Venezuela: Reassembling a Route to Peace
Venezuela: Reassembling a Route to Peace
Commentary / Latin America & Caribbean 9 minutes

Venezuela: Reassembling a Route to Peace

As Venezuela faces one of the world’s worst economic and humanitarian crises, concessions on both sides will be necessary to break the political deadlock. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2021, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to press for urgent access for humanitarian relief and to encourage the Maduro government and opposition parties to re-engage in negotiations.

Venezuela enters 2021 facing one of the world’s worst economic and humanitarian crises, with few avenues to breaking the political deadlock at its heart. 

Venezuelans’ plight has gone from bad to worse. Even before the onset of COVID-19 and related lockdowns, Venezuela was suffering the most extreme economic collapse in Latin American history: the economy contracted by 65 per cent from 2013 to 2019, the inter-annual rate of inflation stands at 3,332 per cent. Poverty rates hover above 95 per cent, more than 33 per cent of citizens suffer food insecurity, according to the UN, and most Venezuelans depend on state food rations. Basic services, such as water or electricity, are unreliable or absent, including in big cities. These dire living conditions have pushed over five million Venezuelans to migrate, many of them crossing into Colombia and Brazil through informal trochas or risking their lives at sea trying to reach Trinidad and Tobago and other Caribbean islands. Then the virus arrived. Official figures indicate the country’s total caseload is low compared to those of its neighbours Brazil and Colombia. Still, the toll is likely higher than those figures suggest, while the economic damage caused by lockdowns is indisputably severe.

These dire living conditions have pushed over five million Venezuelans to migrate.

The political crisis is as dire. Parliamentary elections in early December consolidated President Nicolás Maduro’s power over all branches of the state, barring a few local and regional governments. Most of the opposition boycotted the election, arguing with justification that it was neither free nor fair, but their refusal to participate has come at great political cost. Most Western and Latin American countries have declined to recognise the new parliament, sworn in on 5 January, and almost entirely composed of Maduro loyalists. But nor have they endorsed the opposition’s argument that the old assembly, in which it held the majority, retains its mandate and remains a platform for Juan Guaidó’s rival claim to the presidency. Most of the opposition’s foreign allies, including both the EU and the Lima Group (an alliance of countries from across the Americas that sided with the U.S. “maximum pressure” strategy for deposing Maduro), now stop short of referring to Guaidó as interim president. A fractured opposition faces the urgent task of reunifying itself behind a coherent political strategy.

The best option – returning to substantive negotiations aimed at a peaceful settlement – depends on struggles within both camps. Should those more inclined to compromise not prevail, the standoff will continue between an authoritarian state and an opposition movement vanquished in Venezuela but still backed abroad, above all in the U.S. and Colombia. That scenario would not only perpetuate human misery in the country but pose real dangers of prolonged instability up to and including violent unrest. 

In these circumstances, the EU and its member states should:

  • Engage early on with the new U.S. administration to design a coordinated Venezuela policy that aims at gradual restoration of legitimate state rule in exchange for step-by-step lifting of sanctions.
  • Encourage Washington to conduct a humanitarian review of existing sanctions, quickly implement humanitarian exemptions to allow relief for the COVID-19 emergency, and urge the U.S. to roll back other sanctions that cause avoidable harm to the population.
  • The EU should persuade Venezuela’s foreign partners, including Cuba, Russia and China, to urge Maduro to allow access to multilateral organisations that can deliver the urgent humanitarian relief needed for Venezuelans at home, as well as those in other Latin American and Caribbean countries. It should increase its financial support to help match the UN’s targets for Venezuela’s crisis. 
  • Press the government and opposition to abandon the zero-sum contest in which the objective is eliminating the other side. Any eventual settlement is likely to entail the government accepting free and fair presidential polls and the opposition dropping its demand that Maduro leave power before any transition can begin. For the EU, engaging with a wider range of opposition figures than is now the case would also make sense.
  • The medium- to long-term goal still is to encourage the Maduro government and a wide range of opposition parties to re-engage in negotiations, building on the process facilitated by Norway and suspended in mid-2019. The International Contact Group, co-chaired by the EU, could lead coordination efforts with the U.S. and Lima Group countries, and incorporate an outer ring of international guarantors that includes Maduro allies. The Contact Group should make early efforts to identify where the interests of Russia, China and Cuba vis-à-vis Venezuela might converge with those of the EU and Lima Group.

A Way Out of a Humanitarian Predicament?

The economic and humanitarian predicament facing Venezuela is inseparable from the actions of President Maduro’s government, first in its egregious mishandling of the economy from 2013 onward, and secondly in its moves since 2016 to deny opponents power and political space. The latter manoeuvres pushed Maduro’s critics to form a coalition, led by Guaidó, the former National Assembly head and “interim president” since 2019, and backed thus far by nearly 60 countries, set on bringing down his government. The December parliamentary elections signal the failure of these efforts to overthrow Maduro, who appears stronger than he has for some time. They also mark the failure of the ferocious two-year “maximum pressure” strategy aimed at ousting him.

The economic and humanitarian predicament facing Venezuela is inseparable from the actions of President Maduro’s government.

But a return to peace and stability is no closer as a result of Maduro’s apparent victory. Broad U.S. sanctions and the pandemic’s effects have made economic recovery even harder to achieve. Across the country, numerous non-state armed groups – ranging from the Colombian guerrilla National Liberation Army (ELN) and organised crime groups to para-police units known as colectivos­– exert control over populations and territory, sometimes with the approval of politicians and military officers. Desperation continues to drive the outflow of migrants and refugees.

Women have been disproportionately affected by the crisis: almost 400 victims of human trafficking were rescued in the last two years, a number that is likely a fraction of the total victims of this crime. The pandemic has made grim conditions – Venezuela has been among the fifteen countries worldwide with the highest number of femicides­ for several years – even worse, with gender violence cases registered by NGOs increasing by at least 30 per cent. The economic crisis has also taken a toll on gender equality in the labour market, with women’s participation rates falling 10 points between 2002 and 2020, making Venezuela the worst country for working women in the Americas.

Negotiations remain the best route to a settlement, but government and opposition will both have to shift tack. Previous talks – including those sponsored by Norway in 2019 – collapsed due to both sides’ intransigence. The government rejected any measures that jeopardised its grip on power. The opposition made unrealistic demands, above all insisting that Maduro immediately depart. For negotiations to resume with any chance of success, both camps will have to be willing to make concessions: the government should approve reform that could enable free and fair elections, and the opposition should embrace the idea of a gradual transition that guarantees members of the Maduro government and its associated chavista movement freedom from persecution and the continued right to political participation.

Maduro might be more flexible in renewed talks were a progressive lifting of sanctions on the table.

Maduro might be more flexible in renewed talks were a progressive lifting of sanctions on the table. In addition to accelerating pre-existing declines in production of oil and derivatives, U.S. sanctions targeted at the oil industry have made petrol extremely scarce in Venezuela, resulting in long queues and chronic shortages. Financial and secondary sanctions have forced the government to operate largely in cash, limiting the number of businesses and countries willing to trade with Caracas. Over-compliance with sanctions by financial intermediaries has had a severe impact on legitimate businesses and even on NGOs, deepening the humanitarian crisis. 

Whereas lifting all sanctions unconditionally could be seen as vindicating Maduro’s determination not to cede power, the new U.S. government should reverse immediately those measures with an unacceptable humanitarian toll, above all in the COVID-19 emergency. For example, the U.S. should rescind the measure eliminating permits that allowed crude oil to be swapped for the diesel needed to transport food and other essentials. Washington should ease other measures progressively so long as the Venezuelan government advances toward restoration of civil and political rights, with sanctions lifted entirely if the parties reach a negotiated settlement. 

European and other governments involved should factor in a number of other issues. Negotiations will only stand a chance if they involve a broad array of non-government parties. These should include currents that disagree with Guaidó’s strategy, such as former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles of Primero Justicia and Stalin González of Un Nuevo Tiempo, as well as some of those that participated in the election, among them former chavista state governor Henri Falcón of Avanzada Progresista. Any settlement would have to include guarantees for both sides. For the opposition, these will likely entail constitutional reforms ending indefinite presidential re-election, reintroducing an upper chamber of parliament and restoring proportional representation in legislative elections. Such steps would also protect chavistas if they were to become the opposition. The military will need guarantees regarding its institutional status and officers’ career prospects. The parties will need to reach agreement on a transitional justice system. Any settlement would also have to enshrine social and economic rights to assuage chavista fears of “neoliberal” backlash.

Recommendations for the EU and its Member States

An immediate priority is humanitarian aid, for Venezuelans who remain in the country as well as migrants and refugees elsewhere in the region. The world has not responded adequately to the emergency: in 2019, the UN received just over half the $738 million it had requested to mitigate the migration crisis, and the response in 2020 stood at less than a fifth. Both government and opposition have tended to treat humanitarian relief as a political weapon, even if that comes at a high cost for those in need. The EU should pressure all parties to allow the UN to develop a full-scale humanitarian assistance program under internationally recognised guidelines to tackle the emergency. An agreement between the government and opposition regarding a comprehensive international humanitarian response could facilitate broader talks later.

The arrival of a new administration in the White House offers an opportunity for the EU and its member states to seek a more cooperative approach from Washington.

The arrival of a new administration in the White House offers an opportunity for the EU and its member states to seek a more cooperative approach from Washington. The humanitarian situation is the priority from this perspective, too. Brussels should encourage the incoming U.S. administration to launch a review of the humanitarian fallout of existing sanctions and press Washington to lift them when necessary. Talks should also focus on the issue of Venezuela’s overseas assets, now controlled in large measure by the Guaidó “government”, which should be placed under neutral, international supervision in order to avoid potential abuse and corruption.

In addition, European leaders should push the Maduro government to take advantage of the small window of opportunity that is open before the International Criminal Court decides whether to pursue a full investigation of charges that Venezuelan civilian authorities, members of the armed forces and pro-government individuals committed crimes against humanity. Ideally, Caracas would respond to the probe with concrete steps to end political repression and begin, in concert with the opposition, designing a transitional justice system to prosecute crimes committed by both the government and its opponents in recent years. 

The ultimate goal remains the same: a credible presidential election where a change in power is a real possibility, as part of a peaceful transition guaranteeing that whoever loses will not face persecution or exclusion from power. An agreement, with international backing, on the conditions for full participation in and international recognition of the 2021 elections for state governors would be an important move in that direction, and could also foster the conditions for a resumption of negotiations aiming at a definitive settlement.

As long as Caracas has the full backing of Russia, China, Cuba and Iran, however, Maduro will not feel compelled to commit to a negotiated option – especially one in which there is some prospect that he or a successor loses power. The EU should focus its diplomatic efforts on engaging those countries, identifying common issues of concern and working through differences. Negotiations that begin with blessings from both the U.S. and Maduro’s foreign allies would stand a far better chance of untangling what until now has been an intractable dispute.

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