Opinion | International

Biden might prefer you didn't, but pay attention to the Venezuela negotiations

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

While the attention of much of America has been focused on Afghanistan, it's worth noting a development closer to home: Negotiations between Venezuela's Maduro regime and the democratic opposition forces led by Juan Guaido officially commenced on Friday in Mexico City. 

The two teams met for the official launch of negotiations, though behind the scenes talks have been under way for weeks - and real negotiations will not actually start until September.

The negotiations have an unusual structure: Each side has named one "second" (to borrow from the terminology of duels) and several other facilitators who will play a smaller role. Who did Maduro choose? No prizes for guessing: He chose Russia. Logically and appropriately, the opposition chose the United States, in theory its strongest supporter and the nation whose sanctions are a key regime target.

But Russia said yes to the regime, and the United States said no to the democratic opposition.

The Biden administration actually gave what used to be called the "Arab no." It never gave a flat rejection, but hemmed and hawed to get the opposition to look elsewhere.

As a result, Russia will be sitting with the regime, and the Netherlands will be sitting with the opposition. The Netherlands was their next choice because it is a very strong supporter of democracy and human rights in Venezuela - and has proved itself unwilling to bow to the accommodationist moves still coming from Brussels.

The opposition will have as additional facilitators the United States, Canada, and Colombia, a very good group. The regime will have Cuba, Bolivia, and Turkey.

The Biden administration has, since Jan. 20, tried to reduce the importance of and attention given to Venezuela in Washington. 

It has refused to appoint a special representative, meaning that neither the opposition nor allied governments have an effective place to turn when they want to learn about or try to influence U.S. policy.

The Western Hemisphere Affairs bureau in the State Department has been without an assistant secretary all year. Even if one blames the Senate for part of the delay in confirming the administration's nominee, it's clear from the low levels of attention given to Venezuela in statements by the president, secretary of state, or national security adviser that there is a policy here: lower the temperature.

Meanwhile there has been no significant lifting of sanctions on the Maduro regime, which has the same effect: lifting of sanctions without major Maduro concessions would be very controversial and would elicit public criticism in Congress (and in Florida). The policy of reducing attention to Venezuela thus has both diplomatic (refuse to serve as the opposition's partner in the negotiations) and political (don't fool with the sanctions) sides. 

What's at stake?

From the Maduro regime viewpoint, there are three goals. The most obvious one - and the one most commented on in the press - is to get U.S. sanctions lifted, at least in part. But that would require significant concessions by Maduro, and there's no evidence he is willing to change the way he rules Venezuela. Will he free political prisoners, allow a free press, hand back control of the major political parties to their true leaders (after having usurped them last year)? Not likely. 

A second and related regime goal is to persuade enough opposition politicians to run in this fall's state and local elections to give those elections some credibility. For Maduro, this might be a path to getting some sanctions lifted and to regaining formal recognition: About 60 countries switched their recognition to National Assembly president and opposition leader Juan Guaido when he was declared interim president in 2019.

And the third and closely related goal, equally significant for Maduro but little understood outside Venezuela, is to destroy the interim government.

For Maduro, having countries around the world acknowledge him as the legitimate ruler is important and can lead to all sorts of benefits. Fundamentally, if the interim government is gone, he is obviously the accepted - if not fully legitimate - ruler of Venezuela.

As usual, Maduro is playing a vicious game of hard ball.

Exiled politicians who agree to run in the elections are being permitted to return home, and their criminal convictions are reversed. Politicians who refuse to run risk immediate arrest and imprisonment, as happened to Freddy Guevara on July 12. Having said 'no' to the regime, Guevara (a leader of the Voluntad Popular party, the same as Juan Guaido) was charged with terrorism and conspiracy to commit treason - and jailed in solitary confinement for 30 days.

The message from Maduro is clear: Play ball or suffer the consequences.

For the opposition, the negotiations have several uses. First, it is possible that Maduro will agree to some concessions if there is sufficient international pressure and if he senses the possibility of some rewards. Second, merely by agreeing to negotiate with the opposition, the regime is acknowledging that an organized popular opposition exists, that Guaido is its leader, and that the country's horrendous problems cannot be addressed without the regime cooperating in some ways with it.

Third, the negotiations may set some minimal conditions for the fall elections. These will be too limited, and Maduro will violate them anyway, but the opposition is in a bind: Many of its own activists at the state and municipal level want to run in the elections. They are politicians, whose career is precisely to run for office. They do not support an opposition boycott, so the opposition leadership is trying to accommodate them by negotiating conditions that make it possible to run - even if the playing field is completely tilted against them.

What can the negotiations achieve?

It seems likely that some arrangement can be made, with both regime and opposition agreement, to use frozen Venezuelan funds in Europe to buy COVID vaccines and fund additional health programs. It is conceivable that Maduro may make some election-related concessions, so that foreign observer missions will come to Venezuela and approve the contest as "imperfect but acceptable" or some formula like that. It is possible that having some newly elected governors and mayors will rejuvenate the opposition, but that assumes Maduro will allow any kind of real contest and will allow opposition candidates who win to be declared the winners and to take office.

For the opposition, and its international supporters, one key issue is whether any agreements reached can open a path toward a truly democratic presidential election in 2024. That seems unlikely, because it assumes the Maduro regime is willing to contemplate losing power - and take the risk that losing power might be followed by legitimate prosecutions for the many crimes Maduro and his cronies have committed. These are not limited to vast amounts of theft - billions of dollars in oil revenues stolen - but to torture, murder, and crimes against humanity as well, as a UN fact-finding mission concluded.

Still, the United States and other democracies are right to back these negotiations - and should thank the Norwegians for arranging them. Norway has been resolute in seeking ways to get talks going without ever abandoning its obvious support for a return to democracy in Venezuela.

If the democratic forces in Venezuela decide to contest the fall elections, we should back them - and energetically organize international pressure to force Maduro to keep whatever promises he has made about electoral conditions. If the opposition leadership decides to change the form of (or even close down) the interim government, we should back that judgment as well.

What we should not do is treat the Maduro regime as a legitimate government and permit it to send an ambassador to Washington and take over from Guaido control of the Venezuelan embassy here.

We should not lift any sanctions except when the regime takes significant steps such as freeing all political prisoners and stopping the arrests of more of them, allowing a free press, permitting political exiles to return, and returning the democratic political parties to their elected leaderships.

And there is one more thing the Biden administration should not do: It should stop minimizing the importance of Venezuela. Especially right now, in the context of its decision to abandon any effort to build democracy in Afghanistan, the administration should remain attentive, energetic, and faithful to the cause of democracy in Venezuela.

Elliott Abrams is Chairman of the Board of the Vandenberg Coalition, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a former Deputy National Security Advisor. He served as Special Representative for Venezuela in the State Department in 2019 and 2020.

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