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Venezuela: An Opportunity That Should Be Seized
Venezuela: An Opportunity That Should Be Seized
A Venezuelan soldier stands guard next to people forming a line to try to buy cornmeal flour and margarine at a pharmacy in Caracas, 15 March 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Venezuela: Edge of the Precipice

Venezuela is in full-fledged crisis: food and medicine are scarce, violent crime is surging, and the government is blocking democratic ways forward. The international community and the Organization of American States should press for political dialogue, the opening of legal paths to a presidential recall referendum in 2016, and permission for humanitarian aid to enter the country.

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I. Overview

In December 2015, President Nicolás Maduro immediately recognised the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) coalition’s resounding legislative election victory. For the first time in over sixteen years, the prospect arose of political cohabitation between the alliance led by the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and its opponents, and with it a unique opportunity to resolve the protracted political crisis by peaceful and democratic means. The government, however, has chosen confrontation, using control of the judiciary and other nominally autonomous branches of state to neutralise the opposition’s control of the National Assembly. The MUD seeks a recall referendum, which the constitution allows after the mid-point of any elected term of office. With battle-lines drawn, both sides treat many of the other’s decisions as legally and practically null and void. The government should cease efforts to block the referendum, and the international community should insist on a timely and effective dialogue with facilitators acceptable to both sides.

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The conflict of powers is all the more damaging because the economic and social crisis has worsened significantly. The World Bank estimates that 2016 GDP will decline by over 10 per cent, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that inflation will approach 500 per cent in 2016 and more than 1,500 per cent in 2017. With no wage indexation, the population below the poverty line is growing fast. Food and other basic goods are scarce, and most Venezuelans cannot afford to buy enough if they can find them. The health service is close to collapse, with most vital medicines unavailable and hospitals experiencing a sharp increase in patient deaths. Most citizens spend hours every day queueing for price-controlled goods, with no guarantee of success. The government has refused to allow donors, private or public, to send food or medical aid, arguing that pressure to do so is a cover for foreign intervention so as to damage its reputation and ultimately remove it.

It has been apparent for some time that without some form of international engagement the crisis is unlikely to end peacefully and constitutionally. The government is doing all it can to hinder the MUD’s efforts to cut short the Maduro presidency by legal means. If a recall referendum is not held this year, it would lose much of its effectiveness, since the constitution provides for the vice president to take over if the president leaves office in the last two years of his term, which ends in January 2019. If, however, Maduro was removed by referendum in 2016, a presidential election would be required in 30 days. If it produced a MUD successor, the response of Chavista loyalists might pose serious governability problems.

The secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS) has called for application of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which provides for diplomatic initiatives, including good offices, in the event of an interruption of the democratic order in a member state. Simultaneously, two former Latin American presidents and a former Spanish premier, at the request of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and endorsed by the June 2016 OAS General Assembly are seeking to promote a government-opposition dialogue. The former Spanish premier, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, briefed the OAS Permanent Council on 21 June on the exploratory stage of those efforts. No agreement has been reached on when that dialogue might actually start, and the MUD has described it as “thus far non-existent” and “convened by only one side”. The Council is scheduled to meet on 23 June to discuss the secretary general’s report.

To prevent an undemocratic, possibly violent outcome and facilitate an immediate solution to the rapidly worsening humanitarian crisis:

The government should

  • declare a humanitarian emergency and permit delivery of external food and medical aid and its distribution by non-governmental agencies;
     
  • refrain from using the Supreme Court to neutralise the elected legislature and permit a peaceful electoral solution to the political crisis by allowing the National Electoral Council (CNE) to exercise its constitutional role; and
     
  • free all political prisoners, allow political exiles to return without reprisals and engage in direct, effective, and timely dialogue with the opposition.

The MUD and National Assembly leadership should

  • prioritise national interest over partisan objectives;
     
  • maintain their declared commitment to peaceful, constitutional resolution of the crisis; and
     
  • make every effort to pursue an effective dialogue with the government.

The regional community should

  • insist that the government permit emergency food and medical aid and prepare a thorough assessment of principal humanitarian needs and how to meet them;
     
  • examine the crisis in the framework of the Inter-American Democratic Charter and urgently assist in restoration of constitutional norms and rule of law; and
     
  • support efforts to pursue a structured, timely dialogue between the two sides and press the CNE to follow the constitutional timetable for a 2016 recall referendum.

Caracas /Brussels, 23 June 2016

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.