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Crisis-hit Venezuela’s Political Rivals Stumble Towards Talks
Crisis-hit Venezuela’s Political Rivals Stumble Towards Talks
Hunger Looms in Venezuela’s Standoff
Hunger Looms in Venezuela’s Standoff
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro looks to the Secretary General of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) Ernesto Samper while he speaks during a meeting at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela, on 21 July 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins.

Crisis-hit Venezuela’s Political Rivals Stumble Towards Talks

Faced with crushing economic stress, a weakening president, a constitutional stalemate and popular unrest, Venezuela’s “Chavista” government and the opposition are feeling their way towards compromise.

High on the slopes of the mountain that separates Caracas from the Caribbean, three capital letters, vertically arranged, have recently lit up at night. From most parts of the Venezuelan capital you need binoculars to pick out the word PAZ – “peace” in Spanish. Few people bother to do so. Unlike their neighbours in Colombia, most Venezuelans are more concerned with how to obtain food, medicines and other basic goods. Even if they peer upwards, they might be puzzled by what the government (which put up the sign a month ago) means by “peace”.

If offered relief from the violent crime that has left Venezuela with one of the world’s highest murder rates (around 20,000 homicides a year in a country of 30 million), they would no doubt eagerly embrace the offering.

But what the government of Nicolas Maduro means by “peace” is for the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance to give up on its attempts to trigger a mid-term recall referendum against him. On 1 September, the MUD put hundreds of thousands of nonviolent demonstrators on the streets of the capital in support of its referendum demand, a constitutional right. Maduro called a counter-demonstration, asking supporters, “Are we going to allow [the opposition] to maintain a permanent threat to the peace of Caracas?”

If the referendum were to be held before 10 January next year, a “yes” vote would produce an immediate presidential election, which the government would almost certainly lose. This would put an end to the seventeen-year-old “revolution” launched by the late President Hugo Chávez, who championed the mid-term referendum clause in the constitution in exchange for lengthening the presidential term and allowing reelection.

In polls, almost 70 per cent of voters say they would vote Maduro out. But the government controls the National Electoral Council(CNE) and the Supreme Court. It has used every trick at its disposal to delay the referendum until after 10 January, the day on which Maduro enters the final two years of his six-year term. Once that happens, his departure for any reason would lead to his vice president (an appointed, not elected figure) serving out the term. Already, factions within the ruling party are engaged in public wrangling over who should succeed Maduro under those circumstances.

Most analysts agree that the only way the MUD can force a recall referendum this year, shifting the contest back to the electoral arena where its strength lies, is to put enough people on the streets for long enough to convince the army that continuing to back Maduro would involve shooting large numbers of unarmed demonstrators. If the military were to withdraw support, the president might resign, rather than face the humiliation of being voted out halfway through his term. Constitutionally, either option would trigger fresh presidential elections. This would almost certainly be preceded by intensive negotiations, in which a peaceful transition might be exchanged for a degree of impunity for prominent government figures, some of whom are accused of serious crimes and/or human rights violations.  

However, the chances of a referendum before 10 January seem small. The Supreme Court has even been asked to declare the whole process fraudulent and ban the MUD. But factional struggles in the regime mean that Maduro may well be replaced anyway by his current vice president or another figure. If the referendum bid fails, the government will still need to seek some kind of deal in order to ensure governability between now and the next presidential elections in December 2018. Talks on compromise are likely. Even now, as the two sides trade insults and prepare for a showdown, there continue to be discussions behind the scenes. The four leading parties in the opposition alliance all have their contacts on the government side, and last month representatives of each of the four sat down for private talks with four leading representatives of the ruling Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV).

There will be a need for carrots as well as sticks, if those in the government who fear for their future if they lose power are to accept the terms of any transition.

These talks-about-talks predictably fell apart over the issue of the referendum. MUD delegates wanted to negotiate fairer conditions but the government refused even to contemplate a vote in 2016. Various sources told Crisis Group there was an offer to hold a general election next year, in exchange for abandonment of the referendum and approval by the (opposition controlled) parliament of a fresh debt plan to ease the government’s acute cashflow crisis. But without cast-iron guarantees such as a constitutional change in the election date – approved by parliamentary majority, upheld by the government controlled Supreme Court, ratified in a referendum and monitored by a credible third party – such a promise would be worthless, even if the MUD were in a position to negotiate away the right to a recall referendum this year.

When the talks’ existence was leaked, the MUD was accused by its own hardliners of betrayal. It was the second time in four months that the opposition alliance had found itself having to explain why it was in closed-door conversations with the government. Back in May, the two sides held indirect talks in the Dominican Republic, at which former Spanish premier José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero acted as an intermediary.

The Zapatero initiative, at the behest of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and with the involvement of two former Latin American presidents, is viewed askance by the MUD because those involved are all seen as sympathetic to the government. Crisis Group has repeatedly stressed the need for the wider region to help facilitate a dialogue. In particular, it is vital that both sides feel adequately represented.

Four months ago, Zapatero summarised the main points on the dialogue agenda as:

  • Resolution of the conflict of powers between the opposition-held National Assembly, the Executive, and the executive-controlled Supreme Court;

  • Political reconciliation  (including the issue of political prisoners and restorative justice for victims);

  • The humanitarian crisis;

  • Respect for the electoral timetable and;

  • Disarmament (an initiative of the mediation team, who point to the large number of guns in civilian hands as a source of conflict).

Apart from the release of one prisoner (who has dual Spanish-Venezuelan nationality), Zapatero has failed to obtain concessions from the government on the issue of political prisoners. The human rights group, Venezuelan Penal Forum, says repression has worsened considerably since the mediation effort was launched. Forum Director Alfredo Romero said the number of political prisoners had increased by 31 and there had been over 2,000 politically-inspired arrests in the period.

As for the electoral timetable – described by Zapatero as the “passport of democracy” – President Maduro announced on 5 October that, due to the economic crisis, “elections are not a priority”. Ruling out a recall referendum, not to mention elections for state governors due in December, Maduro said the next elections would be in 2018 – a reference to the presidential election due at the end of that year.

But while the latest fiasco has all but buried the Zapatero initiative, polls suggest a large majority of Venezuelans favour dialogue – the more so if there is international mediation. And there is some light at the end of the tunnel. On 28 September the MUD formally requested the involvement of the Vatican, which has been following the Venezuelan crisis closely. This followed a similar invitation by the government earlier in the month. The Pope, however, while accepting the idea in principle, has made it clear that any participation by the Vatican would come only after the two sides have sat down to serious talks. Until there is some clarity regarding the referendum and the future of the Maduro presidency, that will not happen.

It is not only in Venezuela itself that the political situation is in flux.

UNASUR Secretary-General Ernesto Samper, a figure closely identified with the Venezuelan government and its regional allies, is due to be replaced early in the new year. His successor is bound to reflect the new political reality in the region and could potentially play a role in helping to resolve the crisis. As of January, there will also be a new president in the White House. Under Obama the policy has been to work behind the scenes with other regional powers, but some governments feel Washington should take a more proactive role. There will be a need for carrots as well as sticks, if those in the government who fear for their future if they lose power are to accept the terms of any transition.

Meanwhile, both sides are bracing themselves for a turbulent October, with demonstrations, counterdemonstrations and a tense three days of signature-gathering for the referendum. With Venezuela’s crisis deepening, even the lights spelling out peace on the mountain were no longer visible a month after they were put there – with or without binoculars. Whether the government switched them off, or whether they succumbed to a power cut, is not clear. But with peace hanging by a thread, the omens are not good.

Hunger Looms in Venezuela’s Standoff

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.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2020 - Spring Edition

Venezuela has so far been spared the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the government reporting, by mid-May, only a few hundred cases and a handful of deaths. But 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 even if the country’s threadbare health service is not overwhelmed by the disease itself. Oil is Venezuela’s fiscal mainstay, and its price has fallen below the average costs of production. An economy that has already shrunk by over 60 per cent since 2013 is now reeling from the effects of a nationwide quarantine and a critical shortage of fuel. Crops that would have been sown now, to coincide with the onset of the rainy season, will mostly not be planted, and with no money to import food to make up the shortfall, famine is a real possibility.

Prospects for a resolution of the country’s protracted political crisis seem remote. Although relations between government and opposition have long been tainted by

extreme distrust, prior to the pandemic there remained a glimmer of hope that the two sides could return to the negotiating table, abandoned in mid-2019. Venezuela had been gearing up for legislative elections toward the end of 2020, and moves were afoot between rival forces in parliament to negotiate the appointment of a more balanced electoral authority.

The government, however, had given few signs that it was prepared to tolerate a competitive election. Early in January it moved to exert de facto control over the National Assembly, dominated since 2016 by an opposition majority and led by Juan Guaidó, who asserted his claim to the interim presidency last year. The opposition, meanwhile, found itself embroiled in a bizarre and abortive attempt in May to topple President Nicolás Maduro with a ragtag military force. While Guaidó denied responsibility, the government pointed to connections between the plotters and people close to the opposition leader and to the easily foiled attack as yet another example of its adversaries’ perfidy and incompetence.

Despite these setbacks, the solution remains the same: only a reduction in political hostilities, a negotiated return to competitive elections and the reestablishment of functioning state institutions can ultimately restore peace and wellbeing for Venezuelans. For now, the priority ought to be an interim accord to permit the provision of humanitarian aid on a sufficiently large scale, without which looms a serious risk of major loss of life both from hunger and, potentially, from disease.

In these circumstances, the EU and its member states should:

  • Urge the two sides and their main international allies to seek a temporary halt to their dispute over power, which would permit the unblocking of funds currently held by Guaidó’s “interim government”, as well as bilateral aid funds and loans from multilateral bodies, so as to attend to the humanitarian emergency under UN supervision and with the Maduro government’s cooperation on the ground.
  • Continue to underscore that trade in food, medicines and medical supplies is exempt from U.S. sanctions, and seek ways to reduce the humanitarian cost of restrictions on the sale of transport fuel to Venezuela.
  • Reactivate the International Contact Group, initially through virtual meetings, with a view not only to conducting further humanitarian diplomacy but also to forging an international consensus on the steps needed to restore full-scale talks, bolstered by the presence of key external powers.
  • Explore the prospects, particularly at the UN Security Council, for a broader UN role in facilitating and supervising electoral agreements, beginning with the resumption of talks on a balanced, professional electoral authority that would determine a feasible and appropriate date for parliamentary elections and – if possible – a presidential election in 2021.

A Troubled Start to the Year

The year began on a sour note between the sides and has worsened precipitously since. On 5 January, the government moved forcibly to take over the National Assembly, controlled by an opposition coalition following its landslide election victory in December 2015. As a result of what the Guaidó camp said was a mixture of bribery and threats, eighteen opposition members were persuaded to change sides and vote for one of their number, Luis Parra, to replace Guaidó as chair of parliament. Since this move still left it short of a majority, the government deployed National Guard troops and civilian colectivo para-police groups around the parliament building to impede the entry of opposition loyalists. In the aftermath, the Assembly – whose powers had in any case been stripped by the government-controlled Supreme Court in a series of post-2015 rulings – has been split in two, with Guaidó’s faction forced to hold improvised sessions away from the main parliament building. A so-called National Constituent Assembly, formally tasked with drafting a new constitution, has been acting since 2017 as the government’s rubber-stamp legislature.

Although Guaidó’s popularity had been waning since mid-2019 (when he registered support levels close to 60 per cent at the peak of his offensive to remove Maduro from power), his fortunes revived somewhat with a three-week international tour beginning in January. He was received by several European heads of government as well as by U.S. President Donald Trump and was given a standing ovation as a guest at the latter’s State of the Union address. Upon his 11 February return, he sought to rekindle the street demonstrations of 2019, but the pandemic and ensuing national lockdown intervened; the opposition has since struggled to remain relevant and visible. It insists that the only way to resolve the country’s problems, including the pandemic, is for Maduro to resign and hand power to a cross-party national emergency government ahead of a fresh presidential election – steps to which the government will not agree.

Diminishing Hopes for a Peaceful Settlement

A transition plan put forward by Washington in March, including a clear framework for the lifting of economic and financial sanctions, echoed Guaidó’s proposal but was also dismissed immediately by the Maduro government. Its chances of being favourably received by Maduro’s supporters – never high – were further diminished as it was preceded by ill-timed indictments of top government officials, unveiled by the U.S. Department of Justice, and followed by a massive U.S. naval deployment to the southern Caribbean, which the White House explicitly linked to Maduro’s alleged drug trafficking. Nonetheless, the proposal’s recognition of the need for a negotiated, inclusive transition, with a central role for the Venezuelan armed forces, marked a more measured approach from the U.S. government.

Despite growing calls from civil society, as well as from moderates within the opposition alliance, for a more realistic negotiating strategy, Washington and the Guaidó team continue to insist on what they call “maximum pressure”.

Prospects for a negotiated settlement, already somewhat remote, receded further after several groups of armed men – mostly deserters from the Venezuelan armed forces, accompanied by two former members of U.S. Special Forces – landed on the coast near Caracas in the first week of May and were swiftly rounded up or killed. It emerged that they had been organised by another retired U.S. Green Beret, at the behest of people working for Guaidó. Since the opposition had pulled out of the deal, it remains unclear exactly why the operation went ahead. There is no doubt, however, that the episode has further tarnished the opposition.

Despite growing calls from civil society, as well as from moderates within the opposition alliance, for a more realistic negotiating strategy, Washington and the Guaidó team continue to insist on what they call “maximum pressure”. The assumption is that this pressure will lead to a collapse of the Maduro government and an opposition-led transition, although there is no guarantee that a putative and potentially violent government breakdown would lead to a democratic transition.

Averting Humanitarian Disaster

The economic, social and humanitarian crisis, meanwhile, threatens to become immeasurably worse. With government income virtually wiped out and large swathes of the economy shut down, poverty and hunger are reaching increasingly alarming levels, while critical shortages of gasoline and diesel – along with restrictions on

movements – have crippled the existing mechanisms for a humanitarian response and threaten to unleash famine. Not only is it difficult to transport food and other essential supplies around the country, leaving crops to rot in the fields, but farmers say there will be little if any planting. The worldwide recession is also hitting income, primarily by drastically reducing the volume of remittances on which many families depend. In many ways, the impact of these overlapping humanitarian and political crises will be felt disproportionately by women: from deteriorated sexual and reproductive health to a heightened risk of human trafficking and sexual exploitation for those fleeing the country.

The EU and member states can play an important role in seeking a resolution of the political crisis as well as taking measures to alleviate the humanitarian emergency. The International Contact Group, co-chaired by the EU and Costa Rica, has a part to play in both, but the priority at this stage is to push for a humanitarian truce whereby the National Assembly (under a leadership freely elected by deputies) releases the external resources to address humanitarian needs, while the Maduro government opens the country to international aid and places its distribution networks at the disposal of UN agencies and partnering international NGOs. While U.S. sanctions do not apply to humanitarian relief, over-compliance with these measures hinders trade in food and medical supplies, a risk that EU High Representative Josep Borrell highlighted at a 23 March press conference. The EU should continue to reinforce this message and engage with Washington in a bid to reduce the impact of sanctions on the population, while also pressing for a relaxation of U.S. restrictions on the import of transport fuel, an essential requirement for humanitarian operations. The EU should also continue to work with UN agencies to address the humanitarian needs of Venezuelans displaced in the region. The pledging conference co-hosted by the EU and Spain on 26 May is a positive initiative in that direction.

Building on these steps, the EU and its member states should use their diplomatic influence, both within Venezuela and among key international stakeholders, to obtain an agreement to reopen last year’s negotiations, facilitated by Norway, and bolster them with an “outer ring” of participants intended to serve as guarantors of the process. Ideally, the ring would include the primary strategic allies of both sides: the U.S. and Colombia for the opposition, Russia and Cuba for the government. The UN also could play a role, initially through the appointment of a special representative and eventually through a political mission, building toward a free and fair presidential election under international monitoring, which the EU should be ready to support with technical assistance and an observation mission