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Time for Venezuela’s Friends to Act
Time for Venezuela’s Friends to Act
Maduro Finds a “New Opposition” to Negotiate With
Maduro Finds a “New Opposition” to Negotiate With
Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro (R) talks with Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff (L), Bolivia’s President Evo Morales (C) and Argentina’s Vice President Amado Boudou (2nd R) at UNASUR leaders summit, 30 August 2013. REUTERS

Time for Venezuela’s Friends to Act

So far mostly silent, regional states and organisations, as well as the international community at large, must act firmly, not with unilateral sanctions, but with pressure for dialogue between the two sides.

The shocking 19 February arrest on coup charges of the mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, marks a sharp new drop in the downward spiral of Venezuela since protests and harsh repression erupted in its main cities nearly one year ago. To find stability, Venezuela needs urgent help from its friends to build political consensus. So far mostly silent, regional states and organisations, as well as the international community at large, must act firmly, not with unilateral sanctions, but with pressure for dialogue between the two sides.

Crisis Group and other organisations have repeatedly warned of Venezuela’s dangerous polarisation since the violence that killed 43 people, landed 61 in jail (now including Ledezma) and resulted in judicial restrictions on another 2,000. Neither government nor opposition, however, has responded with more than pompous sermonising.

Sounding the alarm about Venezuela’s imminent collapse, coups, riots and other calamities can resemble the boy who cried “Wolf!”. However, a recent trip to the country felt worryingly different to others over the past two decades. Venezuelans are starting to prioritise self-reliance over solidarity and individual survival over collective projects. This atomisation impacts everyone, but perhaps most acutely government supporters.

Relief agencies and Catholic Church representatives told Crisis Group that a humanitarian crisis is around the corner. We had been sceptical: Venezuela’s resources include the world’s largest oil reserves. It should be “too big to fail”. But hard data and recurrent testimonies from the barrios show that medicine is scarce and people queue for hours for basic goods, anxious about how to feed themselves. A fever epidemic in 2014 took twenty weeks even to report. It has spread fast, epidemiological bulletins have reportedly been suppressed and doctors intimidated into not naming it.

The economy is at a tipping point; violent crime is intolerable, killing more than 55 in Caracas alone during the weekend before my visit; and 2015’s parliamentary elections will test an ailing government and an opposition struggling for unity. For the first time, the “chavismo” that buoyed the late President Hugo Chávez until his death in 2013 is challenged by a strong current of discontent: Maduro’s popularity has plummeted to around 20 per cent in recent weeks.

Internationally, the government is feeling new strain. A Middle East trip by Maduro failed to boost the oil price; a China visit won only a vague promise of new loans. Shortly after he returned, he asked the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) to “mediate” with the U.S. over its sanctions on officials allegedly linked to serious human rights violations.

There is not much that the more distant world can do. Washington says it has cancelled visas for a first group of officials. Further sanctions – even more likely after Ledezma´s arrest – could add to pressure on a regime in which personal interests can outweigh loyalty to Maduro or the revolution. But, as Crisis Group argues here, such punitive measures would more likely backfire by feeding the “anti-imperialist” discourse and deter moderate chavistas who have begun to distance themselves from government excesses. Europeans are far away in body and mind. China may be increasingly reluctant to bankroll its partner, but is still focused on trade and other bilateral affairs.

The region, and UNASUR in particular, thus has a new opportunity. A year ago, UNASUR pushed the government and the Democratic Unity Roundtable (the Mesa de Unidad Democrática, or MUD), an umbrella coalition of opposition political parties, to sit together and create thematic working groups. But dialogue stalled and recriminations mounted. Little could be expected while the government persecuted and jailed its opponents, and a radical MUD faction known as “La Salida” (“The Exit”) was on the street demanding the president resign. The only resignation that resulted, a few months later, was that of MUD’s own secretary general.

Venezuela’s deterioration has attracted only marginal and episodic attention from Latin American neighbours, who have ignored Washington’s new message: “solve the mess or sanctions will be imposed”. Regional bodies, diplomats and politicians feel uncomfortable talking about Venezuela’s woes, either citing “non-intervention” and “respect for sovereignty”, or pointing fingers at other “much worse” countries. Members of the Organisation of American States have barred even putting Venezuela on the agenda.

Some South Americans are aligned with Caracas and see the crisis as part of an imperialist plot; others privately criticise the government’s “mismanagement” but refuse to do anything that might “endorse political change from the streets”. Others behave like proverbial ostriches: “if I refuse to look, maybe nothing bad is happening”. The few voices calling for dialogue come from peripheral Latin American politicians and ex-presidents. The left-right divide hinders a common response. Regional human rights mechanisms cannot compel the government to act.

UNASUR, despite constraints, remains the player with most leverage to help. But it is hard to imagine it as a champion of human rights and rule-of-law. Though formally committed to democratic values, the region will not move decisively in the absence of a coup. How Venezuelans interpret democracy is in practice of no concern to neighbouring leaders. Brave steps to fix Venezuela’s internal affairs, they may think, opens the possibility the same might be done to them. They will worry if new violence and repression erupts. But most will continue to extend a carte blanche to a government which – after all – did emerge from the ballot box.

Time is running out to bring government and opposition to the table. Parliamentary elections, expected in the second half of 2015, mean that little more than equitable electoral rules can be discussed. These were threatened – as Crisis Group noted here – by the government’s December 2014 trampling over Constitutional niceties to establish tight control over the Electoral Council (CNE) and Supreme Court.

Rapidly losing credibility, the government is trying to change the story with distracting allegations of a new Washington-orchestrated coup plot. Sudden breakdown caused by internal dissent and active destabilisation cannot be ruled out, but the greatest threat appears to be a prolonged agony that brings Venezuela to the verge of social implosion.

What is missing is realistic dialogue, internationally monitored and facilitated. Crisis Group has repeatedly advised the government, opposition and civil society to come together on an agenda and timetable for consensus decisions on rules for coming elections, economic reforms and humanitarian relief. Solid foundations for stability cannot be built by a coup, anything that resembles an illegal ousting of the government, or a prolonged repression.

Such contacts should start in private, with the goal being stable and mutually respected rules that would provide basic, constitutional certainties for the government and the opposition. There should be no attempts at regime change outside the constitution, or any pre-empting of the discussion with big political agendas. But the government must also accept the need to compromise with opposition and civil society alike.

These rules can be divided into urgent, short-term requirements and longer-term aspirations. The former are evident: a basic agreement guaranteeing a level electoral field, including more Electoral Council (CNE) transparency and equal access to resources and media for the two sides. The parties, and society, must also agree on basic economic reforms, such as transparent economic indicators, channels of distribution for essential goods, and a painful but inevitable removal of domestic oil subsidies.

Neither elections nor the economic crisis can be tackled without first addressing human rights. The government must release all political prisoners (including Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma), end persecution of dissidents, and allow credible international observation of agreements. It also must restore access to the mechanisms provided by the American Convention on Human Rights. Disarmament of illegal groups, the restoration of judicial independence, and measures to tackle should take place after the elections.

This dialogue does not need more cameras and publicity. Indeed, if the parties are primarily focused on their images – particularly with their constituencies – any talks will capsize again. However, after these confidential consultations, the parties do need to project to all Venezuelans that they are capable of reaching basic consensus on dealing with the political, economic and social crisis.

The mood in Caracas now resembles scenarios I lived through in my country, Peru. The first was the acute economic crisis around 1988, when thousands of Peruvians wandered the streets looking for milk, flour and other essentials. The second was in 2000, after President Alberto Fujimori’s third re-election, when despair, collective depression and impotence overwhelmed democratic institutions and civil society. The first crisis was the prelude to the system’s demise and authoritarian rule; the second anticipated rapid government collapse.

What I felt in once resilient Venezuelan friends, and what I could see in markets and shops, is a fatal combination of these two memories. Across the political spectrum, feelings range from concern to despair. Food riots are a not distant possibility; in such an environment, desperate solutions will trump politics. Grandiloquent speeches will not matter. Everybody should help Venezuelans to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe, especially reluctant neighbours, who will be hard hit if the crisis spins out of control.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza looks at opposition member Javier Bertucci during the signing of the dialogue agreement between the government and the opposition in Caracas,18 September 2019. AFP/Matias Delacroix
Q&A / Latin America & Caribbean

Maduro Finds a “New Opposition” to Negotiate With

Talks to resolve Venezuela’s impasse collapsed on 15 September only for the government to announce a deal – with a different set of opponents. In this Q&A, Crisis Group Senior Andes Analyst Phil Gunson explains what these developments mean for the country’s political and socio-economic crisis.

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What happened?

On 15 September, Venezuela’s opposition leadership, under National Assembly chair Juan Guaidó, announced that it was pulling out of negotiations in Barbados with the government of President Nicolás Maduro. The government side had suspended its own participation over a month earlier, after Washington announced sweeping new sanctions. According to the opposition’s announcement, “the Barbados mechanism is exhausted”. Within hours, the government revealed that it had been negotiating in parallel with a group of small opposition parties that were not involved in the Barbados talks. The members of this National Dialogue (Mesa Nacional de Diálogo) immediately announced an agreement calling for government legislators to once again take up their seats in the National Assembly, which they have boycotted since mid-2017, and requesting release of an undetermined number of political prisoners and relaxation of the government’s grip on the electoral authority. The agreement also speaks of a potential “oil-for-food” program to alleviate Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis.

Why did the Barbados talks break down, and could they restart?

According to President Maduro, the opposition failed to fulfil its promise to persuade the U.S. government to relax sanctions. According to Guaidó, whom the U.S., most EU member states and numerous Latin American countries recognise as the legitimate acting president, the government was at fault, because it never responded to a detailed proposal from the opposition side. The key conditions put forward by Guaidó’s negotiating team were that both he and Maduro would step aside pending free and fair elections within nine months under international supervision. Meanwhile, a transitional Governing Council, comprising representatives of chavismo – the movement created by Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez – and the opposition, as well as the armed forces, would run the country. The Norwegian government, which was still sponsoring the Barbados talks after they had moved from Oslo, has indicated that it remains available if the parties decide to return to the table. Maduro has said the government will do so if the opportunity arises. And even the opposition appears only to have ruled out the format for talks applied in Barbados, rather than negotiations in general. A redesign of the process, perhaps to encompass a wider range of Venezuelan and foreign parties, would probably be required, however.

Who is involved in the National Dialogue?

So far, five small parties have signed the agreement with the government. Only two have seats in parliament. They are Avanzada Progresista, led by Henri Falcón, a former chavista state governor who broke with the government in 2007, and Cambiemos, led by Timoteo Zambrano, a one-time opposition negotiator who is close to the former Spanish premier (and one-time mediator in the Venezuelan crisis), José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. Between them they have eight seats in the 167-seat Assembly. The main opposition alliance expelled both Falcón and Zambrano in recent years, the former because he took part in the May 2018 presidential election despite the government’s refusal to accept opposition demands for a level playing field, and the latter for disagreeing in 2016 with the decision by the customs union Mercosur to take punitive action against Venezuela. Falcón obtained 21 per cent to Maduro’s 68 per cent in last year’s poll, but he refused to accept the result, saying the government had violated the electoral law.

Other leading figures who support the agreement are Claudio Fermín, a veteran social democrat and long-time presidential aspirant who now heads a party called Soluciones para Venezuela, and Javier Bertucci, an evangelical pastor who also stood against Maduro in 2018. The parties involved have expressed support for the seemingly defunct Norwegian initiative, as well as inviting other opposition forces to join them. “We are the new opposition”, declared Fermín.

What is the government trying to achieve?

Having failed for now to achieve sanctions relief, the government seems focused on achieving domestic political stability. Next year’s parliamentary elections, which will probably be brought forward to March or April (they are due in December), are an opportunity for chavismo to regain control of the only branch of government that remains independent. Although opinion polls suggest that over 80 per cent of Venezuelans disapprove of Maduro’s rule, the government can win back parliament by dissuading opposition voters from turning out and/or provoking the mainstream opposition under Guaidó into boycotting the election. Holding elections, however controversial, also helps it keep dissent under control within its own ranks, both civilian and military. By presenting at least a façade of pluralism and legitimacy, it promotes a narrative for supporters at home and abroad according to which the government is the victim of an international conspiracy abetted by domestic traitors.

Has implementation of the agreement begun?

Government parliamentarians did not take their seats the day after the agreement was announced, and it is not clear when they will do so or what other effect the deal will have. All the National Assembly’s acts will still be officially null and void unless the Supreme Court declares that the legislature is no longer in contempt. One political prisoner – Assembly vice-president Edgar Zambrano, arrested for his part in the failed 30 April uprising against Maduro’s rule – has been let go and more are supposedly due for release shortly. But close to 500 remain in jail, including another opposition MP and a top aide to Guaidó. In all, some two dozen opposition members of the Assembly are either in jail, in exile, in hiding or on the premises of foreign missions. The government has no majority in parliament with which to appoint a new electoral authority, meaning that any reform would remain in the hands of the government-controlled Supreme Court. And an oil-for-food program, as one of its principal advocates has pointed out, would require the assent of the opposition and its foreign allies.

Could this development lead to a resolution of the crisis?

There is no indication that the government is moving in the direction of Maduro’s departure followed by a genuinely competitive presidential election under international supervision, the conditions which Guaidó and his foreign allies define as the sine qua non for the lifting of sanctions. The breakdown of the Norwegian-sponsored talks is likely to bring more sanctions, rather than fewer, both from the EU and from Venezuela’s Latin American neighbours. With the exception of Panama, the latter have so far shied away from imposing sanctions, but signatories to the Rio Treaty of 1947 – also known as the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, a Cold War-era regional defence pact – recently agreed to take the first step toward activating it in Venezuela’s case, which could lead to a tougher stance in the region. But while the new agreement will neither placate the mainstream opposition and its foreign allies nor resolve the country’s colossal socio-economic crisis, it could allow Maduro to keep a lid on domestic challenges to his rule if the government succeeds in forcing its more confrontational opponents into exile, replacing them with a more compliant cast of politicians and claiming that it has restored constitutional normality.