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Venezuela in Wonderland
Venezuela in Wonderland
Venezuela: An Opportunity That Should Be Seized
Venezuela: An Opportunity That Should Be Seized

Venezuela in Wonderland

Originally published in Miami Herald

The late socialist leader Hugo Chávez should be turning over in his grave as the poor are suffering the most from Venezuela’s economic collapse. His successor, President Nicolás Maduro, is attempting to cling to power by railing against a recall referendum, a provision that Chávez himself included in the constitution.

The late socialist leader Hugo Chávez should be turning over in his grave as the poor are suffering the most from Venezuela’s economic collapse. His successor, President Nicolás Maduro, is attempting to cling to power by railing against a recall referendum, a provision that Chávez himself included in the constitution.

The humanitarian disaster caused by Maduro’s policies, compounded by the economic impact of a sharp drop in global oil prices, explains why even some longtime Chavistas are demanding a referendum to oust the president. Misguided policies have undermined national production of basic goods and undercut imports. Hospitals are running out of catheters, sheets, and working x-ray machines. People line up before dawn for milk and other basic foods — which are usually gone by the time they reach the front of the line.

Meanwhile, Maduro claims that petitioners supporting a recall referendum are equivalent to military coup plotters. With each passing day of this crisis, he sounds more like the Mad Hatter declaring, “Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn't.And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn't be.”

The desperation of the regime is reflected in the latest presidential emergency decree announced last week, which is unprecedented in its scope. It allows the president to “dictate the measures he considers convenient” to maintain public order.

Worryingly, the Maduro government appears willing to use armed force against political opponents. In 2014, protests calling for Maduro’s exit were met with violence. Security forces used tear gas, water cannons, plastic bullets, and even fired occasional live rounds. Groups of armed, pro-government civilians, known as the colectivos, were frequently involved. Last week’s massive military maneuvers seem intended as a show of strength.

There are reasons that Maduro is not following Chávez’s lead by accepting a mid-term referendum. Unlike Chávez, who prevailed in the 2004 referendum, Maduro, is in a much weaker position — particularly after seeing his party lose two-thirds of the parliament last December. He suspects, probably rightly, that any new election triggered by a referendum would result in an opposition victory.

Earlier this month, the opposition claimed it had garnered 2.5 million signatures in support of the recall — about 14 times more than the 1 percent of the population needed to pass the first hurdle of the referendum process. If the government-controlled National Electoral Council (CNE) approves, the second step is for the opposition to kick off another signature drive to obtain the names of at least 20 per cent of the electorate needed to trigger the actual referendum.

As if that process were not complicated enough, now Maduro has named a commission — without any legal justification — to “help” the CNE determine whether the required number of names are on the first petition. And just so no one could mistake the committee’s purpose, Maduro, his vice president and ruling party leader all have said, “there will be no referendum this year.”

The timing is significant: If the referendum can be postponed at least until early January, then even if the government loses, Vice President Aristobulo Isturiz, or whoever Maduro names to that post, would serve out the rest of the president’s term.

The Obama administration, while sanctioning some of those most directly involved in repression, has largely stayed on the sidelines, knowing that any intervention by Washington only gives the Venezuelan government more ammunition to use against its critics.

Harder to understand has been the silence, until very recently, of the hemisphere’s democratic governments, most of which had to overcome a history of human rights abuses. When they see political leaders jailed, judges imprisoned for refusing party orders, and the separation of powers rejected, it is difficult to explain their inaction. So far, they appear disinclined to apply the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which provides for the Organization of American States permanent council to be called into session when its norms are violated, to bring the Maduro government to account.

Latin American leaders should convince the Maduro government to accept international mediation. Thus far, the government has refused overtures for serious dialogue — including an effort led by Socialist leader and former Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero focused on a simple agenda: allow fulfilment of the constitutional obligation to hold a recall referendum in response to popular demand; permit humanitarian aid to reach those in need; and release all political prisoners. If the government continues to hold out, then Latin American leaders should activate the Inter-American Charter to pursue this common-sense agenda.

Urgent political and humanitarian initiatives are needed to avoid a collapse that would deepen the misery of Venezuelans and threaten regional stability.

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.