Barbados Deal Sets Venezuela on a Rocky Path to Competitive Polls
Barbados Deal Sets Venezuela on a Rocky Path to Competitive Polls
Gerardo Blyde Perez, head of the Venezuelan opposition's delegation, shakes hands with Venezuela's National Assembly's President Jorge Rodriguez.
Gerardo Blyde Perez, head of Venezuelan opposition's delegation, shakes hands with Venezuela's National Assembly's President Jorge Rodriguez after they signed an agreement to electoral guarantees for 2024 presidential elections in St. Michael, Barbados. REUTERS/Nigel R. Browne/Nu-Image Digital Media
Statement / Latin America & Caribbean 12 minutes

Barbados Deal Sets Venezuela on a Rocky Path to Competitive Polls

Venezuela’s government and opposition have reached an agreement laying the groundwork for a competitive presidential election in 2024. It could be a breakthrough in efforts to resolve the country’s political and socio-economic crisis. The accord is untested, however, and obstacles may lie ahead.

Five years after Venezuela’s widely discredited 2018 presidential election, the government of President Nicolás Maduro and a group of opposition parties, known as the Unitary Platform, agreed on 17 October to begin levelling the playing field through electoral reforms ahead of 2024 polls. The deal marks a return to the path of formal negotiations between the sides and creates hope that the forthcoming election could genuinely be competitive. For Venezuela, the stakes are sky-high. If the U.S., the European Union and a majority of Latin American governments recognise the election results, it would mark the end of the “maximum pressure” campaign the U.S. launched in 2019 to oust Maduro, an approach that has exacerbated South America’s worst humanitarian emergency, prompting a migrant exodus. But the agreement is so far untested, and its true value will depend on just how far Maduro is willing to go in honouring it – even to the extent of facing consequences at the ballot box, an eventuality he and the chavista movement behind him appear likely to resist.

The U.S. was not party to the deal, but a day after the Barbados agreement was announced the State Department issued a statement of decisive support for it. It likewise announced that the U.S. would lift a swathe of sanctions on Caracas, albeit temporarily. Washington has issued a broad authorisation of transactions involving Venezuela’s oil, gas and gold sectors. It also removed a ban on the secondary trading of certain Venezuelan sovereign bonds, as well as debt and equity issued by Petróleos de Venezuela, the state-owned oil company. The licence lifting the sanctions on the oil and gas sectors sunsets after six months, with the State Department warning that it will be renewed only if the Maduro government adheres to the electoral agreement and releases U.S. and Venezuelan political prisoners. As an apparent down payment, Caracas freed five Venezuelan political prisoners late on 18 October. At least 268 Venezuelan political prisoners and three wrongfully detained U.S. citizens are still in jail.

The parties signed two deals at Barbados. In addition to the accord that lays the groundwork for major improvements in electoral conditions, a second agreement binds both the government and opposition to backing Venezuela’s position in its territorial dispute with Guyana. This dispute is now under consideration at the International Court of Justice. This second accord also commits both parties to seek protection of Venezuelan assets abroad, many of which are at risk of seizure by creditors due to the country’s unpaid debts, estimated at around $160 billion.

Promised Reforms

Even before it culminated in a deal, the meeting in Barbados represented major progress. For the government and opposition to be back at the negotiating table, face to face in a formal setting, encircled by representatives of foreign governments, marked a huge step forward after months of stasis. The bespoke negotiation process, which Norway facilitated and Mexico hosted before Barbados, began two years ago. Despite long pauses, these talks generated forward momentum, but the terms on which future elections should be held proved to be a stumbling block. The Unitary Platform had placed the enabling of free and fair elections at the heart of its objectives, but the government refused to loosen its grip on the election system so long as the economic harm done by U.S. sanctions impeded its chances of winning. 

The Barbados accords were the product of a flurry of diplomatic efforts in 2023. Senior U.S. officials held several face-to-face meetings with representatives of the Maduro government in Doha, the capital of Qatar, seemingly to discuss the possible contours of sanctions relief. Washington worked in conjunction with governments in Latin America and Europe to back a negotiated outcome and support the informal channels of communication between government and opposition in Caracas. 

The new electoral agreement offers a path to achieving the Unitary Platform’s goals.

The new electoral agreement offers a path to achieving the Unitary Platform’s goals. It affirms the need for a set of electoral guarantees ahead of the presidential vote, while also fixing the date for the poll in the second half of 2024, which was the opposition’s preference. Steps agreed to by the two sides include a thorough update of the electoral registry, including efforts to inscribe at least part of the swelling Venezuelan diaspora. Elections specialists see these improvements as vital, given that even inside Venezuela over three million people of voting age have yet to register. The Barbados agreement also provides that the National Electoral Council will invite international observation missions to monitor the polls, including delegations from the EU, the UN, the African Union and the Carter Center. Such missions can help discourage malpractice and vote rigging, as well as detect any wrongdoing around election day. This facet of the Barbados deal builds on progress made in Venezuela’s 2021 regional and local elections, for which EU observers were present for the first time in fifteen years.

As for other provisions, the government also agreed to support equal access to the media for both sides, while the accord called for the removal of measures that could imperil the security of candidates and other political figures. This last clause can be interpreted as a reference to the $15 million bounty the U.S. Department of State still offers for information leading to the arrest or conviction of President Maduro on charges of corruption and drug trafficking.

Washington's Helping Hand

As noted, the Biden administration is not a signatory to the accords, but the U.S. made it possible for the Venezuelan government and opposition to hammer out a deal. Recognising the failure of former President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy for ousting President Maduro by freezing Venezuela out of trade circuits and denying him international recognition, senior U.S. officials first re-engaged with Caracas after the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. Biden administration officials established a direct communication link with the Maduro government that March. Since then, Washington has repeatedly made clear that it would be willing to provide sanctions relief in return for meaningful progress in talks between the government and the Unitary Platform. 

An important sign of U.S. readiness to strike a bargain came in November 2022, when the Venezuelan government and opposition agreed on creation of a UN-managed humanitarian fund, drawing from seized Venezuelan assets abroad. The fund has faced hurdles in becoming operational, but the agreement nevertheless represented progress. The U.S. responded by issuing a licence allowing Chevron to pump Venezuelan oil to export to the U.S. (around 145,000 barrels per day), an arrangement that has injected over $1.2 billion into the country in the first half of 2023, buoying an economy shattered by a decade-long collapse that had shaved over 70 per cent off the country’s GDP. 

During the month of September, approximately 50,000 Venezuelan migrants crossed the U.S. border irregularly – the highest number on record from Venezuela.

The Biden administration’s perseverance in seeking an electoral agreement that would justify at least partial sanctions relief has been fuelled by the surge of migration along the U.S. southern border – a trend that could affect the president’s re-election prospects in 2024. During the month of September, approximately 50,000 Venezuelan migrants crossed the U.S. border irregularly – the highest number on record from Venezuela according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Meanwhile, Venezuelans are preponderant among the massive undocumented migration flows through the Darién Gap between Colombia and Panama – they made up 78 per cent of the people hiking through the jungle in September. On 5 October, the U.S. government announced that it would resume direct deportation flights to Venezuela following an agreement it had reached with the Maduro government (the first such flight landed in Venezuela on 18 October). In the word of one U.S. official, “If Maduro co-operates on migration, it’s easier for the White House to accept a deal”.

On the Venezuelan side, economic pressures have tempered the Maduro government’s traditional reluctance to take steps that could threaten its hold on power. Simply put, the government needs to increase revenue, especially from oil exports, in anticipation of the 2024 electoral campaign. Even in a system that tilts strongly in the government’s direction, they are facing increasing pressure from once-stalwart members of their coalition. Public-sector workers, who traditionally have embraced chavismo, the ideology championed by the late President Hugo Chávez and his successor Maduro, suffer from extremely low wages in bolivars in an increasingly dollarised economy. They have spearheaded numerous protests over the past year. Apart from several months of respectable growth in 2022, the Venezuelan economy has been unable to sustain anything like the rates of recovery it needs: according to one expert estimate, it will need to grow at 6 per cent over 21 years to restore the GDP of 2014. Now that the U.S. government has provided broad sanctions relief to the oil and gas sectors, a key concern for the government is whether it will be enough to produce a pre-election economic boom that could shore up support for the government after 24 years in office.

For its part, the Venezuelan opposition has long craved an agreement that would allow it to compete on better terms with the government in an election.

For its part, the Venezuelan opposition has long craved an agreement that would allow it to compete on better terms with the government in an election. For good reason: the last contest conducted under fair conditions – namely, the legislative elections of 2015 – marked chavismo’s worst defeat since taking power in 1999. The Barbados breakthrough came just days before 22 October, when the Unitary Platform will hold primaries enabling its supporters in Venezuela and various cities abroad to choose someone to face the government’s candidate in 2024, most likely Maduro. After months of veiled and overt threats by senior chavista officials to disrupt the primaries, the agreement affords clear recognition of the right of each side to select its candidate according to the mechanism of its preference.

Uncertain Terrain

These same primaries, however, are likely to pose an immediate challenge to the accord signed in Barbados. María Corina Machado, an opposition hardliner who told Crisis Group earlier in 2023 that some moderate parts of the opposition “lacked courage”, is widely expected to win the vote. But in June the Comptroller General’s office reaffirmed a ban that blocks her from standing for office. She is among hundreds of political figures who face similar prohibitions – including the leading members of the now dismantled “interim government” led by Juan Guaidó. Senior chavistas reiterate that the proscriptions against some of these candidates, especially those whom they see as traitors to the country for their support of foreign intervention, will not be lifted. On 18 October, Machado reacted to the electoral agreement by highlighting the importance of “strict compliance” with it in accordance with the constitution. 

How a Machado victory would play out is uncertain. The Barbados agreement states that the parties will promote the “authorisation” of all presidential candidates and political parties “as long as they meet the requirements to participate in the presidential election, consistent with the procedures provided under Venezuelan law”. In a press conference following the signing of the agreement, Jorge Rodríguez – president of Venezuela’s National Assembly and the government’s chief negotiator – interpreted the clause as stating that a banned candidate could not run. Such disqualifications, however, have been roundly condemned by the U.S. government. If the Maduro government does not revisit its bans, Washington’s appetite for lifting further sanctions will dull, and the U.S. could reverse the relief measures it has put in place. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that Washington had insisted on a timeline and process for the reinstatement of “all candidates” (underlined in the State Department’s communiqué) by the end of November – adding that the “release of all wrongfully detained U.S. nationals and Venezuelan political prisoners” should also have begun by that time. 

The issue of proscribed candidates is typical of the uncertainties and ambiguities that shroud the deal and could still imperil the validity of the 2024 poll. Various political constituencies in the U.S. and Latin America are likely to reject any election in which leading candidates are denied the right to run. Should Machado be proclaimed the victor in the opposition primaries and the ban on her running for office persist, her supporters and their foreign allies could feel compelled to denounce a rigged election and call for a return to a campaign of pressure upon Caracas. Most of the main parties in the Unitary Platform, on the other hand, are inclined to participate in the polls even if the winner of the primary needs to be replaced. The damage this dynamic would do to opposition unity and cohesion among its foreign allies would be severe. 

The government, on the other hand, may find an outcome of opposition disunity to its liking so long as its own gains are not endangered. Venezuela’s presidential elections do not feature a second round. So, as long as the opposition is divided, it is possible for the government candidate to win with well under 50 per cent of the vote. Maduro’s gamble is that, despite his lagging popularity, he will be able to defeat a fractured opposition, many of whose supporters may prefer to boycott the poll. But the government’s uncompromising push for victory could quickly prove incompatible with the spirit and terms of a deal aimed at restoring its international legitimacy and ending sanctions by promising free political competition. Several senior chavistas believe that the government’s strategy is to allow only as much democracy as will permit it to remain sure of victory.

While these considerations do not detract from the achievement represented by the new agreement and the continuation of the Norway-led negotiations, they do highlight concerns the agreement’s backers must keep in mind. The U.S., the EU and Latin American states should continue to press for bans on candidates to be removed, ideally through an independent review process that would need to be created, and be primed to lift more sanctions if the government accedes. At a very minimum, it is essential that all politicians be free to campaign in Venezuela, and that the opposition’s designation of an alternative candidate if its chosen nominee remains proscribed be respected. 

Beyond the issue of banned candidates, the Maduro government’s continuing control of the National Electoral Council and the entirety of the judicial and security system remain conspicuous potential obstacles to implementation of the new accord and the holding of competitive elections. Both the government and the opposition should make every possible effort to ensure that the monitoring and verification mechanism mentioned in the accord is in fact respected. Otherwise, this accord could suffer the same fate as previous agreements, which failed to achieve material results, while serving as political expedients for the government and disheartening opposition ranks. 

Beyond Barbados

Now that negotiations seem to have restarted and the U.S. has given its conditional blessing, the parties should work to make progress on other issues that feature in the memorandum of understanding the sides agreed upon in 2021, at the start of the Mexico talks. These include the restoration of well-functioning institutions and reparations for the victims of violence. Both sides should also consider whether they can come together on possible changes to the Venezuelan political system that would modify its winner-take-all system and protect the political rights of the losing side – thereby reducing a source of polarisation in the country’s fractured polity. In the long run, a resolution of the Venezuelan crisis is unlikely if agreements focus solely on electoral issues; they must also establish the terms of peaceful political co-existence. 

In all these respects, foreign support will remain essential. The U.S. and other international stakeholders should match any further advances in talks with proportionate sanctions relief. Foreign partners should continue using their leverage and resources to entice the Venezuelan parties to negotiate meaningful progress toward institutional reform, including difficult compromises that could allow for an eventual return to political and economic stability. Back channels to Caracas and the opposition should be used by the U.S., the EU and Latin American governments to resolve stalemates and address cases of backsliding on the agreement. With so many possible pitfalls ahead, the next steps in the process will be critical to its success. 

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