The head of the Venezuelan opposition delegation, Gerardo Blyde Perez, the Director at NOREF Norwegian Centre for Conflict Resolution, Dag Nylander and the president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Jorge Rodriguez, in Mexico City on 13 August 2021. CLAUDIO CRUZ / AFP
Commentary / Latin America & Caribbean 13 minutes

Venezuela: Making the Most of the Mexican Breakthrough

A fresh series of talks to address Venezuela’s profound political crisis are afoot in Mexico City. The discussions will likely be long and cumbersome, but there is space for partial and early agreements that could improve everyday life for Venezuelans.

After a two-year hiatus, representatives of Venezuela’s main opposition alliance and President Nicolás Maduro’s government met on 13 August in a new round of negotiations in Mexico City aimed at resolving the country’s long-running and increasingly calamitous political standoff. They are set to meet again on 3 September. According to a Memorandum of Understanding signed during their first encounter, the negotiators’ aim is to “establish clear rules for political and social coexistence”. These are the first formal talks since the last efforts, facilitated by Norway, fell apart in August 2019, and were declared “exhausted” by the opposition the following month.

Since then, the Norwegian team has been actively shuttling between the two sides, seeking to establish points of agreement that might thaw their frosty relations. There is good reason to be sceptical about the prospects of success for this round, particularly in light of past failures. But negotiations remain the only reasonable route to ending the political showdown and then overcoming the economic and humanitarian crisis that has shattered Venezuelans’ living standards and prompted nearly six million of them to leave the country.

The Climate for the Talks

Several things have changed since 2019. One of the most significant is the departure of U.S. President Donald Trump, whose policy of “maximum pressure”, including broad hints of military intervention, sought to unseat the Maduro government. It was the U.S. decision to impose secondary sanctions in August 2019 that triggered the breakdown of talks; and it was the opposition’s belief that it had other options, that caused it to abandon the negotiation route. Washington has now ditched the “maximum pressure” rhetoric, though some of its effects are still present and will be hard to overcome.

Maduro arrives at these fresh negotiations politically strengthened, having survived the opposition’s efforts in recent years to fracture the government coalition and its alliance with the armed forces. The opposition’s claim to be an “interim government”, based on the disputed nature of Maduro’s electoral victory in 2018 and a contentious interpretation of the constitution, failed to tip the balance of power in its favour within Venezuela, and instead led it to focus on building up support abroad. Ironically, it was Maduro rather than the self-declared “interim president” Juan Guaidó who proved most effective in fomenting division among his adversaries, plunging them into disillusionment and apathy. Since early 2019, despite widespread public discontent, the opposition has been unable to mount major street protests.

Foreign capitals believe that Maduro and the parliament elected in December came to power in skewed polls that did not represent the will of the majority of citizens

In December 2020, Maduro regained control of the country’s parliament, the National Assembly, in tainted elections boycotted by most opposition parties. All but a handful of the nearly 60 countries that had embraced Guaidó as the legitimate head of state in 2019 have since quietly dropped their recognition, though Washington still has not. Some of Venezuela’s Latin American neighbours are also less hostile to the Maduro administration than they were two years ago, thanks to changes of government and shifting priorities, partly attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, many foreign capitals believe that Maduro and the parliament elected in December came to power in skewed polls that did not represent the will of the majority of citizens, and Venezuela remains subject to one of the world’s harshest sanctions regimes. The economy, which since Maduro came to power in 2013 has suffered the worst peacetime collapse of any in recent history, cannot be rebuilt without a massive injection of capital, which in turn depends on a political agreement.

While the opposition is primarily seeking electoral guarantees and early presidential and parliamentary elections, Maduro wants international recognition and the lifting of sanctions. These points are included in the seven-point Memorandum of Understanding unveiled on 13 August, which outlines the agenda and parameters for the talks. To the dismay of some opposition supporters, the document starts by defining the parties as “the government” and the Unitary Platform (ie, the opposition), thus appearing to turn the page on Guaidó’s “interim government”. Regarded by many as a betrayal, the wording is better understood as a recognition of reality. It conveniently removes not only an obstacle to an agreement – Maduro would never sign a deal with representatives of a rival head of state – but also a hindrance to the necessary renewal of the opposition leadership, the rebuilding of its grassroots organisation and the recovery of its capacity to channel popular dissatisfaction.

Reasons for Hope

Several of the obstacles that once stood in the way of a negotiated solution have been at least partly removed. The opposition is no longer insisting on the unrealistic demand that Maduro stand down as the first step of a transition. It also appears willing to at least contemplate reaching partial agreements during the talks.

Opposition factions previously disagreed strongly on whether to take an incremental approach to resolving their differences with the ruling party, whether in the negotiations or otherwise. Guaidó and his allies have insisted that a step-by-step approach would seriously impair prospects for a comprehensive agreement. But former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, civil society organisations under the umbrella of the recently launched Foro Cívico, and the main Venezuelan business chamber Fedecámaras have actively engaged with the Maduro government on specific humanitarian, political and economic issues. One positive and visible outcome of this effort to make incremental progress has been electoral reforms, notably the inclusion earlier this year of two well-respected opposition figures on the National Electoral Council. 

As for the current negotiations, at the 13 August session in Mexico City, all parties signalled their disposition to partial agreements, potentially allowing the process to gain more adherents if negotiators can demonstrate concrete progress in the early stages. In a show of support for the need to seek a negotiated solution to the political and economic crisis, Stalin González, a Capriles ally who in 2019 served as a Guaidó-appointed negotiator, has joined the opposition team for the talks. The move might represent an opportunity for the Guaidó and Capriles camps to patch up their differences.

The countries mainly responsible for international sanctions – the U.S., Canada and the members of the European Union (EU) – have helped make the shift in position more credible by offering the possibility of phased sanctions relief married to substantive progress at the talks. This step is a major advance after years in which Washington and Brussels pursued widely divergent, even contradictory strategies, with the U.S. insisting that it would lift sanctions only if Maduro departed and the EU showing more flexibility. In another move that Crisis Group has often urged, major foreign stakeholders will escort the talks directly via an accompaniment scheme or indirectly through a Group of Friends of the negotiation. The direct presence of Russia, a key ally of Maduro and of his armed forces, is particularly significant. Russia has purposefully acted to avoid any outcome that nets clear gains for the U.S. and its partners, but it would benefit from an agreement that preserves its economic interests in Venezuela.

Closer affinity among the major powers is matched by changes in the regional political balance. After talks broke down in 2019, sixteen of Venezuela’s neighbours voted to activate the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance – a mutual defence pact – calling the Maduro government a threat to regional security. The move was promoted by the Lima Group, an ad hoc alliance of Latin American and Caribbean governments formed in August 2017 to press for a political transition in Venezuela. In spite of this sabre-rattling, the neighbour states never took meaningful action, and the political tide in the region has since rendered the environment less hostile to Maduro. In July, Peru, the nominal home of the Lima Group, elected a far-left president, Pedro Castillo, who is likely to take a very different line on Venezuela than his immediate predecessors. Argentina, Bolivia and Saint Lucia have left the group, while Mexico stopped signing its communiqués in 2019. The leftist governments of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico and Alberto Fernández in Argentina have played a behind-the-scenes role in bringing about the latest talks, which the former is hosting and the latter may join as a member of the Group of Friends.

Reasons to Be Glum

Not all the stars are aligned for productive talks, however. On the international front, the Biden administration’s greater flexibility in Venezuela policy is constrained by domestic political concerns. As the Democratic Party seeks to minimise losses in the 2022 midterm congressional elections, Biden is naturally reluctant to openly abandon a hardline policy that served Trump so well in the key battleground of southern Florida, home to many Venezuelan exiles and their Cuban American allies.

Another looming issue is the possible announcement of a formal investigation by the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, which could eventually lead to the issuance of arrest warrants or summons to appear for high-level government officials or military officers suspected of having committed crimes against humanity. The tribunal has been looking into whether human rights abuses committed while Maduro has been consolidating power since 2017 warrant such charges. A decision on whether to initiate the investigation is likely to be taken before the end of 2021, unless there is genuine progress toward bringing those responsible to account through domestic processes, which appears unlikely.

The November elections are especially complicated for the opposition because it has been so deeply split

Venezuela’s domestic situation is even more complicated. First, the timing of the talks is inauspicious, coming as it does just as the campaign for the 21 November regional and municipal elections is getting under way. By their nature, elections tend to reward polarisation, not compromise. The November elections are especially complicated for the opposition because it has been so deeply split, not only over whether or not to take part in the polls (which despite a partial improvement of conditions, many still believe will be deeply unfair), but also over the choice of candidates and how to pick them.

Although the government has lifted the ban on the Democratic Unity ticket, potentially allowing the opposition to field single candidates in every constituency under the same banner with which it took control of parliament in 2016, consensus in the opposition ranks has been slow to emerge. Most of the opposition has so far avoided calling on the public to vote, even as many parties have geared up to register candidates. Guaidó  has consistently disparaged the vote as merely an “event organised by the government”. Meanwhile, there is growing international pressure to take the polls more seriously, with specific mention of them in recent joint U.S.-Canadian-EU communiqués, and opposition agreement on participation is a key factor for the latter to determine whether or not to deploy an observation mission.  

With candidacies due to be registered in August and the electoral campaign about to begin, time is running out. Should Maduro’s candidates sweep the board in November, the debacle for the opposition would leave it even weaker at the negotiating table, making it hard to imagine that the two sides will make much progress until after the elections. While further rounds of talks are planned for September, they are likely to be suspended thereafter pending the polls.

The fact that many Venezuelans do not feel represented by either delegation in Mexico City also gives cause for concern. Both government and the fragmented opposition, opinion polls confirm, are highly unpopular and many citizens perceive that each is primarily interested in furthering its own interests rather than seeking the best outcome for the country at large.

On 15 August, via a joint statement, both government and opposition acknowledged the need to establish consultation mechanisms with other political and social stakeholders. Most Venezuelans are supportive of a negotiated settlement, but there are hardline sceptics on both sides. On the opposition side, some reject all talks with the government and continue to insist on further international pressure and even military intervention as the solution to the crisis. On the other extreme sit parties that took part in the December elections, whose members many others in the opposition deride as “collaborationists”. On the government side, only the Maduro faction of the ruling coalition is present at the table, while there is no representative of another chavista heavyweight, Diosdado Cabello, whose influence recently appears to be on the wane; the Venezuelan military, a key player, is also absent. Comprehensive consultations will be indispensable to make sure that none of these groups or individuals become spoilers.

The Only Show in Town

Incipient and vulnerable as they are, the talks offer an opportunity for progress. Yet it is unlikely that there will be clarity until after the November elections as to whether either side, especially the government, is ready to reach even partial agreements.

Back-channel communications between Washington and Caracas will be needed in order for both to determine what each can realistically expect of the other

In the meantime, the main task at hand is to consolidate the negotiation process. That means, among other things, designing and implementing a robust consultation mechanism that will encourage buy-in by those left out and from the general public; defining clearly the functions of those countries assigned the task of accompanying the process or joining the Group of Friends; and – especially in the case of the U.S. – clarifying the concessions required from the Maduro government if sanctions are to be relaxed (as well as the order in which that might be done). Back-channel communications between Washington and Caracas will be needed in order for both to determine what each can realistically expect of the other.

Above all, the talks will have a better chance of progress if the parties first seek agreement on some incremental measures that can yield tangible improvements in living conditions for Venezuelans. For example, there is an opportunity to reach compromise on the supervised allocation of multilateral funds to address the economic collapse, scale up humanitarian relief efforts and take concrete steps to restore functional institutions, starting with the judiciary. The more that the talks produce concrete benefits for the Venezuelan people, the easier it will be to assuage the sceptics and weaken the hardliners who might seek to undermine them.

While the opposition was adamant during the talks’ preparatory phase that it would focus exclusively on a political settlement, the Memorandum of Understanding speaks of “placing the welfare of the Venezuelan people at the centre”, and Guaidó himself has mentioned “attending to the humanitarian emergency” among his list of objectives. It remains to be determined whether the sides will emphasise social, economic and humanitarian issues in the main talks, whether they will delegate these matters to a separate committee or even leave the discussions to existing mechanisms such as the joint technical committee (mesa técnica) created by the government and the opposition in February 2021 to obtain vaccines through the World Health Organization’s COVAX Facility. While the Mexico City participants may prefer to sideline these issues, they are likely to be urged by civil society, via the consultative mechanism promised in a joint statement, to offer prompt solutions. They should heed that call.

[Maduro] will need to show restraint and eventually make concessions that put at risk his control of all levers of power

Maduro clearly feels he is in a good position following the first meeting’s results. He has so far given up very little and continues to undermine the talks with unconstructive public comments. If negotiations are to advance, he will need to show restraint and eventually make concessions that put at risk his control of all levers of power – something the government has never demonstrated any willingness to do. But there are further options for short-term confidence-building measures that would help sustain the talks by showing that the government also has the will to seek a negotiated solution. The release of political prisoners would be one. The government could also scrap, or at least suspend parliamentary debate on the Law of Communal Cities, which the opposition sees as threatening because it could eventually shift power from state and municipal authorities to “socialist communes”, amounting to a change in the division of powers enshrined in the Venezuelan constitution. Ahead of the November regional elections, and the sooner the better, Maduro needs to lift the bans on opposition politicians barred from running and allow opposition candidates balanced access to media channels.

In all likelihood these negotiations will be long and cumbersome, and the eventual outcome will not satisfy all parties, but the first Mexico City meeting marks an important step toward the abandonment of maximalist positions. If the talks are to prosper, the sides will have to achieve early and significant improvements in political rights and – crucially – in everyday life for Venezuelans. A lasting solution to the country’s crises will require compromises on how to achieve economic recovery, repair the health system and address the growing influence of armed groups that have obtained de facto control of rural and urban areas. Government, opposition and their respective international allies have much work in front of them. For all the challenges that lie ahead, it is good to see this long-stalled work back under way.

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