This is a short version of the latest briefing of the International Crisis Group on Venezuela, entitled: "Venezuela: Is there life after the Barbados talks?" Read the full briefing here
What’s new? At least for now, Norwegian-facilitated negotiations to end Venezuela’s presidential showdown have collapsed. Meanwhile, President Nicolás Maduro’s government has forged an agreement with minority opposition parties. Together with regional powers’ decision to define Venezuela as a threat to hemispheric security, these developments could complicate a resolution of the crisis.
Why does it matter? Failure to restore political stability and socio-economic well-being in Venezuela fuels South America’s worst-ever refugee crisis, risks a low-intensity internal conflict, propagates tensions across the region and threatens to trigger military clashes with neighbouring Colombia.
What should be done? Allies of the two sides should press them to overcome their reluctance and return to the negotiating table, possibly under a new format, where they should show the necessary flexibility to reach a workable agreement.
After seven rounds of formal talks in Oslo and Barbados, facilitated by the Norwegian government, negotiations between representatives of President Nicolás Maduro and the opposition led by Juan Guaidó – now recognised as the legitimate acting president by 58 countries, including the U.S. – broke down in mid-September. The talks had centred on a six-point agenda, agreed upon in April, to which the Maduro government had contributed just one point – the lifting of U.S. sanctions.
The remaining five were the restoration of constitutional checks and balances; conditions for the holding of elections (understood by the opposition to mean a presidential election, though that was not made explicit); the terms of a transition away from Maduro; peace and reconciliation; and post-electoral guarantees for both sides.
Both sides had reportedly accepted, at least in principle, close to 80 per cent of the action points based on this agenda. Though the talks have been suspended, their resumption remains the best hope for averting a worsening humanitarian emergency and the risk of violence in and around Venezuela.
While both sides have left open the possibility of returning to talks, each has proceeded to activate alternative strategies that undercut the Norwegian initiative
While both sides have left open the possibility of returning to talks, each has proceeded to activate alternative strategies that undercut the Norwegian initiative. As soon as the opposition made public its conclusion that the negotiations’ current phase was at an end, the Maduro government and a group of smaller opposition parties unveiled an agreement of their own, which contemplates the release of some political prisoners, fresh faces on the electoral authority board and the return of government legislators to the opposition-controlled National Assembly.
A week later, on 23 September, sixteen governments from across the Americas that recognise opposition leader Guaidó as acting president agreed to activate a regional defence pact known as the Rio Treaty (formally, the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, or TIAR in Spanish) and announced their intention to impose sanctions as well as pursue, capture and extradite Venezuelan officials involved in human rights abuses and other international crimes. They defined the Venezuelan crisis as a threat to the security of the region as a whole.
On both sides there are those who reject the idea of resuming substantive negotiations. For some in the opposition there can be no dialogue with a government that has repeatedly failed to keep its word and that is, in their view, running not only a dictatorship but what amounts to a “mafia state”.
On Maduro’s side, some argue that the forces arrayed against them seek to destroy the government and the chavista movement – named after the late president Hugo Chávez – as a whole. For them, the only adequate response is to resist as, for example, Cuba has done over the past six decades in the face of U.S. efforts to topple communist rule on the island.
Prospects for a swift return to the table now seem poor
Prospects for a swift return to the table now seem poor. Still, a Norway-type process, albeit with certain modifications – such as more concerted international support and the inclusion of more voices at the negotiating table, above all those of the Venezuelan military – continues to offer the best framework for a deal that would lead to a peaceful, sustainable transition.
If the two sides want to reach a sustainable settlement, the best course is to return to more structured negotiations
Improbable as it seems at present, if the two sides want to reach a sustainable settlement, the best course is to return to more structured negotiations similar to those conducted by Norway. So far neither party has closed off this possibility, and both have even explicitly talked about it.
President Maduro expressed willingness to resume the talks in a speech he gave on his return from a visit to Russia, while the opposition made a similar pledge in a National Assembly resolution on 1 October, in which it defined negotiations as a “necessary mechanism” backed both by the international community and by Venezuelans.
Difficulties that led to the talks’ suspension, as well as other issues that have arisen since then, would need to be addressed. In particular, the parties should consider reaching partial agreements even as they negotiate a more comprehensive deal, not only as a means of generating public support and bolstering the talks’ legitimacy but also in order to address the humanitarian emergency.
The inclusion of additional constituencies – notably, delegations representing the Venezuelan armed forces and minority opposition parties – would also strengthen the process. The organiser – optimally still the Norwegian government, which both sides trust for its discretion and integrity – ought to consider including international players that, while physically and formally absent from the negotiations, have enjoyed significant influence from afar.
One option might be to create an outer ring of participants, such as the U.S. and Russia, as well as regional players including Colombia, Mexico, Argentina and Brazil. The EU’s International Contact Group could play a role in assembling and participating in this circle of diplomatic support.
Lastly, successful talks will require the two sides and their main allies to make further compromises. As our forthcoming companion briefing details, these compromises will be easy neither for the government nor for the opposition to strike or sell to their respective constituents. But they are essential if a viable, sustainable agreement that reverses Venezuela’s catastrophic course and averts a worsening regional crisis is to be reached.