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A Twist in Caracas: Is a Venezuela-U.S. Reboot on the Cards?
A Twist in Caracas: Is a Venezuela-U.S. Reboot on the Cards?
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro talks to Venezuela's Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López during a ceremony commemorating the 200th death anniversary of independence hero Francisco de Miranda in Caracas, on 14 July 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Slow-motion Coup in Venezuela?

Nicolás Maduro was elected president of Venezuela in April 2013 by a narrow margin. His term is due to end in January 2019, unless the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance can force a recall referendum this year – and win it. But does President Maduro really run the country?

In recent weeks Nicolás Maduro appears to have taken a back seat to Venezuela’s top general, defence minister Vladimir Padrino López, who also – unusually – holds the post of operational commander of the armed forces.

On 11 July, Maduro announced that he and Padrino would jointly head a newly-created “Civilian-Military Presidential Command”, charged primarily with resolving the country’s acute shortage of food, medicines and other basic goods. All other ministries and state institutions have been subordinated to this body, whose functions not only cover stimulating production, controlling prices and overseeing distribution and imports of food, but also the country’s security and defence.

The prominence of the military in determining Venezuela’s political future was illustrated once again by the appointment on Wednesday of Néstor Reverol as interior minister. Unlike Padrino, who rose through the army, Reverol hails from the National Guard. His alleged criminal connections – he was promoted to the post of minister after being served a US court indictment the day before for assisting drug traffickers – suggests that different factions in the military may now be jostling for shares of influence in the state.

None of this is unprecedented. For most of its history, Venezuela has been ruled by men in uniform. The last military dictator, General Marcos Pérez Jiménez, fled the country in 1958. Although none of the coup attempts since then has been successful, the leader of a failed attempt to overthrow the government in 1992 – Lieutenant-Colonel Hugo Chávez – was elected president six years later and installed what he called a “civilian-military” regime. In 2007, the armed forces adopted the defence of Chávez’s “socialist revolution”, rather than the defence of the nation, as their raison d’être.

Just before his premature death from cancer in 2013, Chávez anointed his then foreign minister, Maduro, as his successor. Amid accelerating economic decline and a looming humanitarian crisis, the opposition MUD won a resounding victory in the parliamentary elections of December last year. But the government has used its control of the Supreme Court (TSJ) to block every parliamentary initiative since then. Maduro now rules by decree under sweeping emergency powers twice rejected by the legislature but ratified by the TSJ. After five months, the government-controlled electoral authority (CNE) this week finally authorised the MUD to make a formal request to gather the signatures required to trigger a presidential recall referendum, as provided for in the constitution. No date has yet been set for this next stage in the referendum process.

With over 80 per cent of the electorate – according to recent opinion polls – keen to see Maduro leave office, by constitutional means, as soon as possible, the armed forces’ ability to maintain control of an increasingly restive population may be critical in determining whether he remains in power. Order is currently being ensured by riot squads from the National Police (PNB) and the National Guard (GNB), but episodes of mass looting have become a frequent occurrence in recent months, stretching their resources.

No one knows for certain how the army would react if ordered onto the streets, but most experts suggest the officer corps would be reluctant to order troops to fire on mass protests. Nonetheless, new rules of engagement introduced under Padrino theoretically allow the use of deadly force in crowd control under certain circumstances. Human rights groups and the UN say the rules, contained in a defence ministry resolution in January 2015 and ratified by the TSJ, run counter to the constitution, and have voiced concern over the vagueness of the resolution’s wording.

The defence minister himself is the subject of much speculation regarding his motives and intentions. Padrino rose to prominence through his unwavering loyalty to Chávez, having been one of the officers who stood by the late president when he was briefly ousted by a coup in 2002. But it is widely rumoured that he blocked a move by elements in Maduro’s government to steal last year’s legislative election, earning himself the enmity of the regime’s erstwhile number two, Diosdado Cabello, himself a former army officer. Both deny the story. Padrino’s retirement has twice been postponed, and his longevity as defence minister in the face efforts to unseat him suggests he has the backing of a majority of senior officers. 

For Maduro, who belongs to the radical, civilian left of the chavista movement, the armed forces represent a double-edged sword. A greater percentage of current cabinet ministers are military officers, both serving and retired, than under Hugo Chávez, while almost half the ruling party’s twenty state governors are former members of the armed forces. In December, the president announced a “very well-thought-out and detailed plan” to de-militarise the administration by sending officers currently serving as public officials back to the barracks. His well-thought-out plan came to naught: barely a handful actually left their jobs. Now he seems to have felt compelled to put the armed forces in charge of the single most pressing issue facing the regime: how to stop public anger over the lack of food and medicine bringing down the government. The gradual expansion of military powers in response to the regime´s loss of legitimacy is starting to resemble a slow-motion coup.

There is no doubt the current situation is dire. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts that Venezuela’s GDP will fall by around 8 per cent this year, following a 5.7 per cent contraction in 2015. Inflation figures leaked from the Central Bank (which provides little by way of official data) suggest prices may be rising at an annualised rate of 1,000 per cent. Many basic goods, including food and medicines, are almost impossible to obtain except on the black market. The recently published Latin American Study of Nutrition and Health (ELANS) showed that already by 2015 more than a fifth of Venezuelans were eating fewer than three meals a day. Average calorie consumption was well below the recommended level.

What is in doubt is the army’s ability to improve the situation. The state-run food and agriculture apparatus has long been dominated by the generals and managed according to the principles of a command economy. The government has responded to inflation and scarcity with ever more stringent controls, on everything from pricing to inventories to the movement of goods. The result has been a collapse in domestic production and rampant corruption and smuggling. After opposition legislators claimed that two brothers-in-law of former food minister General Carlos Osorio made millions from contracts to import food, the courts slapped a gag order on them. State prosecutors and the government auditor’s office have so far shown no interest in investigating the allegations.

Despite the appearance of an increasingly military-dominated government, General Padrino has said that he does not want to “militarise” the administration but to “restore order” in the face of a “lack of governance” – a strange choice of words, given that any such lack must be attributed to his commander-in-chief. But he too has shown no sign of moving against fellow officers accused of stealing billions of dollars in public money. Instead, he has reiterated the government’s claim that it is facing an “economic war” waged by the opposition and its foreign allies, led by Washington. True to this logic, the government’s Resolution 9855 of 22 July allows it to force companies to provide workers to boost productivity in the food and agriculture sector – a move rejected by the trade unions, who say they were not consulted and have declared that they will not obey a decree one union leader said seeks to turn “workers into soldiers”. The government has since stated that firms would only contribute workers on a voluntary basis. However, the dismissal this week of the relatively business-friendly Industry Minister Miguel Pérez Abad and his replacement by bureaucrat Carlos Faría confirms an overall reliance on state economic planning.

There is no doubt that Padrino is now the second most powerful man in the country – if not the most powerful. Vice President Aristóbulo Istúriz remains in his post but has, at least for now, taken a back seat. At recent celebrations marking the birthday of the father of the nation, Simón Bolívar, it was Padrino, not Istúriz, who stood in for an absent Maduro.

With so much power concentrated in the hands of the military, understanding what their goals are is paramount. Rather than merely shoring up an increasingly unpopular president, the aim of the generals may be to control the transition in a way that protects their own interests. The military can be expected to be particularly attentive to their sources of revenue, some of them illicit, to their political powers, and to their reputation as custodians of Venezuela’s peace and sovereignty. Different priorities may well correspond to distinct factions within the armed forces.

The defence minister’s new role means “the dialogue [over] transition will be with the military”, as one defence expert put it. Padrino has in the past questioned the legitimacy of holding a recall referendum. But some who know him say the defence minister is not as diehard a chavista as his public statements suggest, and may support a referendum if he believes it to be in the military’s best interests. Assuming the opposition is unable to force a referendum this year, the departure of the president could in principle be managed, under the constitution, without triggering an immediate election. Instead, during the last two years of his term, an appointed vice president would take office, affording a potential route for military and civilian factions to be reshuffled under the auspices of the current regime. But if the army cannot halt the slide into economic and social chaos, the crisis could take the generals with it too. So far, there is no sign of a workable plan in that regard.
 

American and Venezuelan flags are seen as members of the Venezuelan community react after the Biden administration said it would grant temporary protected status to Venezuelan migrants living in the United States, in Doral, Florida, U.S. March 9 2021. REUTERS/Marco Bello

A Twist in Caracas: Is a Venezuela-U.S. Reboot on the Cards?

High-ranking U.S. officials made a surprise trip to Venezuela’s capital, hinting at efforts to improve bilateral relations and end the standoff between the Maduro government and its opponents. The backdrop is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which just might be changing strategic calculations an ocean away.  

An unexpected visit to Caracas by the highest-level U.S. delegation in over five years has raised the prospect of a reboot in efforts to resolve Venezuela’s protracted political and humanitarian crisis. A flurry of statements from both sides, meanwhile, has planted the notion that Venezuelan-U.S. relations can be revived. It was the U.S. that took the initiative, suddenly reversing its refusal to talk directly to President Nicolás Maduro’s government three years after it closed its embassy in Venezuela and cut diplomatic ties. The move was all the more startling in light of Maduro’s vocal support for Russia following its invasion of Ukraine. Yet it is precisely events in eastern Europe that seem to have triggered Washington’s about-face: the Biden administration’s decision to ban imports of Russian oil and gas in retaliation for the assault on Ukraine means it must scramble to find alternative sources. Beyond the question of access to fuel, however, the significance of this partial détente for the conflict in Venezuela and for U.S. policy in Latin America remains hard to gauge.

The delegation that visited Venezuela on 5-6 March, headed by Juan González of the National Security Council – the White House’s senior Latin America adviser – also included Roger Carstens, special envoy for hostage affairs, who has been seeking the release of a number of U.S. citizens Washington regards as unjustly imprisoned in Venezuela. In what is seen as an encouraging confidence-building measure, the Maduro government freed two of the captives as a result of the meeting.

The Biden administration has played down the oil supply angle, insisting that the trip was planned months ago and that talks on fuel imports are “not an active conversation at this time”. But there can be little doubt that energy concerns lay behind its choice to kickstart dialogue with a government it has ostracised since January 2019. The Western Hemisphere’s largest known hydrocarbon reserves lie in the subsoil and under the coastal waters of Venezuela. But there is a problem. U.S. sanctions impede imports from Venezuela and threaten dire consequences for third parties that facilitate them. Coming on top of years of mismanagement and corruption, the sanctions have helped wreck the once flourishing Venezuelan oil industry, which now produces only a fraction of its former three million barrels per day and will be hard pressed to ramp up production again quickly.

The surprise U.S. visit to Caracas has triggered two parallel processes. On one hand, talks appear to be under way to determine whether, and how, Venezuelan oil can start flowing again to U.S. refineries. On the other, the Maduro government and the Venezuelan opposition are assessing the new diplomatic configuration to see what form negotiations on a political and humanitarian agreement might take. Meanwhile, Latin American governments, including those in Cuba and Nicaragua, are wondering, along with their foreign allies, what Washington’s apparent new willingness to engage what it perceives as a hostile government will mean for the region as a whole.

An Oily Relationship

It was U.S. companies that developed the Venezuelan oil industry a century ago, turning the country into the world’s top exporter for a time. When World War II broke out, Washington moved swiftly to ensure continued access to Venezuelan production, which played a vital role in the Allied war effort. Oil is the mainstay of the Venezuelan economy and the natural market for it is the energy-hungry U.S. But the relationship began to sour in 1998, with the election of President Hugo Chávez, who sought to free Venezuela from what he saw as a neo-colonial relationship with “the empire”. Among other policy changes, he reoriented oil exports to the Asian market and to China in particular. Simultaneously, the U.S. was developing its shale industry, stimulated by the same high oil prices that helped keep Chávez enduringly popular even as he led a charge to weaken Venezuela’s democratic institutions. These two factors meant that when relations broke down, the disruption was less traumatic for the U.S. market than if it had happened decades earlier.

Venezuela ... has seen [oil] production tumble from around 3.4 million barrels per day at the turn of the century to less than a quarter of that today.

Venezuela, however, has seen production tumble from around 3.4 million barrels per day at the turn of the century to less than a quarter of that today. Even as prices began to rise steeply once more, the country was poorly equipped to take advantage: its crude, though cheap to produce, sells at a heavy discount thanks to sanctions and its low quality, and incurs much greater transport costs en route to Asia than if it were sold to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries. The country’s infrastructure, including not only refineries and pipelines but also roads and electrical grids, is in serious disrepair. Heavily indebted and in default, excluded from the world’s main financial markets and plagued by crime and highly partisan and often corrupt government, Venezuela is unable to raise the capital required to make the improvements it needs.

On paper, there is scope for a rapid deal between Caracas and Washington in which the latter licenses foreign oil companies not only to produce and export oil, but also to receive payments from Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA, without actually lifting sanctions. Oil major Chevron, which has long been pushing for such a deal, could be allowed to return to the rules in place prior to April 2020, under which it was not only able to produce but also export – with the important difference that now it might be allowed to send its oil to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries, which were designed with Venezuelan crude in mind.

In the short term, Venezuela cannot increase capacity to compensate for the loss of imports into the U.S. from Russia, which in 2021 amounted to almost 700,000 barrels per day, of which 200,000 barrels were crude oil and the remainder oil products. That is almost as much as Venezuela’s current export total. In the near future, Venezuelan exports cannot even make a dent in the world price of crude. But analysts say there is margin for Chevron to add some 120,000 barrels to current production, potentially upping that number to 240,000 within three months. Depending on the conditions, that could allow Chevron to recoup some of the massive debt it is owed by PDVSA.

Breaking the Political Deadlock

A bargain solely involving oil licences but which leaves Venezuela’s political dispute largely untouched would neither mollify the Venezuelan opposition and U.S. critics of the détente nor be entirely satisfactory to the Maduro government. It is on resolution of this dispute, which in 2019 saw two rival presidents spar for control of the country, that both the opposition’s aspirations for a free and fair election and the Venezuelan government’s longed-for economic recovery and return to full international legitimacy depend.

President Maduro was re-elected in May 2018 in what the U.S. and many of its allies regarded as a rigged election. The following year, the Trump administration recognised Juan Guaidó, head of the opposition-run parliament, as acting president of Venezuela and imposed sweeping sanctions on Maduro’s government in a failed bid to topple him. The sanctions remain in place under President Joe Biden, albeit with the condition that the White House would ease them should Maduro take clear steps toward free and fair elections. Although a new legislature, overwhelmingly dominated by government loyalists, was seated in early 2021 and Guaidó’s popularity is now as low as Maduro’s, Washington, along with a half-dozen allies, still recognises the opposition’s “interim government”. It is under huge pressure to maintain this policy from powerful players in the U.S., including the Democratic chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez, and political leaders from across the spectrum in the state of Florida. That recognition, however, looks more than a little shaky now that senior U.S. government representatives – including Ambassador James Story, who is accredited to Guaidó’s administration though based in neighbouring Colombia – are dealing directly with Maduro.

The economy has shrunk by more than three quarters since Maduro came to power almost a decade ago.

At the same time, despite lip service to the statist economic policies favoured by his predecessor Chávez, Maduro has been forced by desperately straitened circumstances to carry out a chaotic series of market reforms, eliminating exchange and price controls, allowing the U.S. dollar to circulate freely and returning state assets to private hands. Even the oil industry, a totem of Venezuelan nationalism, is not off limits. But the economy has shrunk by more than three quarters since Maduro came to power almost a decade ago, and the anemic growth it is now beginning to see is far from a real recovery.

Facing an election in 2024, and badly in need of a boost to his dismal poll ratings, Maduro is naturally keen for a deal with the U.S. that would see sanctions eased. But he is much less enthusiastic about the principal condition Washington and the mainstream Venezuelan opposition have attached: namely, that he allow a free and fair presidential contest. Accused of everything from drug trafficking to crimes against humanity, he and his closest collaborators naturally fear the consequences of losing power, quite apart from the likely impact on their income and wealth.

Back to Negotiations?

Pressing ahead with the talks between government and opposition facilitated by Norway could provide the key to resolving these differences. The first series of negotiations was held between May and August 2019, with sessions in Oslo and Barbados. The government withdrew when the Trump administration further tightened sanctions, and the Guaidó-led opposition declared the process “exhausted” soon thereafter. The opposition and some of its foreign allies proceeded to explore military options, seeking first to have Venezuela’s neighbours invoke a mutual defence treaty. When that option failed to gain traction, Guaidó’s team set in motion a tragicomic “invasion” of Venezuela by a handful of ill-equipped volunteers and mercenaries in May 2020. Even so, against the backdrop of the deepening humanitarian crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic and signals from the Maduro government that it might be willing to make concessions, negotiations restarted with a different format in August 2021 in Mexico City.

The Mexico talks are governed by a memorandum of understanding committing the parties to seek agreements on issues such as political rights and electoral reform. A deal between government and opposition to discuss the use of Venezuelan funds frozen by the U.S. to address the country’s humanitarian emergency seemed to mark an early breakthrough, although it has yielded no tangible results to date. These talks were also suspended, however, when the Venezuelan government withdrew once more, angered by the October extradition from Cape Verde to the U.S. of a close Maduro ally, the Colombian businessman Alex Saab, whom the U.S. has charged with money laundering.

Following talks with the U.S. delegation to Caracas, Maduro publicly declared that he was willing to have his representatives resume negotiations, although it remains unclear whether, and if so when, they might go back to Mexico. Maduro also made no mention of Saab when he expressed his willingness to return, although he has probably not dropped the demand for concessions in that regard. The opposition has also reiterated its wish to start talks again, and Washington has insisted on the need for a comprehensive agreement ending in fair polls.

Discussions are under way to work out the details. An issue that will have to be resolved is the involvement of Russia, which was designated at the outset, along with the Netherlands, as an “accompanying country”. In present circumstances, the Russian government is hardly suited to play this role, so a substitute agreeable to both sides would likely have to be found. An even trickier question is the composition of the opposition delegation, which the government would like to see broadened to include parties from outside the Unitary Platform under Guaidó, including those that took part in the 2020 legislative elections boycotted by the mainstream opposition. As it is, the Platform is anything but united, and insiders have even warned of a possible split between Guaidó’s party, Voluntad Popular, and the other three main coalition members. Meanwhile, relations between the Platform and other opposition parties are marked at best by mutual suspicion and in many cases by overt hostility. In several cases, the government has used its control of the Supreme Court to divide opposition parties, handing their symbols and assets to a faction antagonistic to the current opposition leadership.

Room for Progress

Even if these issues can be resolved, there is clearly a risk that, once again, the two sides will embark on negotiations in which one or both are reluctant to make the necessary concessions. The government has frequently given the impression that it uses talks primarily to gain time, as well as to sow discord in opposition ranks, while having no intention of entertaining any risk that it will lose power. The opposition appears eager to negotiate but remains divided over how far it should go in offering concessions to what many of its leaders see as a dictatorial regime. The opposition’s main foreign backer, the U.S., has not formally changed its position on sanctions relief. In February, the U.S. issued a joint statement with nineteen other countries and the European Union saying, among other things, any lifting of sanctions would require “meaningful progress” toward free and fair elections within the framework of the Mexico City talks.

Progress toward a deal between government and opposition is likely to be arduous in these conditions, but it is not impossible.

Progress toward a deal between government and opposition is likely to be arduous in these conditions, but it is not impossible. Two compromises are likely to be required from the Maduro government if a settlement is to be reached. The first would involve providing the conditions for genuine electoral competition in 2024 – potentially including the reforms set out in the EU Observation Mission during the 2021 regional elections – in return for the progressive lifting of sanctions. For the government, there can be no question of a level playing field unless sanctions are at least partly lifted. The second and potentially more troublesome issue concerns post-electoral guarantees. As Crisis Group has previously argued, losers must be certain that they will not be persecuted or barred from participation in formal politics. Giving such assurances will require a much more comprehensive settlement, almost certainly involving constitutional reform and some form of transitional justice scheme. But government officials also make clear that they would chafe at any opposition presidential candidate whom they perceive as directly threatening the interests of chavismo and its supporters. They express particular antipathy for Guaidó and his Voluntad Popular party.

As for the opposition, its fundamental split has always been between those who will not settle for anything less than the prompt removal of chavismo from power and those who are prepared to negotiate some form of political coexistence with Maduro and his allies that would eventually allow for a peaceful alternation in power determined at the ballot box. Despite the former camp’s evident failure, in alliance with the Trump administration, to achieve its objective via “maximum pressure”, this faction continues to enjoy a privileged status in Washington. A vital question is how heavily the global crisis the U.S. now confronts will weigh in Washington’s calculations over its Venezuela policy – and the potential benefits the Biden administration perceives in a shift in tack – compared to the backlash from the Venezuela lobby in Congress and in Florida if and when negotiations proceed.

The Western Hemisphere in the New Global Order

Beyond resolving Venezuela’s protracted crisis, but inextricably bound up with it, lies the question of how relations between the U.S. and the Latin American and Caribbean region as a whole could evolve as a result of the tectonic shift in geopolitics brought on by Russia’s war in Ukraine. It is too early to draw firm conclusions, but some aspects of future U.S. engagement in the region are already coming to the fore.

Long before Russia’s invasion, many in the U.S. foreign policy establishment considered that neither Moscow nor Beijing had any business planting flags in the Western Hemisphere. Members of the Trump administration openly spoke of reviving the 19th-century Monroe Doctrine, which defined the Americas as a U.S. sphere of influence. During the Cold War, Washington helped instal and propped up a long series of repressive, authoritarian regimes whose common feature was their espousal of anti-communism. Since the Soviet Union fell, however, Latin American countries have been largely free to determine both their domestic policies and their international alliances, while Washington – somewhat unsuccessfully – sought to bind the region together primarily through trade and adherence to tenets of liberal democracy. Many emerging governments, particularly of the left, often inspired by chavismo and the Cuban revolution, looked to broaden their relations, taking advantage of the new, multipolar world.

It would be neither practical nor appropriate for the U.S. to attempt to revive a Cold War-style “spheres of influence” approach to relations with neighbours to the south.

It would be neither practical nor appropriate for the U.S. to attempt to revive a Cold War-style “spheres of influence” approach to relations with neighbours to the south. Indeed, it would run directly counter to the argument that Ukraine should be free to align itself however it chooses.

Even so, Washington may well calculate that it has an opportunity to prise Venezuela from the grip of Russia in particular. The Maduro government has gone out of its way to reiterate that it has no intention of re-evaluating its foreign policy orientation. Yet rather than decrying this stance, a sensible approach for the Biden administration would be to let events take their course while seeking, where possible, new routes to engagement with countries wary of the U.S. regional footprint. An impoverished and isolated Russia cannot in the medium or long term compete effectively for influence in the Western Hemisphere. At the same time, the decision by Cuba and Nicaragua, stalwart allies of Caracas and longstanding friends of Moscow, to abstain from – rather than voting no to – the UN General Assembly condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine demonstrated that their aversion to the use of military force against a sovereign state weighed in their calculations alongside relations with Moscow (Venezuela could not vote due to its failure to pay its UN dues).

China’s reaction to the war and the way it positions itself in Venezuela also have major significance for future U.S. policy. Beijing embarked on a lending spree in Venezuela during the Chávez years and got badly burned. Billions of dollars were simply stolen or wasted on infrastructure projects that were never completed. China’s bet that the underlying loan guarantee – Venezuela’s massive oil deposits – meant repayment was assured proved ill-advised when the sharp downturn in crude prices exposed the corruption and mismanagement at PDVSA. In theory, Venezuela’s crude exports to China would offset the debt, which stands at about $18 billion, but that scheme is not working. Nor are China’s oil concessions in Venezuela producing a profit. To make matters worse for Maduro, the discounts Russia is now obliged to offer to export its crude oil, located much closer to China, threaten to shut Venezuela out of the Chinese market.

Talks have been under way between the Maduro government and China about investments in Venezuela’s collapsing infrastructure, including the electricity industry. If and when there is a political settlement in Venezuela and sanctions are lifted, China is well placed to assist in, and benefit from, what will be a long and costly economic recovery. Washington will not much like such significant Chinese involvement, and it has an interest in moving swiftly to ensure that it can take advantage of any opening instead. Yet Beijing has a clear head start, and provided that its outstanding loans and investments were guaranteed, it would have no good reason to oppose a political settlement between government and opposition.

It is well past time for the region as a whole to make its voice heard and ... adopt common policies toward shared problems.

Lastly, it is well past time for the region as a whole to make its voice heard and, following the devastating health and economic effects in Latin America of COVID-19, adopt common policies toward shared problems. One pernicious effect of the hostility between chavismo and its hardline opponents has been the intense polarisation of Latin American politics, with Venezuela’s severed relationship with its neighbour Colombia standing out. These tensions have spoiled the Organization of American States as a forum for resolving disputes, while bodies set up ostensibly to replace it have failed to offer any effective alternative. As the region undergoes further political churn, there is an opportunity to leave the rancour behind. Ideally, the U.S. would support the creation of new multilateral mechanisms while respecting the diversity of opinion within them.

What’s Next?

Direct talks between Washington and Caracas could offer a chance to break a political deadlock that arose in large part due to Maduro’s intransigence but also partly because of U.S. reluctance to move on sanctions relief and insistence that Guaidó’s “interim government” is the only valid representative of Venezuela’s opposition. Employed judiciously, the leverage the U.S. has with regard to sanctions and, in particular, the possibility for Venezuela to resume oil exports to the U.S. market, could achieve progress in resolving the political and humanitarian crisis, potentially through a resumption of the Mexico talks.

Although a route forward is discernible, it is strewn with obstacles. An agreement on a credible presidential election in 2024 that secures the consent of all contenders is not around the corner. The road back to a legitimate, functioning state in Venezuela is likely to be long and bumpy. But the only way to achieve a sustainable political settlement acceptable to most Venezuelans is through negotiations that are supported, or at least not sabotaged, by the major international allies of both government and opposition, including first and foremost the U.S., but also on the government side China, Cuba and, in an ideal scenario – however unlikely it might now appear – Russia. From unlikely quarters, an opportunity might have emerged to set that process in motion.