Since January 2019, Venezuela has had two competing presidencies and two starkly different views on how its political struggle should be resolved. It has also had one principal victim, a population exposed to a catastrophic humanitarian crisis.
Over a year on, neither side has achieved its goals: President Nicolás Maduro remains in power, crippling sanctions are still in place and a solution hovers well out of sight.
With the government feeling more confident, as shown by its 5 January seizure of the National Assembly, and the opposition harbouring unrealistic ambitions of swift regime change, outside parties should consider stepping up their involvement, presenting a settlement that restores fair political competition, triggers an early presidential election and incrementally lifts sanctions, and press their respective allies within the country to accept it as a basis for negotiations.
What the opposition sees as the restoration of democracy, the government regards as a foreign-backed coup
At first glance, the gap between the two sides appears unbridgeable. De facto power and control of almost all the country’s institutions are in the hands of Maduro, whose claim to legitimacy is based on a controversial re-election in May 2018, regarded by the opposition and its international allies as a sham perpetrated by a criminal dictator.
The opposition – led by Juan Guaidó, who is recognised as acting president by 59 countries – insists that an early, credible presidential election be held under international observation and demands that Maduro step down before then. But what the opposition sees as the restoration of democracy, the government regards as a foreign-backed coup. It is adamant that the opposition wishes to erase chavismo from the political scene and is using outside (mainly U.S.) support to ensure that the movement created by late President Hugo Chávez, which has ruled Venezuela for 21 years, cannot stage a comeback.
Efforts to reach a peaceful resolution have so far proved fitful and largely fruitless. Several rounds of negotiations have taken place since 2014 but all were marred by mutual suspicion, with the opposition convinced that the government misled it. Over the last year, both camps have flirted with a negotiated solution but have also banked on gaining the upper hand over their rival through the passage of time and the assistance of powerful foreign allies.
The opposition felt that tightening sanctions and the government’s increased international isolation would trigger a rupture within chavista ranks, notably among the military or, alternatively, that the U.S. might forcefully step in; the government hoped that the longer it resisted sanctions with the help of Russia, China and others, the more opposition credibility and unity would erode, the more public support for the opposition would dissipate, and the more Guaidó’s external allies would lose interest.
Time has been particularly unkind to the opposition. Despite earlier hints of U.S. military intervention – and an abortive military uprising on 30 April – as well as ever more draconian sanctions and a domestic economic crash that has spurred the exodus of over 4.8 million Venezuelans, Maduro has not budged. Opposition and U.S. predictions that the armed forces would defect from the government under external pressure have proven false.
As chavismo’s position strengthened, its bid to dislodge Guaidó from his formal post as National Assembly chair, and thus his claim to the interim presidency, climaxed on 5 January when the government placed a military and para-police cordon around the parliament and staged a highly dubious vote to change the leadership.
The opposition is now embroiled in fierce internal debate over whether to take part in parliamentary elections later this year even in the absence of conditions for fair polls.
Yet if the government and chavismo in general now feel more sanguine after weathering the storm of 2019, they hardly have reason to be at ease. The government’s room for manoeuvre, both political and economic, is severely restricted by sanctions; it is regarded as illegitimate by dozens of countries; it faces constant efforts – both open and covert – to oust it from power; and even within its own ranks there are rumblings of discontent over its increasingly authoritarian demeanour. It has achieved undeniable tactical victories, but it has left the core of the problem unaddressed. If it intends to bring back political normalcy and stability, something needs to change.
The most promising effort to date at brokering a negotiated solution has been a series of talks between the two sides, facilitated by the Norwegian government between May and August 2019. But these have broken down, a victim of these headwinds, half-hearted engagement by both sides and, in particular, government obduracy.
Prospects for their resumption are now dim. As described in a previous report, after seven rounds of talks, most recently in Barbados, the government walked away in the wake of newly imposed U.S. sanctions, and the opposition pronounced the format “exhausted” on 15 September 2019. The talks had produced some movement: shortly before they were suspended, the opposition had proposed that power pass temporarily to a ruling council whose members would be appointed by mutual agreement.
The Maduro government did not explicitly reject this latter proposal, and offered to improve electoral conditions, but its negotiators said the president would not quit and that early elections would be possible only one year after the U.S. and others lift sanctions. Its seizure of parliament clearly suggests that at the highest levels of power, willingness to strike a deal is negligible.
The outlines of a potential compromise exist
As Crisis Group’s discussions with more pragmatic chavista and opposition figures suggest, however, the outlines of a potential compromise exist. This report spells it out in the hope that it will encourage future discussion. Neither side will find it fully satisfactory. Indeed, both will inescapably recoil at several of its elements.
But its terms reflect Crisis Group’s best assessment of what the two sides might eventually be able to accept as fair and realistic. The first step on the ladder involves moves toward reducing tensions between the two sides and building mutual confidence.
Should progress be made on that front, a political agreement would rest on three building blocks: 1) steps to level the playing field for parliamentary and then presidential polls; 2) incremental sanctions relief as political progress is made; and 3) legally enshrined guarantees that can mitigate the fears of the eventual losing side in new balloting.
The report also offers suggestions on how to resolve key disputes. The first is over the timing of a new presidential election and whether Maduro would need to step down beforehand. Second is the timing of sanctions relief, and whether any should be provided while Maduro remains in power. A third issue – the military’s future role – has been largely unaddressed by both sides but is critical given the army’s ties to chavismo and its ability to sabotage any agreement of which it disapproves.
Foreign powers and multilateral bodies that recognise the dangers of worsening conflict in Venezuela and are pushing for a negotiated settlement – notably the EU, the UN and Latin American states such as Mexico and Argentina – should have the greatest interest in finding a negotiated way out of this crisis, coming up with or backing a similar proposal, and pushing the parties to accept it as a basis for negotiations.
The UN could also play an essential role in assisting and monitoring the implementation of an eventual political settlement. In the event that Caracas proves intransigent, the EU and Latin American allies should consider stepping up measures targeted at human rights violators and strengthen efforts to clamp down on international financial crimes committed by government officials.
Even those countries firmly opposed to Maduro, such as the U.S. and Colombia, or allied to his government, including Russia and Cuba, should discern the huge benefits for regional stability of supporting a route to a negotiated settlement.
The solutions proposed are not the only possibilities nor even necessarily the best options available. They are intended to spur debate within chavista and opposition ranks, but also among their respective foreign allies and other international stakeholders, about the costs of, and alternatives to, the current deadlock.
The unfortunate truth is that those alternative scenarios – Maduro’s ouster by the military; foreign intervention to topple the government; or the government’s survival despite dire economic conditions while the opposition subsides or its leaders retreat into exile – are either unlikely to occur or unlikely to restore stability and improve Venezuelans’ well-being.
Distant as it now seems from the embittered politics and portents of violence in Caracas, an agreement remains the one sure way to prevent greater calamity from befalling both sides.