Venezuela and the seven Pandora's Boxes of the South American right

Are the policies of right-wing governments in Latin America towards Venezuela a sign of things to come? Español

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian
8 August 2019, 12.01am
Supporters of Venezuelan President Maduro are holding a doll of the late Hugo Chavez in their hands at a rally marking the anniversary of Maduro's re-election. Caracas, Venezuela, May 2019. PA Images/Pedro Mattey. All rights reserved

The crisis in Venezuela is monumental. The disastrous situation is the product of dynamics, domestic and international actors, although without a doubt the role of the United States contributed to worsen what has been going on for years in the country.

In this way, the case of Venezuela has ceased being local, regional or continental, and has turned into a global problem.

What does it mean that the crisis has become a global matter? Several issues: a) Direct or indirect incidence of multiple state actors (executive and legislative) and non-governmental (political parties, NGO´s, think tanks); b) The impact of the bureaucratic differences and struggles within different administrations; c) Participation of players (governments, corporations, the media) with a global reach and specific goals; d) presence of agents (formal or illegal) unarmed and armed; e) involvement of international institutions (for example the UN) and regional (such as the OAS); f) the scope of coalitions and alliances between domestic and foreign actors; g) increasing pressure on domestic participants and the obstacles in finding solutions.

All of these factors locate Venezuela--and through it, all of Latin America-at the center of “high politics”. The region has become more visible and increasingly embroiled in a geopolitical game of diverse powerful countries with divergent interests and purposes. A two-way process is then created, a push and pull; powers mobilize to demonstrate their power and ensure their influence, while the deteriorating domestic situation facilitates the deployment of interventionist forces.

In this fragile and disturbing context, the issue of Venezuela also highlights the difficulty and inability that all countries of South America had in 2019 to create effective and credible solutions. The crisis is occurring in the context of a withdrawal of the so-called "pink tide" (progressive and national-popular governments) and the rise of what can be called the "neoliberal reflux" (conservative and reactionary governments) in South America.

Consensus of the Hawks

It it is worth stressing the role of the political right in regard to Venezuela. Basically, since the beginning of the year, they prepared to align themselves with the assessment and support the United States policies on Venezuela. The reason for acquiescing to Washington is a mixture of conviction and convenience: ideological proximity (most evident in the Republican presidential and congressional victories), the necessity of US assistance (whether financial, military, diplomatic), domestic political-electoral dynamics (the spreading of the “Bolivarian revolution” to other countries in the region), local effects of the crisis (mass migration), positioning themselves as the “best friend” of the US (Duque, Bolsonaro, Piñera y Macri) for the domestic and international gains that that could be generated, concern for the state of human rights in Venezuela (extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detentions) and potential links with volatile domestic situations (such as Colombia), among others.

Against this backdrop, right-wing governments in South America have approved and adopted a set of actions that could have a significant impact, much like a series of Pandora boxes

More specifically, the right-wing governments of the region adopted the predictions of certain United States hawks, relegating the criteria of their own diplomatic officials with more knowledge on Venezuela and, of course, disregarding the opinion of political opponents in each respective country.

In essence, those Washington decision makers central premises were: 1) the government of Nicolás Maduro was seriously weakened and was undergoing utterly unmanageable disputes that had brought the country to the brink of collapse, the armed forces suffered increasing fissures and were ready to abandon a president they considered illegitimate, a homogeneous and organized opposition was grouped around the figure of Juan Guaidó and in defense of the National Assembly, their society suffered the consequences of a phenomenal economic debacle and was incredibly eager to mobilize and thus generate a popular revolt; 5) despite Russia and China’s interests in Venezuela, neither Moscow nor Beijing could avoid Maduro’s inexorable isolation and 6) the convergence of military threats from President Donald Trump and diplomatic actions coordinated from throughout the region would imminently provoke the collapse of a government labeled as a usurper.

That assessment is compounded by a radical shift by Washington in their policies on Caracas. During Obama´s administration three issues seemed clear: a) the application of targeted and personal sanctions were framed by the logic of “regime opening” with the purpose of encouraging a political transition; b) those sanctions responded, in turn, to the demands and requirements of a Congress controlled in both houses by Republicans and c) the relative cautiousness of the United States towards Venezuela was due, in part, to the existence of a number of center-left governments in the region.

With Trump there were relevant changes: a) "regime change" was the method definitively chosen to force the fall of Maduro's government; b) the domestic dynamic that since mid-2018, and before the legislative election, drove that shift was a result of the importance that certain states (for example, Florida) had regarding the 2020 presidential election; c) the gravity of the military - especially the Southern Command - also increased, not so much because of their concern about the nature of the Venezuelan internal regime that they considered an "outlaw", but because of the increasing presence of Russia and China in South America and d) A new joining of political forces in South America favored the acceptance in the region of a more coercive US strategy towards Venezuela.

Against this backdrop, right-wing governments in South America have approved and adopted a set of actions that could have a significant impact, much like a series of Pandora boxes, on the future of diplomacy and democracy in the region.

Box One: from the Contadora Group to the Lima Group

In 1983, following several conflicts in Central America, the presidents of Colombia, Mexico, Panama and Venezuela created the Contadora Group, a multilateral initiative to promote peace in the region. Governments of different political leanings joined forces with the objective of seeking negotiated political solutions to situations involving different regimes in Central America. Contadora - to which a Support Group formed by Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Uruguay was added in 1985 - had its own realistic assessment of the situation.

It intended to create political and diplomatic spaces so that Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala did not place themselves at the epicenter of the typical Cold War disputes. It was able to unfurl the components of the various national circumstances that were at stake and set specific procedures, processes and policies regarding them. It understood that it was crucial there was no displacement of Central American political-military confrontations to neighboring countries (especially Colombia which was experiencing its own armed conflict): it was necessary to avoid the internationalization of the low-intensity conflict that spanned across Central America. No one wanted to enter the tumultuous strategic dispute between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The Lima Group acted very differently: created in August 2017, it went from encouraging a bloodless exit to the crisis in Venezuela to isolating and fencing off Caracas since the beginning of 2019. While it tried to adopt a “Latin American” assessment (its original members included countries from South America, Central America, the Caribbean and Mexico), it ended up embracing the US assessment.

Its recent inquiries into certain extra-regional actors did not prevent Washington and Moscow from sitting down to elucidate perspectives and interests on Venezuela. Many of the Lima Group’s announcements meant only an increase in criticism of Maduro, without any political effect.

Along the way, the Group began to dismantle, with the departure of Mexico and Uruguay, and the decision of several members to adopt less belligerent positions that were diplomatically in line, though still moderate, in favor of the dialogue initiated by the International Contact Group for Venezuela composed of European and Latin American countries, as well as conversations in Oslo between the Venezuelan government and the opposition, among other attempts at mediation.

To put it briefly: if Contadora was a negotiation inititiave for Central America, the Lima Group was an initiative to fence off Venezuela. The lessons of the past do not appear to have served the right-wing governments of South America in regaining the constructive experience which had managed to elude their ideological disagreements.

Pushing, consciously or unconsciously, for the Venezuelan military to adopt a decisive role in the middle of the monumental political crisis the country is currently experiencing, is certainly dangerous.

Box Two: from UNASUR to PROSUR

Although Unasur, created in 2008, had milestones in the fields of diplomatic consultation and conflict resolution, a number of different factors converged and facilitated the deterioration of that organization: a) the waning interest of Brazil – first during Rousseff's second term and later with Temer's brief presidency - to invest diplomatic resources in South America; b) the unfortunate election of former President Ernesto Samper as head of the General Secretariat of the Union of South American Nations; c) acephaly in the management of Unasur since the beginning of 2017; d) the failure of the good faith negotiations sponsored by the organization with the participation of former state government leaders José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Leonel Fernández and Martín Torrijos, given the deepening crisis in Venezuela; e) the mediocre presidency pro tempore of Argentina between April 2017 and April 2018 that never called for a summit of heads of state, foreign ministers or defense ministers; f) the suspended participation of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Peru and Paraguay in the South American block just when the pro tempore presidency passed to Bolivia and h) the indefinite departure of Colombia (August 2018), Ecuador (March 2019) and Argentina (April 2019) from the consultation panel.

Unasur was brought to its deathbed with the proposal of presidents Iván Duque and Sebastián Piñeira to create Prosur. The formal launch of this initiative in March of this year was a new leap away from regional multilateralism that is characterized by its high formalization and low institutionalization.

The organization was formed at a time when the United States once again proclaimed the validity of the antiquated Monroe Doctrine and resumed the rhetoric of "gunboat diplomacy." According to the proponents of Prosur, its main purpose is the defense of democracy and the market economy, meanwhile the expressly ideological interest of its members is revealed. Its first political act was a declaration signed by Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile and Paraguay that aimed to undermine the autonomy and independence of the bodies of the Inter-American human rights system: the Court and the Commission.

This coincided with the 40th anniversary of the visit of the IACHR to Argentina in 1979, 40 years since their report made the deplorable state of human rights in the country visible worldwide and brought the regime to its breaking point. In summary, even with all its limitations and contradictions, Unasur aimed to reach agreements, while Prosur seems inclined only to denounce.

So-called "governments in exile" have not been unusual throughout the twentieth century

Box Three: The Politicization of Financial Multilateralism

A few hours after the failed coup d'etat against Hugo Chavez in April 2002, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced its readiness, without hesitation, to support the administration of the coupist Pedro Carmona. Neither the World Bank nor the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) nor the Andean Development Corporation spoke of the matter. Having learned their lesson, in 2011 and following the situation in Libya, the IMF said it would recognize the new government after the 187 member countries did.

Despite that bad experience, the current IDB president Luis Alberto Moreno recognized Juan Guaidó as president of Venezuela. Days later, the board of governors of the Bank approved the replacement of the official representative of Nicolas Maduro´s government by an envoy of Guaidó, Ricardo Hausemann.

To make that decision, more than 50% of the votes had to be obtained. The United States, which has 30% of the power on the IDB board, together with Argentina and Brazil, each of which have 11%, plus Chile, Paraguay and Colombia, approved the designation of the president of the National Assembly´s delegate. This, in turn, resulted in an unprecedented diplomatic incident: The Inter-American Development Bank was to celebrate its 60th anniversary in Chengdu, China. Beijing, which recognizes Maduro's government, denied Hausmann's entry visa - who had published an article in 2018 proposing a US military intervention, seconded by Latin American countries, to end the Venezuelan crisis. The United States threatened to boycott the meeting in China if Guaidó´s delegate's visa was not granted. As there was no positive response, the IDB canceled its meeting in Chengdu. For the first time in history, a bank in the region politicized the provision of credit to a Latin American country: and at the time the bank announced that it would release loans for Venezuela if Maduro resigned.

Box Four: Asserting the Duality of Power

So-called "governments in exile" have not been unusual throughout the twentieth century. It is usually a leader and his group of political supporters who claim to be legitimate in their country but, for different reasons, cannot exercise power; and therefore must reside abroad. The effectiveness of this type of government is linked to the support it obtains from different States and the level of support from citizens within the nation. The legitimacy of a government in exile is only achieved when it obtains legal power within its own country.

Through the Lima and Prosur Group, Latin America as a whole has decided to try a new approach: to affirm the duality of power in Venezuela despite the fact that one of them - the one represented by Guaido - does not possess or exercise any of the attributes of a government or its basic functions. Questioning the legitimacy of Maduro does not guarantee, ipso facto, the legitimacy of Guaidó; and even less so when Maduro has the fundamental resources of an executive and, proportionally, has much more international recognition than that of the president of the National Assembly. This history of encouraging the duality of power in a country can generate unpredictable tensions in the nations of the region, today shaken by varying degrees of instability and polarization.

Box Five: The Weight of the Military

With the advent of the new democratic wave of the 1980s throughout the region, it was in no way institutionally complicated to assign the military with a key role in dealing with major political crises. In the cases of Jamil Mahuad in Ecuador, in 2000; by Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, in 2002; by Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti, in 2004; by Manuel Zelaya, in Honduras, in 2009; by Rafael Correa in Ecuador, in 2010; by Fernando Lugo in Paraguay, in 2012; and of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, in 2016, the vast majority of Latin American countries critiqued, contested or disowned the role of the armed forces as the architects of a new institutional order or political regime.

On the contrary, following Washington's recommendation to tout the military as drivers of "change" in Venezuela, South America seemed willing to summon them as the central figures of the Venezuelan "transition" without recognizing the potential chaos that this can generate. The one who best expressed the involvement of the armed forces, the merit of its rift and the regional role regarding it, was President Iván Duque, who in a recent interview for La Nación (06/10/2019) said: “Venezuela has never been so close to the end of the dictatorship… A diplomatic siege has been implemented as has never been seen, with 50 countries that recognize the legitimacy of Guaidó. This has facilitated the fracture of the Venezuelan military forces.”

This type of statement is even more disturbing in the context of what I call the return of the military issue to the region, understood as the participation of the military in state management. The so-called “war on drugs” with its epicenter in Colombia, Mexico and Central America has shown the costs and ravages of the militarization of the fight against drug trafficking and the pernicious effects of blurring the functions of the armed forces and security forces.

The clout of Jair Bolsonaro´s army in Brazil, post-conflict Colombia´s deterioration, the specter of any new wave of extrajudicial executions by the military, the appearance in Argentina and Uruguay of presidential candidates of military origin, and the involvement of the armed forces in the fight against organized crime in Central America, among others, are warning signs that cannot be ignored.

Pushing, consciously or unconsciously, for the Venezuelan military to take a decisive role in the middle of the monumental political crisis the country is currently experiencing is certainly dangerous.

The humanitarian situation in Venezuela is frankly bleak. Societal hardships, in terms of food, health, and energy supply, are immense

Box Six: Instrumental Humanitarianism

The humanitarian situation in Venezuela is frankly bleak. Societal hardships, in terms of food, health, and energy supply, are immense. Consequently, the violations of fundamental rights have worsened. The combination of these conditions contributes to the accelerating exodus of Venezuelans who, to a large extent, have migrated to the neighboring countries of South America.

Therefore, there was relevance in the 2018 resolution of the Human Rights Council of the United Nations - 23 votes in favor, 7 against and 17 abstentions - exhorting the government of Nicolás Maduro to accept humanitarian assistance. However, as time went on, the United States, in conjunction with the Lima Group, transformed a humanitarian necessity into a tool for diplomatic action aimed at isolating Maduro, producing any kind of reaction and a civic-military revolt.

Latin America has historically committed itself to the principles of humanitarianism and the dictates of the International Committee of the Red Cross; that is, humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence and universality. These dictates were followed in the crises in Central America of the late 1970s and early 1980s; as well as during the prolonged armed conflict in Colombia; in response to the serious and recurring events in Haiti since the 1990s; and it was repeated after regional natural disasters for decades.

However, in the case of Venezuela, a large part of the countries of the region - especially the right-wing governments of South America - decided to move away from the tradition that had earned them international prestige. The emblematic event was Juan Guaidó´s call on February 23, 2019, for the humanitarian aid accumulated in Cúcuta, a Colombian border city, to finally enter into Venezuela that same day. In support of that purpose the president of Chile, Sebastián Piñera, traveled to the Colombian-Venezuelan border despite the unusual nature of that action.

Hopes were dashed and the event became a fiasco. The alleged "D-Day", which would have been the turning point of the Venezuelan crisis, never materialized. Instead of trusting - as South America had always done - the UN agencies and the Red Cross to render humanitarian assistance, the region chose to attempt to render it themselves based on a US strategy aimed at provoking the fall of the Maduro government. They were unsuccessful.

Perhaps some right-wing governments in South America have understood how costly it is to alter a tradition that was consistently supported by administrations of varying ideological leanings. For decades "protecting the humanitarian interest" was a common policy of various leaders and parties in the region; "unprotecting it" is, essentially, risky.

Box Seven: Silence in the Face of Sanctions

It is important to remember that in Latin America, and following the US blockade on Cuba, material sanctions did not enjoy a favorable reputation. Over time it was observed that they had little effect on the opening of the political system and they were strongly condemned by public opinion in each respective nation.

The standardization of diplomatic relations among countries of the region with Cuba caused a broad agreement regarding the rejection of the blockade; especially through annual voting at the UN. Obviously, the blockade imposed by Washington on Havana for decades cannot be equated with the recent financial, economic and oil sanctions applied by the United States to Venezuela. However, the absence of criticism from the region regarding the use of sanctions is striking.

Usually, South America did not criticize the use of personal and targeted sanctions by the United States against a country in the area, sanctions which included bans on entering the country and the freezing of bank accounts, among others. Resorting to material and massive sanctions means a notable leap forward by the Washington´s punitive arsenal.

On one hand, it implies a selective use of sanctions, whose criteria vary depending on what happens in certain countries. On the other hand, the sanctions affect the government but also, and to a much greater degree, the population: the administration has less income but the society suffers the deprivations caused by sanctions. Neither progressive nor right-wing governments has contested US policy and there does not seem to be anyone willing to disagree with the Trump administration on this issue, as both leanings of governments have a delicate agenda when dealing with the United States.

All Is Not Lost

The crisis in Venezuela is, basically, a product of the Venezuelans. The best alternative is one that combines a solid and sustainable political, legal and ethical exit. That is, perhaps, the only bloodless option. It implies a package of interwoven and time-successive measures: genuine political dialogue, an applicable agreement, and a call for future elections.

Any negotiated solution is based on what experts call a “hurting stalemate”, in which neither party can succeed, and yet at the same time neither agrees to yield. The general feeling (or conviction) becomes that the conflict between the parties will only prolong and stagnate. In turn, both sides begin to recognize that the costs of continuing the confrontation outweigh the hypothetical benefits of triumph.

The question then becomes whether or not Venezuela is approaching that “hurting stalemate” and whether or not the main international actors involved in the country´s crisis are facilitating that such an impasse be reached.

In that context, Latin America's challenge is to reclaim some of its best traditions to support in the creation of a peaceful and political solution in Venezuela. The question is: will the right-wing governments of South America be willing to alter their behaviors and objectives to reach that exit, or will they continue to support Washington with a strategy that could produce even more instability and greater chaos in Venezuela and the region?


This article was previously published in Spanish by Revista Crisis. Translation by Morgan Godvin.

We’ve got a newsletter for everyone

Whatever you’re interested in, there’s a free openDemocracy newsletter for you.

Unete a nuestro boletín ¿Qué pasa con la democracia, la participación y derechos humanos en Latinoamérica? Entérate a través de nuestro boletín semanal. Suscríbeme al boletín.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData