Venezuela needs politics and diplomacy, not military intervention

Venezuela’s economy, society, politics and institutions are in free fall. President Nicolás Maduro’s current term ends on Jan. 10, and his scheduled inauguration that day for another term is based on a flawed election considered illegitimate by a majority of Venezuelans and by most North American, South American and European governments.

Pressures mount in Washington and elsewhere to help find a way out of Venezuela’s morass, but there clearly are no easy solutions. Venezuela is deeply polarized, with 20 percent of the population still supporting a beleaguered government that has dug in, protected by its military and intelligence services, coached by Cuban and perhaps other security advisers. Most Venezuelans oppose the government, but their political leadership is fragmented and ineffective.   

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International efforts increasingly are called for, but a foreign military intervention, especially if it involved the United States, would further split Venezuela into “patriots” and “traitors,” as defined by each side. It is unlikely to occur because it would require extended occupation of a large country with a big army and an armed militia; this is a challenge that no army in Latin America could manage, no European military force would accept, and the U.S. armed forces would resist. If a foreign military intervention did occur despite its risks, as in Iraq, it would have high costs in blood and treasure and long-term adverse impacts on the reputations of the intervening countries. It also would badly exacerbate the existing migration crisis.

Talk of military intervention, moreover, tends to paralyze necessary political efforts within Venezuela by reinforcing the notion that a solution will come from abroad. Further, international stimulation of an internal Venezuelan military coup cannot be counted on to produce a return to democracy; it might well escalate authoritarian violence and repression by new military leaders.

It is hard to imagine a successful challenge to Venezuela’s authoritarian regime unless the democratic opposition becomes more unified. Up to now, many Venezuelan opposition leaders have preferred to jockey for individual influence, rather than build durable political accords; others seem more motivated to exact revenge than to seek a solution. These tendencies have been expertly manipulated by Chavista maneuvers that pit opposition groups against each other.   

To move forward, the democratic opposition groups need to organize and act in concert. They should adopt one of the proposals that are circulating for holding primaries to choose their leadership, and should create democratic structures for decision-making, implementation and discipline. Such democratically chosen leaders should have the authority to design and sustain pressure against the repressive regime, and the legitimacy to make concessions and help fashion compromises.

The time for simple “dialogue” has passed — both sides know the other’s positions quite well. And conditions are not yet ripe for negotiation, because even a weak government feels comfortable when its opposition is divided. A space for fruitful negotiation must be opened by the internal mobilization of a unified opposition, in tandem with international pressure. A united Venezuelan opposition should work toward negotiations with government representatives.

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In eventual negotiations, it should be open to compromise and perhaps even be willing to make interim arrangements for power-sharing with military officers and government officials. Negotiations should include business, labor, professional and religious leaders who recognize the need for peaceful change. Some Venezuelan military officers could well play a positive role by persuading the regime to make some meaningful initial concessions.

A clear and inclusionary vision of the future, and specific practical proposals for addressing Venezuela’s main problems, could help a united opposition engage popular support for a negotiated political settlement that would be acceptable even to many of those who have supported Hugo Chávez and Maduro. A settlement would necessarily include a plan to hold free and fair municipal, state and national elections with independent electoral authorities and credible international observation.

International actors should take their cues from elected Venezuelan leaders, most of whom oppose some countries’ plans to withdraw their ambassadors from Caracas. South American, North American, Caribbean, European and other countries, as well as the Vatican, should maintain diplomatic representation and close monitoring of developments in Venezuela. They should also make it clear that they:

  • Are ready to accompany and reinforce honest negotiations;

  • Will support possible interim power-sharing arrangements;

  • Could arrange international exile for a few key personalities; and

  • Are committed to providing substantial assistance for humanitarian relief and for Venezuela’s economic and social recovery.

The U.S. government — for historic and current reasons — is not well-placed to take a leadership role in constructing solutions in Venezuela. But it should support international contact efforts to build confidence for negotiations, drawing upon the good offices of the European Union, the Lima Group and others, and it should make available resources and technologies on request.

No quick fix is in the cards. Transitions from authoritarian rule toward democracy in other countries have shown that combining sustained, coordinated domestic and international pressure with a strategic vision and an openness to compromise is more likely to achieve lasting results than external imposition.  

Venezuela is a hard case but its regime is not, in fact, more brutal than that of Chile’s former dictator Augusto Pinochet; its polarization is not more bitter than South African apartheid; and the Chavistas’ international patrons are not more powerful than were communist Poland’s. Previous transitions seemed impossible until they occurred, and that likely will be the case in Venezuela.

Abraham F. Lowenthal, professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, was founding director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program and the Inter-American Dialogue.

David Smilde, the Charles A. and Leo M. Favrot Professor of Human Relations at Tulane University, is senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America.