Demonstrators during a march against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas on April 19, 2017. NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.
Without a doubt, today Venezuela is facing the most painful and far-reaching crisis in the Americas. The degradation of the current scenario will be catastrophic for all Venezuelans and may have harmful spill-over effects for Latin America (especially, Colombia), the Caribbean (Cuba, in particular), and even the United States (for example, in terms of refugees and oil provision). By now, the international community knows how much the economy has deteriorated, how deep and strong political polarization is, and how ineffective the isolated external involvement has been. In essence, the country is caught in an unstable negative situation. Most socio-economic indicators are unfavourable and the degree of social unrest and institutional erosion is pervasive; however, there is an apparent political standoff and no open division within the Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana. This peculiar condition may thus pave the way for a negotiated solution. It is crucial to avoid a national implosion and a regional nightmare. Odd as it may seem, precariousness is better than disarray. Fragility can be fixed; disorder can result in chaos.
Let us start with the end game, and then move backwards: by early 2018 there should be a general election, an opposition candidate is going to win and Chavism--the political movement associated with former President Hugo Chávez--will have to accept the result. Three underlying agreements are crucial: the idea that anybody can perpetuate him or herself in power is unacceptable, now and in the future; the incoming administration must avoid political retaliation and social persecution of the outgoing government of Nicolás Maduro; and Chavism must operate as an ordinary left-wing party within the system and not as an anti-systemic, violent-prone political force.
How can this outcome be achieved? Eight major elements need to be clarified. First, the cornerstone of any good-faith commitment between the government and the opposition must be the preservation of democracy, the protection of human rights, and prioritizing peaceful transition. This is a pledge that can be only established among Venezuelans--for, in the end, no foreign party can compel its Venezuelan counterparts. Second, regional elections must be held in 2017, under supervision and monitoring by legitimate international actors. It is very likely that opposition forces will achieve significant gains and that the government will manage to secure some strongholds. Third, it is fundamental to maintain the unity of the armed forces and that no one, inside or outside the country, calls for a coup d'état. In addition, it is major risk for the Venezuelan military to allow the civilian militia, created in 2007, to now become heavily armed and transform itself into a sort of vicious, Haitian-style “tonton macoutes”.
Fourth, continent-wide cohesion is crucial. MERCOSUR, the Southern Common Market; UNASUR, the Union of South American Nations; CELAC, the Latin American and Caribbean Community of States; and the OAS, the Organization of American States, should agree on key guiding principles and initiatives vis-à-vis the Venezuelan crisis, and key actors (the United States, Cuba, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, among others) should strive to influence and lead the different actors in Venezuela towards a non-violent, political solution. Fifth, the economic reconstruction of the country will take several years but, in the meantime, with the aim of alleviating the dramatic economic situation of the poorest and more vulnerable sectors of the population, the contribution of some multilateral banks can be very relevant. For example, the Maduro government must consider approaching the Development Bank of Latin America (CAF), the Inter-American Development Bank, and the World Bank and ask for emergency credits to avoid having Venezuela sink into a devastating, chronic recession.
Sixth, step-by-step signals by the government must begin immediately with actions such as the release of political figures and the respect for non-violent protests, among others. Seventh, the different opposition groups, which in fact are split and lack a coherent, long-term strategy, should act with responsibility and rationality in their demands and actions. And eight, there are two questions that can generate a minimum compromise between a weakened government and a divided opposition: reconstruct the oil industry and fight organized crime. The worsening of the petroleum business and the advance of criminality has negative consequences for everyone in Venezuela, today and in the future.
Turmoil can still be avoided. There is still a small window of opportunity to resolve the Venezuelan crisis by political, negotiated means. Time is key. Realistic, non-violent alternatives always need willingness on the part of fundamental actors. Realism does not imply inaction waiting for the worst to happen.