Venezuela negotiations deserve strong international support

Venezuela’s tragic impasse continues, with its dreadful human costs. On one side is the government led by Nicolás Maduro, whose 2018 reelection was not recognized by most governments of the Western hemisphere or of Europe, citing electoral fraud and manipulation as well as growing corruption and repression. Maduro’s regime still controls the levers of national power, including the support of the armed forces and the nation’s finances, but has lost most of its popular base and international legitimacy.

On the other side is the proclaimed government led by Juan Guaidó, president of the freely elected National Assembly, who assumed Venezuela’s “interim presidency” in January 2019 on the basis of Maduro’s “usurpation” (in the local parlance) and gained almost immediate diplomatic recognition from the United States and then from more than 50 countries of the Americas and Europe, though not from China, Russia and Cuba. Guaidó has strong public support within Venezuela, but controls no territory, government authority or programs within the country. Maduro last week accused Guaidó and the U.S. of involvement in a plot to assassinate him.

The failed opposition uprising on April 30 highlighted that Gauidó does not have the military support needed to topple Maduro, but suggested Maduro can’t count on the backing of key officials in the future. These realizations provide a glimpse of light, though a tunnel must be built to reach that light.

A potentially significant move to do just that is the initiative of Norway, recognized internationally for its peace-making and conflict-resolution experience, to bring representatives of Venezuela’s two sides together for exploratory conversations. Two rounds have taken place and Norwegian diplomats are trying to broker more. These talks could lead to serious negotiation to resolve Venezuela’s stalemate and move the country forward. This initiative deserves the unambiguous encouragement of all who want to help Venezuela make a transition toward humanitarian relief, reduced violence, effective governance and economic recovery.

No well-informed observer thinks that a clear path forward is imminent, or that it will be easy to fashion. Within both the incumbent regime and the opposition, multiple factions compete; none is yet clearly disposed to make the painful concessions that would be needed to achieve a peaceful transition. It is hard to conduct confidential negotiations and fashion tough compromises when pervasive espionage and instantaneous communication of misleading information by so many different actors takes place. These harsh truths must be faced.  

There are two broad ways to respond to these realities. One, common in Washington, is to pour cold water on any attempt to negotiate in Venezuela. For example, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) recently argued that “a negotiated transition to democracy would be ideal in Venezuela,” but that it cannot happen because: Maduro will never agree to new elections; Cuba’s influence on Maduro and his entourage is too great; some in the Maduro coalition want to replace him with a military hardliner; and socialist party leaders within Maduro’s camp want him out but have no power to deliver. Others simply dismiss any negotiations until Maduro’s resignation.  

Such skeptics have suggested no viable path forward, other than the hope that with enough sanctions and other pressures, the Maduro government will collapse, leading to a quick democratic transition. But there is little evidence, in Venezuela or from other cases, that this will happen and considerable evidence that intensified pressures over time can unite a government under siege and harden positions. Precisely because of divisions within Maduro’s camp and the hardline authoritarian figures within it, an eventual collapse most likely would bring to power leaders even more repressive than Maduro. 

An alternative approach is to face reality and work to change circumstances. Solutions to bitter conflicts generally are possible when key actors on both sides are convinced that negotiating a change of regime on mutually acceptable terms is preferable to a prolonged and destructive stalemate, or the potential defeat of their side. Before April 30, Maduro might have had confidence in his ability to balance the divisions within his ranks, but after the defection of the head of his intelligence service, he and his closest advisers likely recognize the fragility of his coalition. 

Guaidó’s inability to gain support from within Venezuela’s armed services, increasing difficulties in mobilizing popular protests, and the growing realization that foreign military intervention is not forthcoming, is leading the opposition to rethink their strategy. It is not that Maduro or his supporters want to lose power, or that Guaidó or any in his camp want to share power, but that key figures now realize that they do not have the means to achieve their full aims.  

Suggesting that Cuba is a major impediment to a peaceful democratic transition likely misreads the situation. Cuba undoubtedly provides Maduro with significant intelligence, advice and support, but Havana has a vested interest in a soft landing in Venezuela, one that favors regional stability and provides energy security. Properly engaged, Havana could play a constructive role, as it did in the Central American and Colombian peace processes, encouraging ideological allies to accept compromises. 

The international community, including the United States, must drop counterproductive threats about military options and, instead, should back Norway’s diplomatic efforts. In May, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the Venezuela Emergency Relief, Democracy Assistance and Development Act (VERDAD), which soon could reach the Senate floor. This bipartisan bill, cosponsored by Rubio, states: “It is the policy of the United States to support diplomatic engagement in order to advance a negotiated and peaceful solution to Venezuela’s political, economic and humanitarian crisis.”  

In that spirit, it is crucial for the United States and other countries to provide assurances that they will not use military force in Venezuela; that they will fund humanitarian relief programs; help reintegrate Venezuela into international trade and investment flows; and stand ready to assist, if asked, in monitoring free, fair and credible elections and processes of transitional and restorative justice.  

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

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

Tags Crisis in Venezuela International sanctions Juan Guaidó Marco Rubio Nicolas Maduro Norway Venezuela uprising

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