opposition delegation and U.S. quickly dismissed proposal. Govt delegation to talks 17 Sept publicly accused opposition of “sabotaging, conditioning and evading” terms agreed for talks; statement accused opposition leader Juan Guaidó of trying to break from his commitment to discuss return of country’s overseas assets, which have been under opposition control since 2019, to govt control. Chief Prosecutor Tarek William Saab 14 Sept had announced investigation into Guaidó for alleged treason and asset theft in relation to major overseas asset, Colombia-based chemical company Monómeros; opposition party Justice First 27 Sept announced it would no longer participate in Guaidó’s interim govt’s management of foreign assets. In first trip abroad since U.S. accused him of drug trafficking in early 2020, Maduro 18 Sept unexpectedly attended Community of Latin American and Caribbean States summit in Mexico City; Colombia, Uruguay and Paraguay presidents rejected his presence. UN fact-finding mission 16 Sept released new report, alleging country’s justice system does not provide protection to victims, but instead plays “significant role in the state’s repression of government opponents”. EU 29 Sept said it will send observers to regional and municipal elections set for Nov.
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.
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.
Maduro is very isolated internationally. It's hard for him to trade. He can't renegotiate the massive debt that Venezuela has. So he needs some relief.
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.
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.
As Venezuela faces one of the world’s worst economic and humanitarian crises, concessions on both sides will be necessary to break the political deadlock. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2021, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to press for urgent access for humanitarian relief and to encourage the Maduro government and opposition parties to re-engage in negotiations.