Time for UNASUR to Defuse the Crisis in Venezuela
Time for UNASUR to Defuse the Crisis in Venezuela
Barbados Deal Sets Venezuela on a Rocky Path to Competitive Polls
Barbados Deal Sets Venezuela on a Rocky Path to Competitive Polls
Statement / Latin America & Caribbean 3 minutes

Time for UNASUR to Defuse the Crisis in Venezuela

If Venezuela is not to continue sliding toward violent confrontation, the international community - in particular the members of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname and Uruguay, in addition to Venezuela) - must urgently devise measures that contribute to resolution of the grave political and economic crisis. 

That crisis continues to deepen, with no solution in sight. The recent visit by three foreign ministers (Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil) and the UNASUR secretary general “opened up avenues for political dialogue that had remained closed for over a year”, according to the regional organisation, but in the view of the opposition served only to validate “imaginary coup plots”. More than twelve months have passed since violence broke out on the streets, political polarisation is worse than ever, and UNASUR has stumbled in its attempts to deal with the first serious crisis it has faced. 

Crisis Group has repeatedly pointed out in reports, memorandums, letters and other formats that UNASUR is the only multilateral body acceptable to the government, opposition and Venezuelan society as a whole that is in a position to convene a national dialogue which might free the country from the “zero-sum game” that characterises its politics. Its mediation became especially vital following the 2014 violence, the imprisonment of protesters and the repression of opposition leaders.

The collapse in recent months of the international price of petroleum, on which the Venezuelan economy is almost entirely dependent, has brought an extra element of urgency. With the country facing a halving of its oil income in 2015, on top of an existing economic crisis, severe shortages of basic goods and triple-digit inflation threaten to provoke a social explosion almost irrespective of developments on the political front.

It was fundamental that the two sides should work toward a solution within the framework of the 1999 constitution and abstain from seeking sudden regime-change. But it was also vital that the government should respect civil liberties and curb human rights abuses. The latter requirement was flouted with the detention on 19 February of Antonio Ledezma, the mayor of metropolitan Caracas, and the refusal to free Leopoldo López and other political prisoners.

UNASUR's latest visit on 6 March and its handling of statements only fanned the flames. Against the advice of many observers, the four-member delegation did not speak formally to the Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance, whose secretary general and most prominent leaders have adopted a conciliatory, pro-dialogue stance, choosing instead to issue individual invitations to some of its leading members. Via brief communiqués and prolific utterances on social media, the delegation ended up endorsing government allegations of a conspiracy, praising the upcoming legislative elections (for which no date has been set) and bizarrely offering to create “regional chains to support distribution of basic goods”.

We have repeatedly warned, in published reports and numerous conversations with UNASUR and others, that Venezuela needs less confrontation, not more. Yet, measured by the decisions taken by the last delegation to Caracas, the regional body has confirmed the worst fears of those who always insisted that its political bias would undermine its role in preventing institutional breakdown. If silent diplomacy is under way to persuade the government to move on human rights and rule of law, visible impact is negligible.

U.S. President Obama's 9 March executive order implementing and moving beyond the “Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act” confirmed the unfortunate tendency for this crisis to turn into a sterile confrontation between Washington and Caracas. This is provoking an unproductive debate over unilateral sanctions and threatens to render irrelevant South American attempts to produce a solution in the appropriate regional arena.

What is needed includes the following:

  • guarantees by government and opposition of their commitment to finding peaceful solutions within the framework of the constitution;
  • immediate freeing of Antonio Ledezma, Leopoldo López and all those currently imprisoned for political activities; 
  • a date for the 2015 parliamentary elections set immediately by the National Electoral Council (CNE);
  • publication and enforcement by the CNE of rules that guarantee a level electoral playing-field and eliminate campaign use of public funds and property;
  • an international mission in place to monitor the full electoral process (not only polling-day events). This mission should call on the expertise of specialised international organisations and refrain from partisanship. UNASUR should seek the co-operation in this endeavour of bodies such as the Organisation of American States (OAS), UN and European Union; and
  • exploratory talks between the two sides aimed at alleviating the economic crisis.

Some governments in the region (Chile, Colombia, Peru, Panama and Costa Rica, among others) have expressed deep concern over the political situation. However, this concern needs to be translated into concerted actions aimed at avoiding a social and economic implosion the potential scale of which they do not appear to appreciate. A lack of action, or unconditional support for one side or the other, will do nothing to ensure that Venezuela recovers its stability and that its political disputes are resolved through free and fair elections. At stake is not only the future of Venezuela, but also the credibility of UNASUR’s regional conflict prevention role.


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