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The Darkest Hours: Power Outages Raise the Temperature in Venezuela
The Darkest Hours: Power Outages Raise the Temperature in Venezuela
Venezuela: An Opportunity That Should Be Seized
Venezuela: An Opportunity That Should Be Seized
A general view of the city during a second day of blackout in Caracas Mario Bello

The Darkest Hours: Power Outages Raise the Temperature in Venezuela

The crippling blackouts across Venezuela are a grim portent of things to come as U.S. oil sanctions kick in and the country’s crisis deepens. All concerned to end Venezuelans’ suffering should vigorously pursue a negotiated transition leading to a power-sharing deal.

On Thursday 7 March, at around five in the afternoon, the lights went out in Venezuela. Within a couple of hours, as the tropical night descended, around 90 per cent of the country was plunged into darkness by a massive failure of the electricity generation and transmission system, run by the state-owned Corpoelec.

Venezuelans, especially those living outside the capital Caracas, have grown used to frequent lengthy blackouts. The electricity minister, an army general, promised that this one would be fixed in “three hours”. But it soon became clear that this was a national emergency, heralding a new and more critical phase of the country’s protracted crisis. In one part of Caracas, the lights came on after 22 hours, but soon went off again. The second power cut lasted 32 hours. After 100 hours, many parts of the country were still not receiving power, and a week after the lights first went out, full service has yet to be restored.

Normal life came to a virtual halt as people struggled to obtain basic goods and services. Crumbling infrastructure immediately began to fail. Water supplies dried up as pumps stopped working. Half the country’s hospitals have no back-up generators: newborns could no longer be kept safe in incubators (many reportedly died), 95 per cent of dialysis machines ceased operating and patients with needs as diverse as oxygen and insulin faced life-threatening interruptions to their treatment. Long queues formed outside the few petrol stations still pumping and motorways filled with parked vehicles at the few spots where a mobile phone signal could be picked up. Desperate inhabitants of some Caracas barrios began collecting water from the Río Guaire, an open sewer that runs through the capital. In the north-western city of Maracaibo, public fury at the lack of power boiled over into mass looting, affecting an estimated 500 businesses.

Information was also effectively blacked out. The government provided limited news, and few independent mass media have survived economic constraints and state bullying and censorship. Social media and online news sites made heroic efforts, but without electricity or data connections, most people had to rely on rumour and speculation.

In an already devastated and hyperinflationary economy, the U.S. dollar became the principal currency. A carton of eggs could cost $4; a tanker truck of water, if you could get one, $150. Local bolívar banknotes are almost worthless and extremely hard to obtain, but card payments were limited to those stores with a generator. The military established control over the few places in Caracas where a truck can take on clean water, and only those with the right connections were able to benefit. Photographs circulated online supposedly showing water deliveries to the houses of prominent officials.

What is clear is that when existing and likely future sanctions take full effect, living conditions in Venezuela will get far worse.

An International Conspiracy?

The government immediately blamed “sabotage”, as it has with virtually every previous major blackout, of which there have been dozens. As the hours stretched into days without power, the claim became more specific. President Nicolás Maduro said a combination of cyber-warfare, an “electromagnetic attack” and direct sabotage of an electricity substation, all carried out either by the U.S. or the domestic opposition, was responsible. Experts had a more mundane explanation: a brushfire beneath overgrown power lines reportedly overheated the transmission cables, causing the hydroelectric generators that supply over 80 per cent of the country’s energy to fail. Thermal power stations that could make up the shortfall operate at a fraction of their capacity due to years of neglect and mismanagement. Government supporters argue that the reliance of the national grid on a few hydroelectric sources dates back to the period before the late president Hugo Chávez took office.

The government has not argued that the blackout was a consequence of the severe sanctions that the U.S. imposed on Venezuela at the end of January. These measures, which block the Maduro government from profiting from the oil sales that previously constituted its principal source of revenue, were designed to force Maduro’s resignation so that Juan Guaidó, who Washington and dozens of its allies recognise as the legitimate interim president, could take power. Whether they will succeed in that endeavour is very unclear; what is clear is that when existing and likely future sanctions take full effect, living conditions in Venezuela will get far worse. Their stated purpose is to strangle the government financially, and they will undoubtedly worsen a meltdown that has already caused over three million to emigrate.

A Deepening Leadership Crisis

The inexorable worsening of Venezuela´s humanitarian crisis and the demise of its public services under a policy of intensifying U.S. sanctions, which has so far failed to achieve its primary goal of unseating the government, makes a political solution more imperative than ever. But so far neither the government nor the U.S.-backed opposition shows public willingness to negotiate a transition.

The government hopes the opposition, which made enormous gains under Guaidó´s leadership at the beginning of the year, is running out of steam. Maduro and his allies take heart from the fact that U.S. military intervention appears unlikely at this stage, due in part to the refusal of other countries in the hemisphere to contemplate it. And its claims of sabotage directed against the opposition are shaping a political narrative that portrays its enemies as bent on removing the government regardless of the cost to the public. It is once again threatening to prosecute Guaidó, in defiance of threats by Washington and its allies of unspecified but severe consequences. The U.S. has closed its embassy, saying the continued presence of its diplomats was a “constraint” on its policy, and European and Latin American governments are considering similar moves. One reason is that they are concerned about the safety of their diplomats; now that the U.S. has withdrawn, they feel that they may be targeted for reprisals.

Meanwhile, the opposition continues to insist on its three-part plan for a new government: ending the “usurpation” of power by Maduro, forming a transitional government and eventually (perhaps after nine to twelve months) holding new polls under a reformed electoral system. The plan is stalled, however, on point one, as Maduro shows no sign of stepping down and Guaidó and his backers in the U.S. and Latin America likewise show no sign of changing their insistence that he do so.

Unless the armed forces withdraw their support from the president, Maduro is likely to remain in power. The loyalty of the military high command to him has confounded the somewhat naïve opposition expectations of a swift rupture in the armed forces. Without a fundamental schism in chavismo, sanctions risk prolonging and intensifying the agony of the population and giving a fresh boost to a migration crisis that is straining the resources of neighbouring countries, above all Colombia, and could become destabilising.

In private, opposition politicians and their foreign allies are beginning to contemplate another path, as supposedly are some government officials. The opposition insists that their overarching objective is to hold free and fair elections, but the U.S. and its Venezuelan allies say this cannot be done with Maduro still in power. Sources close to the government, meanwhile, suggested that early elections under reformed authorities and with full international monitoring might be acceptable outcomes. But they stipulate that an agreement on this issue cannot appear to be the result of foreign pressure on Maduro, least of all from the U.S. The government would also demand that a chavista candidate be allowed to participate in the polls, and should he or she win, that the victory be respected by all countries and parties. Finally, they demand that sanctions be lifted prior to the polls lest they significantly handicap their chances.

An initial agreement on a future election, hard as it now seems, could pave the way for a broader set of public negotiations on Venezuela’s future political and economic arrangements, thereby softening the probable animosity felt by the losing side in the polls. These talks would also serve to persuade senior military officers that the interests of the armed forces as a whole and their personal economic prospects will be adequately protected. The military as an institution is vital to the transition, not least because of the proliferation in the past two decades of heavily armed groups of all kinds, from criminal gangs to Colombian guerrillas and pro-government paramilitaries (so-called colectivos) that have begun to carve up the country into semi-autonomous fiefdoms.

A genuine transition would involve forming an interim administration in which opposition, pro-government leaders, the armed forces and business groups would all be represented.

A genuine transition would involve forming an interim administration in which opposition, pro-government leaders, the armed forces and business groups would all be represented. It would be charged with alleviating the humanitarian crisis and stabilising the economy as sanctions are progressively lifted, while preparing the country for free elections. The opposition-led National Assembly has begun to produce a legal framework for a transition, although it continues to insist that executive power would be held by Guaidó pending elections. In any event, much more needs to be done, particularly in spelling out the future role of the military, the methodology for forming an interim cabinet, and genuine guarantees for the outgoing leadership that chavismo will remain an integral part of Venezuela’s political landscape. Foreign governments and international bodies have a vital role to play in bringing the two sides to the table and acting as guarantors of any agreement.

How Outside Powers Can Foster a Peaceful Transition

Any power-sharing deal will be extremely hard for politicians on both sides to sell. Both have led their supporters to believe that a “winner-takes-all” solution is available. Backtracking from that position threatens to cause serious internal disputes, potentially allowing hardliners on both sides to disrupt a transition. The foreign allies both of Maduro and Guaidó must help by making it clear that they will contemplate neither the status quo nor an external military intervention. Optimally, Washington, Moscow and Beijing would agree on how the crisis should be resolved – a difficult feat, given the current state of tensions between them and their divergent political and economic stakes in Venezuela. The European Union and its recently formed International Contact Group have a role to play in this process, as well as in devising a path toward internal negotiations.

No one involved – including those beginning to see the inevitability of such a plan – has any illusion that this path will be easy. It will involve many extremely difficult and unpleasant decisions for all involved, as well as compromises on dearly held beliefs, which they are only likely to take if they are convinced the alternatives are worse. But the power cut has shown that, if negotiations do not take place, prospects for Venezuela are extremely grim. All involved with an interest in avoiding further violence and suffering need to pursue talks vigorously.

The president of the National Assembly, Jorge Rodriguez (C-top) swears in the new authorities of the National Electoral Council (CNE), during a special session at the National Assembly, in Caracas. 4 May 2021. Federico PARRA / AFP

Venezuela: An Opportunity That Should Be Seized

A series of gestures from Caracas suggests that President Nicolás Maduro’s government might be more willing to negotiate with rivals and enact partial reforms. Washington should respond in kind with phased sanctions relief and diplomatic gestures that can be reversed if Venezuela backslides.

On 4 May, Venezuela’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National Assembly, swore in a new electoral authority, two of whose five principal members are from the opposition. It was perhaps the most significant of a series of gestures by President Nicolás Maduro’s government over the past two weeks. While nothing suggests that Maduro is ready to make concessions that might threaten his grip on power, his recent moves do signal a willingness to negotiate and might provide a rare opportunity to temper a crisis that has brought the Venezuelan economy to its knees and caused Latin America’s worst humanitarian emergency. Reciprocal moves from foreign powers opposed to Maduro are necessary to ensure that this chance, however slim, is not missed. Washington is best placed to make comparably conciliatory moves by offering modest relief from the sanctions it has imposed and initiating low-profile diplomatic contacts to assess the odds of further progress.

These moves represent partial responses to demands laid down by the U.S.

Several other developments preceded the new election rectors’ appointment. The first came on 19 April, when Caracas finally signed a long-awaited agreement with the World Food Program, granting the agency access to the country to attend to the dire and growing child malnutrition crisis. The second occurred on 30 April, when the chavista government released six imprisoned oil executives from Venezuela’s Houston-based Citgo corporation – five of whom hold U.S. citizenship – into house arrest. A day later, the country’s chief prosecutor Tarek William Saab took a third step, announcing charges against low-ranking officials in three high-profile political killings for which the government had hitherto denied any responsibility. These moves represent partial responses to demands laid down by the U.S. and other external allies of the opposition movement led by former National Assembly chair Juan Guaidó, who since 2019 has asserted a claim to the “interim presidency” of the country.

The changes to Venezuela’s National Electoral Council, or CNE, by its Spanish acronym, were the most significant concession yet. Chavista domination of the CNE has been crucial to the government’s campaign to shut down any and all electoral threats. It ultimately led to the standoff with Guaidó and pushed many other opposition figures into exile. Opposition parties mostly boycotted parliamentary elections in early December 2020 – as they had the presidential contest in 2018 – and the small number that took part in the poll, some of them mere appendages of the government, obtained only twenty seats in a 277-seat Assembly. Even today, conditions for the opposition remain forbidding. Despite the new rectors, the electoral playing field remains deeply skewed in Maduro’s favour. Still, permitting a more balanced electoral authority marks a tentative step toward restoration of political competition.

For Maduro, greater opposition representation on the CNE could have benefits. First, this year’s elections, due in December, are local and regional, so there is less at stake for the president in any case. Moreover, he can sell the CNE deal to his own supporters as opposition recognition of government institutions and a strategy for reducing Venezuela’s international isolation. 

News of the reformed electoral board has divided opposition ranks. Even before Maduro announced the new CNE line-up, the alliance headed by Guaidó had rejected it as illegitimate. Its stance has not changed since, despite the two new opposition rectors’ strong credentials. (One is an experienced politician and former deputy chair of the Assembly; the other is a systems engineer whose role as an opposition elections expert was so important that the government jailed him for six months in 2017.) The opposition alliance maintains that the Guaidó-led parliament, a rump of which continues to meet, is the only body with the power to approve a new CNE. Guaidó himself, whom Washington recognises as the country’s legitimate president, blasted the appointment via Twitter, saying it would “drag the country toward a greater disaster”. 

Others take a different view. Notable among them is two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who, prior to the December elections, made fruitless efforts, with EU backing, to negotiate conditions that would allow his party to take part. Together with other opposition politicians, some of whom prefer for now to remain anonymous, Capriles rejects the “all-or-nothing” approach of Guaidó and his party, Voluntad Popular, which is led by the exiled Leopoldo López and has campaigned without success for Maduro’s immediate overthrow. Support for the new electoral board is also strong among regional and municipal politicians and party activists, especially those in opposition-held states and municipalities, who fear oblivion if the policy of boycotting elections is maintained. The issue threatens to fracture several parties, and could even lead to a formal split in the opposition coalition as a whole, which would also favour the government.

Venezuelan civil society is increasingly emerging as a significant, autonomous force.

Another important element in this complex equation is Venezuelan civil society, which is increasingly emerging as a significant, autonomous force, committed to a negotiated resolution of the country’s protracted political crisis. Four of the fifteen CNE members (the five principal rectors plus ten reserve members) appointed on 4 May were proposed by groups linked to the recently launched Foro Cívico, which brings together NGOs, trade unions, the main employers’ federation, professional syndicates, faith-based organisations and others. The Foro has played a role not only in the CNE negotiations but also in pushing for agreement between the government and opposition on importing COVID-19 vaccines, seeking economic reforms and setting up mechanisms for attending to the humanitarian emergency. Broadly speaking, the Foro leaders support a more conciliatory approach, along the lines of that promoted by Capriles, seeking areas where they can engage the government to alleviate ordinary Venezuelans’ suffering. 

Yet it is Washington’s response that is most keenly awaited. Under President Donald Trump the U.S. pursued a “maximum pressure” policy toward Venezuela, on the assumption that external action, particularly in the form of severe economic and financial sanctions and diplomatic isolation, would force the Maduro government to step down and accede to free elections. That approach failed. President Joe Biden came to office committed to a more pragmatic stance, but for various reasons related largely to the attention given to other pressing concerns – notably the pandemic and migrants at the southern U.S. border – little beyond the rhetoric has changed to date. Washington has demanded “concrete measures” from Maduro if it is to relax sanctions. It must now decide whether the gestures by Caracas merit a response in kind.

All the Venezuelan government’s steps thus far are political gambits; they are tentative and reversible; and, again, in themselves they do not create conditions for credible polls or in any way jeopardise Maduro’s hold on power. On the key question of election conditions, the opposition presence on the new CNE is only a start, albeit a promising one. Much more is needed. The government must legalise opposition parties, for example, most of which are barred from electoral participation and some of which have seen their names and assets transferred to minority, pro-government factions. The electoral authorities need to thoroughly audit voter lists. Most importantly, the Maduro government will also have to scale down its apparatus of state repression if it wishes to convince the U.S., the EU and its neighbours of its good faith.

Still, given the gridlock in Venezuela’s political standoff and the country’s appalling humanitarian suffering, outside powers should respond to and seek to encourage any signs of movement. Crisis Group has argued for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of sanctions that inflict humanitarian harm alongside a phased lifting of other punitive measures in response to the gradual restoration of civil and political rights. The most obvious and pressing humanitarian need is for a restoration of permits to allow Venezuela to swap crude oil for diesel, of which there is a critical shortage. Diesel is vital, among other things, for food production and distribution. The U.S. could also consider steps like renewing licences and lifting sanctions that prohibit certain activities by U.S. and other foreign oil companies, with the understanding that these steps could be reversed if Caracas backtracks or fails to make further progress.

Also important is that Washington and Caracas set up channels of communication, either direct or through third parties, so that each can correctly interpret the other’s moves. Biden will pay a political cost for any easing of pressure on Maduro, with no likely immediate return. U.S. politicians are naturally – and perhaps increasingly – reluctant to incur the hostility of the Venezuela lobby in their country. The Maduro government will have to factor in that reality, just as Washington will need to take into account the difficulty the Venezuelan president may have in selling any rapprochement to his own coalition. Contact would allow each side to feel its way with more confidence.

The worst thing the U.S. could do now is to sit on its hands and await further concessions without any corresponding move on its part.

The worst thing the U.S. could do now is to sit on its hands and await further concessions without any corresponding move on its part. Such a course would strengthen the hand of those in the Venezuelan government who argue that however much they concede, Washington is interested only in getting rid of Maduro. It may well be that the Venezuelan president has no intention of going further, but the only way to find out is to engage in a process of gradual, reciprocal change. The ball is in Washington’s court.