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Picking Up the Pieces After Venezuela’s Quashed Uprising
Picking Up the Pieces After Venezuela’s Quashed Uprising
Venezuela: An Opportunity That Should Be Seized
Venezuela: An Opportunity That Should Be Seized
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.

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.