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A Glimmer of Light in Venezuela’s Gloom - Latin America Report N°75 | 15 July 2019

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A discreet Norwegian diplomatic effort represents the best hope for breaking Venezuela's political deadlock. To stop the country’s slide into humanitarian and economic catastrophe, pragmatic backers of both government and opposition should put aside empty hopes of outright victory and support a negotiated settlement.

What’s new? After a failed opposition uprising to oust Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in April, a discreet diplomatic effort by Norway now offers the best prospect for finding a peaceful negotiated settlement to the country’s political crisis and averting more violence and instability.

Why does it matter? Venezuela’s economy is in freefall, infrastructure is falling apart and millions have fled. Without a negotiated solution, the risks of violence will multiply and threaten to spill over regionally. A small window of opportunity has opened but could close again at any moment.

What should be done? Pragmatic elements on both sides should seize this fleeting opportunity to seek a compromise solution including early, free, fair and internationally monitored elections and guarantees against a winner-take-all outcome. External allies of government and opposition, together with more neutral international actors, should back these efforts and coordinate their support.

Executive Summary

The Venezuelan opposition’s failed bid to topple President Nicolás Maduro on 30 April presents a fleeting opportunity to reach a negotiated settlement to the country’s costly political and economic crisis. The uprising ended ignominiously, as not a single military unit ultimately backed Juan Guaidó, the chair of the National Assembly whose claim to the interim presidency on 23 January has been recognised by dozens of countries. This failure dashed hopes of a swift victory among the opposition and its external backers. But the events also shook the government, already reeling from catastrophic economic conditions, as they exposed serious internal rifts. With polls suggesting a majority of Venezuelans back a peaceful resolution and with renewed international attention to the crisis, talks brokered by Norway offer the best (albeit slender) chance for a solution. To that end, pragmatic elements on both sides need to show willingness to compromise; potential domestic spoilers need to be neutralised; and deeply polarised international actors need to show flexibility and fully back Norway’s initiative.

Venezuela’s crisis has reached epic proportions. Its hyperinflationary economy is in freefall; at the end of May, the Central Bank admitted GDP had shrunk by nearly 48 per cent from 2013-2018 and that inflation last year topped 130,000 per cent. Independent estimates are gloomier. Spill-over effects are equally catastrophic: Colombia and other Latin American countries must contend with the bulk of a migrant exodus that, to date, totals four million Venezuelans. Worse may yet come. Awash in weapons, the country also is home to many armed groups, including paramilitaries popularly known as colectivos, organised criminal gangs and current and former guerrillas from Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel groups, raising the possibility of a bloody internal conflict in the absence of a political settlement.

At this point, no party should have reason to feel confident. Predictions of Maduro’s early exit proved wildly premature, as repeated efforts to persuade the armed forces to break with the government fell flat. As time goes by, the opposition will increasingly bear the brunt of both growing public impatience and recurring internal fissures. While this may give the government and its supporters, known as chavistas, satisfaction, they too are under pressure. They remain highly unpopular, are reeling under sweeping U.S. sanctions, including those seeking to cut off Venezuela’s oil revenue, and learned on 30 April that significant government figures had been conspiring with the opposition.

The two sides’ external allies can hardly feel more optimistic. For the Trump administration, the events of 30 April must have come as a significant wake-up call, exposing the distance between expectations and reality. Others tied to the opposition doubtless feel similarly disillusioned and, for those in the region, increasingly worried about the risks of a protracted crisis. Russia, China and Cuba, the government’s main partners, may well have been pleased by the failure of the uprising, but they can be under no illusion that the crisis can be resolved absent a negotiated solution. Recouping their economic investment in Venezuela doubtless will require a new government and an end to sanctions.

In short, the Oslo process – which was already under way prior to 30 April, and has seen two rounds of negotiations since then – has come at the right moment. Whether the parties fully realise that is another question. Indeed, both still seem to feel that time is on their side. Every day it continues to hold power is seen as a victory by the government; every day the government demonstrates its inability to resolve the crisis or break out of its isolation is viewed as a success by the opposition. Their positions remain far apart, not least on the question of whether and when Maduro should resign, the timing and conditions of new elections, and the issue of lifting U.S. sanctions. The opposition is deeply sceptical of the government’s good faith. The government fears the opposition wants to wipe out chavismo. The past weighs heavily too: three previous attempts at domestic dialogue since 2014 were scuppered by political differences, government unwillingness to make or implement any major concession, and opposition disunity. Hardliners in both camps are watching closely.

Still, Venezuela’s unprecedented economic and humanitarian collapse, coupled with the sense shared by many that neither side can win, and that violent escalation could ensue, has encouraged a degree of pragmatism among some elements in both camps. On the still-polarised international scene there are also timid signs, if not of outright convergence, at least of diminishing divergence. The International Contact Group for Venezuela, jointly chaired by the European Union and Uruguay, is building global support for a negotiated settlement ending in fresh elections, and has courted Latin American countries opposed to Maduro as well as regime allies such as China, Cuba and Russia. Washington, for its part, has all but dropped dangerous hints of a military intervention, while regime allies profess to support negotiations.

Elements of a potential deal can be divided into three baskets. First are necessary pre-electoral confidence-building measures that, on the government side, could include releasing political prisoners, allowing exiled politicians to return, winding down the chavista-controlled National Constituent Assembly and restoring some of the opposition-controlled National Assembly’s powers and, on the opposition’s, support for sanctions relief to address the most urgent humanitarian issues. A second phase would entail election-related measures to ensure a level-playing field, including reconstituting an impartial National Electoral Council, reforming the Supreme Court, registering diaspora Venezuelans on electoral rolls, and, of critical importance to chavismo, lifting at least some significant U.S. economic sanctions.

Finally, a third package would comprise post-electoral guarantees, including power-sharing arrangements and other measures to ensure the system is not winner-take-all. Potential steps include restoring proportional representation in legislative elections, reintroducing presidential term limits, and reinstating an upper chamber to provide checks and balances, along with assurances that chavistas will not face persecution or marginalisation if they lose power and that the military will remain intact and its interests protected.

At this writing, a third meeting – in Barbados – is under way, but Guaidó faces pressure from sceptical harder-line opposition elements who insist that Maduro must go before negotiations restart. Such a position is untenable, but the government – which initiated a widespread crackdown after 30 April, arresting the deputy chair of the National Assembly and forcing many MPs into hiding or exile by announcing the lifting of their parliamentary immunity – has done little to encourage flexibility on the opposition side. The release of several dozen political prisoners in response to the 19-21 June visit of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet was accompanied by more arrests and, on 29 June, by the death after interrogation of a detained naval officer.

Reaching a deal in Barbados will mean not only agreeing on the elements outlined above, but also overcoming objections from actors who are not in Barbados: hardliners (those on the government side who fear losing everything if power change hands, or those in the opposition who view talks as a means used to buy time by an autocratic government on the verge of collapse); the U.S. (some of whose punishing sanctions will have to be lifted in advance of elections); Cuba (which the U.S. accuses of playing a pivotal role in propping up Maduro): and Venezuela’s armed forces (which have considerable economic and institutional interests they will want preserved).

Venezuela has witnessed enough false starts in prior negotiations to warrant a high degree of doubt about the outcome of the current talks. But conditions for a settlement are as good as they have been. To help get there, Venezuela’s public should both pressure its leaders and give them the political space necessary for compromise, while external actors should seek to coordinate their positions in favour of Norway’s efforts. The alternative to an agreement risks being an entrenched political status quo amid deteriorating humanitarian conditions and heightened refugee flows or, worse, all-out violent conflict. Barbados represents the country’s best hope, and the window may not remain open for long.