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The Risks of Diplomatic Rupture with Maduro’s Venezuela
The Risks of Diplomatic Rupture with Maduro’s Venezuela
A banner protesting against the visit of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro prior to Mexico's new President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador inauguration is pictured inside Congress in Mexico City, on 1 December 2018. REUTERS/Henry Romero

The Risks of Diplomatic Rupture with Maduro’s Venezuela

Key Latin American countries have said they will cut ties with Venezuela over its authoritarian drift and socio-economic meltdown. This move would be counterproductive. Instead, external powers should step up efforts to find a negotiated pathway out of Venezuela’s crisis.

On 10 January 2019, Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro will be sworn in for a second term, despite domestic and international rejection of the presidential election held on 20 May this year. That he is due to stay in power for another six years presents a major challenge both to opposition parties and to foreign governments seeking a resolution of the country’s protracted political, economic and social crisis. Latin American governments, in particular, wish to stop Venezuela’s slide into chaos and to stem the exodus of migrants across its borders. But for these governments to close their embassies in Caracas or sever diplomatic ties, as some of them have suggested, would do nothing to resolve these concerns.

Maduro has presided over an unprecedented economic collapse, which has seen Venezuela’s gross domestic product shrink by around 50 per cent and about a tenth of the population flee the country. In the face of growing criticism of his government’s authoritarian drift, Maduro stripped power from the country’s democratic institutions, notably the National Assembly, jailing and exiling opposition politicians, and barring their parties from taking part in elections. To replace the Assembly, he installed a National Constituent Assembly, composed exclusively of government supporters, with powers to overrule all the country’s other institutions.

A divided continent has been unable to adopt a concerted response to the crisis. Maduro’s few remaining allies, along with a number of small countries heavily dependent on Venezuela’s dwindling energy largesse, have so far blocked any joint action by the Organization of American States (OAS). In 2017, a dozen OAS member states, including some of those receiving the most migrants, formed the ad hoc Lima Group, which along with the U.S. and the European Union (EU) must now decide how to respond to the 10 January installation of a government regarded as the product of an unfair election.

Some of the Group’s members have indicated that they intend to close their embassies in Venezuela in a bid to increase pressure on Maduro. Peru’s foreign minister has said his government will call for severing relations. Colombian President Iván Duque has made similar statements. Such moves, however, would further isolate not only Maduro’s government but also the opposition, including its more pragmatic members, as well as ordinary citizens. It likely would make it harder to achieve the negotiated transition which represents the best hope for resolving the crisis.

To close down embassies or, worse, break diplomatic relations altogether, would first of all severely limit foreign governments’ ability to gather first-hand information through contacts with both government and opposition, as well as with civil society and experts on the ground. It would make it much harder for concerned countries to serve the interests of their nationals living in Venezuela, as well as to protect opposition figures, human rights activists and vulnerable Venezuelans.

Encouraging their ambitions would increase the likelihood of a government-in-exile.

On the opposition side, harder-line leaders want to see the National Assembly appoint a president to replace Maduro – a move Maduro would disregard, of course, but that they believe would allow foreign countries to recognise an alternative Venezuelan leadership. These figures would undoubtedly feel vindicated if Lima Group nations close their embassies. They include some leaders of Voluntad Popular, the party that will assume the National Assembly presidency in January, as well as influential voices among exiled politicians. Encouraging their ambitions would increase the likelihood of a government-in-exile, shifting the centre of gravity of opposition decision-making beyond Venezuela’s borders, giving heart to those promoting external military intervention or internal armed insurrection. Though they represent a minority in the Assembly and in the country at large, they have the capacity to weaken and split the internal opposition leadership. They also have important allies; OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro has pointedly refused to rule out military intervention and has accused those seeking negotiations with the government of collaborating with it.

While breaking relations or closing embassies would prove counterproductive, Latin American and other foreign countries should redouble diplomatic efforts. They should:

  • Endorse and implement the EU’s proposal to establish a Contact Group of nations interested in resolving Venezuela’s crisis, and lay out a roadmap by which Venezuela could restore its government’s good standing and obtain the gradual lifting of sanctions; 
     
  • Specify that this route begins with restoring the National Assembly’s powers; dissolving or curbing the powers of the National Constituent Assembly; ending the harassment, prosecution and imprisonment of opposition politicians; and initiating wide-ranging negotiations on political and economic reform.
     
  • Pursue attempts to engage the Maduro government’s leading allies, particularly China, over the need for concerted action to halt Venezuela’s rapid social and economic decline.
     
  • Urge the Lima Group, whose foreign ministers are due to meet on 4 January, to announce, ahead of 10 January, that its members are willing to join the U.S., the EU and others in imposing sanctions on individuals in the Venezuelan government, with clear pre-conditions for lifting them, should Maduro be sworn in without making a commitment to substantive negotiations with the opposition.
     
  • Eschew any suggestion of military intervention, which would almost certainly trigger far greater instability, and talk of which encourages factionalism and empowers hardliners with the opposition.