Few issues are more contentious in today’s Latin America than Venezuela and its multifaceted crisis, marked on 30 April by a sudden and short-lived uprising. On one side are governments supportive of chavismo, the movement established by Venezuela’s late president, Hugo Chávez, that has run the country for the past twenty years; on the other are the majority of states, which regard Chávez’s successor Nicolás Maduro as a dictator who is destabilising the region. The stark polarisation has already caused havoc in Latin America’s regional cooperation institutions. One of them, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), is effectively dead after a decade of existence. Another, the Organization of American States (OAS), is deeply fractured.
Possibly the most active regional forum is now the Lima Group of fourteen countries (including Canada), created in August 2017 with the purported aim of restoring Venezuelan democracy. The Lima Group recognises opposition leader and National Assembly chair Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president. Many of its members expressed support for the opposition leadership’s bid, backed by a handful of soldiers, to restore “constitutional order” in the April uprising. Meanwhile, the Latin American countries that continue to support Maduro – Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua – find themselves increasingly on the receiving end of threatening rhetoric from U.S. offi-cials and eager for support from major extra-regional powers Russia and China. The Venezuelan embassies lying empty in certain countries of the Americas illustrate the diplomatic no man’s land between these two sides: most countries have ejected Maduro’s diplomats and welcomed Guaidó’s emissaries, but the latter have neither money nor any real authority.
Divisions on Venezuela also run deep within countries. From the moment he took power in 1999, Chávez has split Latin American public opinion in two, and Maduro has only widened the fissure. Election after election across the region has been coloured by polemics over how close leftist candidates are to Chávez and Maduro. The alignment between the current Venezuelan opposition leadership and the Trump administration, with its anachronistic bombast about rolling back socialism and invoking the Monroe Doctrine, has only sharpened the polarisation, allowing much of the left to paint the conflict as an effort to resist an imperialist U.S., of which Guaidó is branded as a mere puppet.
As Venezuela’s economic turmoil and political crackdown worsen, their impact on the domestic concerns of other Latin American countries has grown more complex. Well over three million people have fled the country, with most of them relocating within the region, above all in Colombia, Peru and Ecuador. Elsewhere, although absolute numbers are much smaller, the scale of the exodus relative to the size of local populations is sometimes even greater. The Venezuelans’ presence has put a burden on inadequate and under-resourced public services, generating increasing xenophobia that has been exploited by local politicians and alarmed national governments, spurred tighter border controls and led to violent flare-ups, such as those in the north-eastern Brazilian state of Roraima in August 2018 and the Ecuadorean city of Ibarra in January this year.
As we show below, each country has its own ideological, diplomatic and domestic motives for its positions toward Maduro and Guaidó. States on the front line of Venezuela’s humanitarian emergency – the Andean countries, Brazil and Panama – wish for an urgent change of government in Caracas, but they fear the effects upon their territories of deepening instability or any outside military intervention of the kind increasingly suggested by Washington. Political leaders in other countries line up on two sides, some backing Guaidó and others Maduro, and appear inflexible: little but a government overhaul in these countries is likely to change the anti-Maduro stance of Paraguay and Honduras, on the one hand, or the pro-Maduro stance of Bolivia and Nicaragua, on the other. A few governments, however, have sought to occupy the middle ground, even daring to attempt to broker talks aiming at a peaceful settlement of the crisis. Mexico and Uruguay stand out in this regard, with the latter forming part of the EU-backed International Contact Group that seeks a negotiated solution in Venezuela so long as it results in fresh, internationally monitored elections.
With the region divided, its institutions for diplomatic coordination and collective crisis response in disarray, its internal politics at polarised extremes, and public services in a number of countries stretched by a mass migrant outflow, Latin America’s wherewithal for managing the Venezuela crisis now appears limited. Maduro’s diehard enemies and allies often appear entrenched in their opinions. But the frontline states most affected by the spillover from Venezuela have a considerable stake in preventing the crisis from worsening, while those trying to mediate the political conflict enjoy the Maduro government’s trust to a greater or lesser degree. The weight of Latin American support for a peaceful, negotiated settlement will depend to a large extent on whether some from within these two groups of states can join forces in seeking a credible peace process in Venezuela. Only one Lima Group country, Costa Rica, is currently a member of the International Contact Group. But the Lima Group’s announcement on 3 May that it is seeking an urgent meeting with the Contact Group suggests that others are considering joining or backing this initiative. Broader Latin American support for this or another comparable mediation effort is essential to increase pressure on all sides in Venezuela for negotiations that will avoid violent conflict, restore representative, inclusive politics and pave the way for credible elections.