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Picking Up the Pieces After Venezuela’s Quashed Uprising
Picking Up the Pieces After Venezuela’s Quashed Uprising
Venezuela's Mining Arc: A Legal Veneer for Armed Groups to Plunder
Venezuela's Mining Arc: A Legal Veneer for Armed Groups to Plunder
An opposition demonstrator waves a Venezuelan national flag during clashes with soldiers loyal to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro April 30 2019 Federico PARRA / AFP

Picking Up the Pieces After Venezuela’s Quashed Uprising

 A failed uprising by Venezuelan National Assembly Chair Juan Guaidó has emboldened President Nicolás Maduro and deepened the country's political deadlock. However difficult, outside actors should continue to press the two sides to form a transitional cabinet, stabilise Venezuela’s economy and hold elections.

The events that shook Caracas on 30 April remain shrouded in mystery, but their immediate impact seems clear: further polarising a political stand-off and raising the likelihood of domestic or international escalation. They began with the opposition leadership’s dramatic announcement that the country had entered the “final phase” of what it calls “Operation Freedom”, aimed at ousting President Nicolás Maduro. They continued with claims that the effort enjoyed the support of the military high command. They ended with what, at the time of writing, appears to have been an easily subdued, poorly conceived revolt that left National Assembly chair Juan Guaidó, his regional allies and the U.S. looking outmanoeuvred.  Maduro and his own domestic and international partners may well feel empowered and emboldened, with little incentive to talk to a disorganised and ineffectual opposition.

That would be a miscalculation. Security forces easily subdued the uprising, but the fact that it followed a series of efforts since early this year to isolate, destabilise and split the government underlines not only the opposition’s inability to dislodge Maduro but also the government’s powerlessness to stifle its political foes. Much as talks between two deeply polarised sides and their respective foreign allies appear far-fetched, the stalemate in which they are locked, the high costs borne by the Venezuelan people and the risk of local or even international escalation mean that the country’s stability continues to depend on a negotiated settlement.

U.S. officials also have suggested, without offering proof, that several senior officials had promised to defect, but failed to do so.

The haphazard quality of the uprising has several potential explanations. The opposition moved a day earlier than planned (mass demonstrations were already scheduled for May 1), harming its chances. U.S. officials also have suggested, without offering proof, that several senior officials had promised to defect, but failed to do so. Clarification as to the actual reason will need to await.

For Maduro and his allies – among which the U.S. singled out Cuba but also Russia – this was a triumphal turn of events. In the end, the protests were small and easily dispersed by security forces. It also quickly became apparent that only a few low-ranking soldiers had actually broken away from the government. As the day came to a close, the country’s most famous political prisoner, Leopoldo López, who had emerged from house arrest at dawn to lead the protests, was compelled to seek refuge at the Spanish ambassador’s residence. Maduro – who had remained behind the scenes all day – emerged to declare victory and mock claims by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that he had been ready to go into exile only to be dissuaded by Russia.

But the problems that have plagued the government are far from being resolved. His failure aside, Guaidó remains the country’s legitimate president in the eyes of several dozen nations, including the U.S., most Latin American countries and most EU member states. His stature might well be diminished by the unhappy outcome, but he has succeeded in uniting the fractious opposition and galvanising popular support. His success notwithstanding, Maduro still faces diplomatic isolation, a collapsing economy and a sanctions regime that has severely curtailed Venezuela’s ability to export its dwindling oil production, on which it depends for almost all its foreign currency earnings. After years of economic decline, more than a tenth of the population has fled the country and the UN estimates that 7 million people are in need of humanitarian aid.

The clear lesson from the 30 April events is that there can be no “winner-take-all” solution in Venezuela. The government remains in control of security forces, the electoral authority and the supreme court, but it cannot fix the economy without a political settlement that enables sanctions to be lifted and a competent team of technocrats to begin implementing a recovery programme. Nor can it silence public dissent except through repression. The opposition can still count on the devastating effect of sanctions, the threat of a U.S. military intervention (made more explicit than ever by Secretary Pompeo) and the belief that the armed forces will ultimately force Maduro out. But there is no evidence sanctions will bring the government down; repeated attempts to win over elements of the military have failed, and external armed intervention still seems a remote possibility that – if employed – would almost certainly fuel further instability through triggering prolonged conflict with pro-government armed groups and militias.

As Crisis Group has consistently argued, the best way forward lies in negotiations between chavistas and the opposition.

As Crisis Group has consistently argued, the best way forward lies in negotiations between chavistas and the opposition. True, previous rounds of dialogue have embittered the opposition, with many in its ranks convinced that the government has no intention of compromising and will use protracted talks to buy time, exacerbate splits among its foes and defuse mass protests. Even opposition leaders who privately accept the need for talks fear being labelled “collaborators” by more hardline elements.

Left to their own devices, in other words, the two sides are unlikely to reach a workable agreement. The onus is on external actors who, regrettably, have been as divided as Venezuelans themselves.  Countries close to Guaidó, those supportive of Maduro and those in between should seize this moment to put aside any maximalist position and nudge their respective allies to compromise. That will require the U.S. and its Latin American partners to rule out any suggestion of military intervention and abandon the demand that Maduro immediately resign. It will require Russia, China and Cuba to accept the need for Maduro to initiate a process leading to credible and internationally-monitored presidential elections.  It will require all stakeholders to push for the following:

  • Formation of a transitional cabinet including representatives of both chavismo and the opposition, focused on economic stabilisation, humanitarian assistance, internal security and institutional reform; ideally, neither Maduro nor Guaidó would hold the presidency during this period, though agreement on this point ought not to be a precondition for negotiations to commence; 
  • Guarantees to the military in the form of a clear framework for their future role;
  • Presidential elections under a reformed electoral commission and international monitoring.

The EU-led International Contact Group could help jump-start this process through its own quiet diplomacy.

Maduro almost certainly feels he won this round and sees little need to compromise. The opposition, weaker than it was a couple of months ago, likely is as wary as ever of negotiations. If their external allies endorse these views, nobody should hold out hope for a mutually agreed solution. But then all would have to be prepared to live with a deepening stalemate, a growing humanitarian toll, and the very real possibility of internal armed confrontation or even outside military intervention. It should not be a difficult choice.

Venezuela's Mining Arc: A Legal Veneer for Armed Groups to Plunder

Originally published in The Guardian

Late 2016, Nicolás Maduro tweeted a photograph of himself with a smile on his face and a gleaming ingot in his hands – but not all that glitters is gold.

Venezuela claims to possess some of the largest untapped gold and coltan reserves in the world, and the country’s gold rush picked up when the president decreed the creation of a massive area of 112,000 sq km destined for mining, known as the Orinoco mining arc. In a recently published development plan Venezuela set the goal to produce more than 80,ooo kilos of gold a year by 2025.

The project, launched in February 2016, was supposed to drive development, but many mining projects announced by the government have failed to materialize, and the mining arc now seems little more than a legal veneer for plunder by an expanding range of armed groups.

Multiple non-state armed groups are spreading their hold over southern Venezuela, adding another unpredictable factor to the country’s current crisis – and complicating any efforts for a peaceful resolution.

Their methods and origins may be different, but their motivation is one which has driven violence in Latin America since colonial times: a hunger for gold and other valuable minerals.

Venezuelan crime syndicates have run informal mines for years. More recently, Colombian guerrillas – dissidents from the now-demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) and members of the National Liberation Army (ELN) – have expanded their reach hundreds of miles into Venezuela.

The groups are deeply entrenched in local communities, and often work in volatile alliances with parts of the military who privately profit from illegal mining.

At least 300,000 people work at wildcat mines which have caused huge environmental damage, and sparked a malaria epidemic.

Confrontations between the rival armed groups make southern Venezuela one of the most violent regions in Latin America. “Everybody wants to be boss,” explained a former miner who fled to Colombia to avoid the escalating violence.

Numerous sources confirm the army’s participation in illicit mining and report that military death squads have occasionally entered mines to settle disputes. Most killings go unrecorded, but local media have reported more than a dozen massacres since 2016. Municipalities in the mining region cope with homicide far above that of Caracas, the world’s most violent capital city.

Of these factions, the ELN is one of the most prominent, operating in 13 of Venezuela’s 24 states and extending its reach across the southern mining regions to form a corridor across Venezuela to near its disputed border with Guyana.

The ELN’s tactical and ideological alignment with the Venezuelan government is grist to the mill for those arguing for a military intervention against Maduro.

But any foreign incursion could potentially trigger a disastrous escalation of violence, possibly leading to a low-intensity conflict that would cause tremendous suffering for Venezuela’s most vulnerable populations.

The ELN is now Latin America’s biggest guerrilla army, and has vowed to defend Maduro’s government in the event of a foreign intervention.

Local sources have described how the guerrillas embed themselves in local communities, giving political and military training.

“They make [the locals] fall in love, offer them weapons and they indoctrinate them,” said one indigenous leader from Bolívar state. As in Colombia, the rebels intervene in local disputes and offer a measure of authority in lawless areas – wildcat miners confirm that they prefer the presence of the guerrillas over the brutal and less tolerant Venezuelan crime syndicates.

So what should be done? The freedom with which armed groups operate south of the Orinoco river reflects the weakness of the Venezuelan state. But threats of foreign military intervention will simply embolden the guerrillas and strengthen their ties to Caracas.

Humanitarian aid is essential for the inhabitants of the region, but its safe entry will depend on the Venezuelan government’s consent – and will not be served by the sort of forced entry attempted in February.

The communities facing the most urgent humanitarian needs are remote and indigenous populations in the south, which are already suffering from epidemics and shortages. Food shortages are exacerbated by the dependence on gold as currency in mining towns.

Outside actors should work to clean up Venezuelan mineral supply chains. Foreign states should enforce due diligence frameworks on mineral exporters and commodity exchanges to minimize risks that they buy minerals that finance conflict and human rights abuses.

For now, the extraction of gold, coltan and other minerals funds armed groups and harms indigenous communities. Even the minerals that are sold by Venezuelan state companies and the Venezuelan central bank (BCV) stem in part from the same mines controlled by armed groups and should therefore be classified as conflict minerals.

Forgotten parts of southern Venezuela are of key importance to the political future of the country. Communities abandoned by the state – and the armed groups that prey on them – merit more concern from international actors disputing Venezuela’s future. Peace in Venezuela cannot be achieved without taking the south into account.