Venezuela's negotiations require international support — and realistic expectations

Venezuela's negotiations require international support — and realistic expectations
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Against the odds, there is once again movement toward negotiations in Venezuela’s forever-crisis. Last month, Venezuela’s two presidents —Nicolás Maduro, who claimed victory in deeply flawed elections in 2018, and Juan Guaidó, the young National Assembly president who assumed the “interim presidency” when Maduro tried to claim his second term — both suggested that a new round of talks would start this month. This week, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador confirmed they will be held in Mexico City, likely beginning on Aug. 13. Behind this movement is the shuttle diplomacy of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has led facilitation efforts for two and a half years.

This is not the first round of negotiations between the Maduro government and opposition, and many observers are understandably skeptical. There have been four efforts since 2014 — two involving mediation by regional presidents, one involving the Vatican, and that by the Norwegians from May to August 2019. 

Success in this round of negotiations will require robust and clear backing from international stakeholders, most notably the United States, as well as realistic expectations. Instead of the equivocal support that was the case in 2019, the U.S. should seek to facilitate a Venezuelan-made solution. Instead of an overnight transition, which is unlikely and may not be sustainable, negotiation efforts need to aim for concrete benchmarks in a gradual transition — that is, a roadmap for the re-institutionalization of Venezuela’s democracy and a return to a pluralistic society where all political options have a place.  

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These recommendations come from our research on the four previous negotiation efforts, with special focus on the 2019 Oslo-Barbados process. Over the past several months, we have talked with all of the members of the two negotiation teams that participated in Oslo and Barbados, as well as U.S. and international officials active at that time. Asking participants in any negotiation why they failed seems like a recipe for mutual accusations. Indeed, there were many. But what most stood out to us was how much agreement there was. 

All participants in the 2019 talks suggested that they had developed a degree of trust with opposing negotiators. They all agreed they actually made some progress on concrete elements of the agenda. They also all appreciated the efforts of the Norwegian diplomats and suggested they continue to be the best-positioned to facilitate future negotiations. 

Both negotiating teams discussed the difficulty of dealing with their own hardliners. The Oslo-Barbados process was confidential and the two sides impressively refrained from public pronouncements during the negotiation. However, this also left the process without broad buy-in and support. Skeptics on each side abounded and they pounced on any setback as clear evidence of the treachery of their opponents, and the futility of negotiation.

Both delegations in the talks also perceived the effects of a divided U.S. government, although from different angles. The opposition reported that while the U.S. State Department supported the negotiations, the National Security Council saw them as simply a way for Maduro to buy time. But even the State Department was limited by the White House’s clear intransigence regarding sanctions, which left the opposition with few cards to play. Maduro’s negotiators said they thought the opposition did not have the power of decision, that it rested with the U.S. 

Our interviews also revealed that each side perceived it had better alternatives to a negotiated agreement. These perceived alternatives were largely provided by international allies — the U.S. and other democracies in the hemisphere in the case of the opposition, and Russia, China and Cuba in the case of Venezuela. There will need to be back-channel negotiations between these countries to make sure they hold the participants’ feet to the fire in a crisis that is in none of their best interests.

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This time around, the negotiations will need clear support from the U.S. and a willingness to follow the opposition negotiators’ desires to use sanctions as a bargaining chip. The recent joint declaration from the U.S., European Union and Canada, saying they are willing to progressively lift sanctions in response to achievements at the negotiating table, is a good start. But this will be effective only if there is a parallel table or back channel through which sanctions relief can happen in tandem with the talks.

This time around, civil society must be part of the process. This is hard since Venezuelan politicians tend to see civil society as a form of “proto-politics” seeking to replace them. But a number of civil society, business, religious and humanitarian organizations have developed a level of autonomy and independence not formerly present in Venezuela. They see their role as getting the government and the opposition to stay at the table. Others in civil society, particularly victims’ groups, will rightly insist on accountability for human rights violations. Their voices should be heard, because any durable solution will have to incorporate victims’ rights to truth, justice, reparations and reform. 

Common wisdom suggests that the more voices that are involved, the more complex it is to achieve an agreement. However, key facilitators involved in this process suggest there is no problem in having a main table that is complemented by other discussion spaces that can inform and be consulted by it. In negotiation processes in other contexts, such a broadening has increased buy-in and led to a more sustainable agreement. It could do the same in Venezuela. 

After he brokered a long-sought peace deal, former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell said, “In Northern Ireland I had 700 days of failure and one day of success.” In peace-making processes, iterated efforts at negotiation are the rule, not the exception, and unsuccessful negotiations should not be seen as “failures” but as stepping stones in a process. To make sure that these stepping stones lead to progress and not away from it, all stakeholders should learn from previous efforts, using them to develop effective practices and realistic expectations. 

David Smilde is a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and a professor at Tulane University. Geoff Ramsey is the director for Venezuela at WOLA. Keith Mines is the director of the Latin America Program at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). Steve Hege is a regional deputy director for the Latin America Program at USIP.