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Overcoming the Global Rift on Venezuela

Overcoming The Global Rift On Venezuela

Principal Findings

What’s new? Once a largely domestic affair, the struggle for political supremacy in Venezuela has become a source of geopolitical discord. Partly due to the worsening humanitarian emergency, it remains a vital concern for neighbours. The Venezuelan parties’ recent readiness to negotiate could allow for a more constructive role from foreign powers.

Why does it matter? Outsiders cannot impose an end to the feud between President Nicolás Maduro’s government and the opposition. But neither can the parties resolve the crisis without the tacit consent, and preferably the active involvement, of world powers including the U.S., the European Union, Russia and China.

What should be done? Now on pause, talks between government and opposition will require external mediation, sustained support from foreign allies on both sides, and pledges from abroad of financial and technical support should a settlement eventually be reached.

Executive Summary

Over two decades of political tumult in Venezuela have ended up entangling much of the world. The dispute between the governments of self-proclaimed socialist Hugo Chávez (1999-2013) and his successor Nicolás Maduro, on one side, and an opposition alliance on the other, spread first to Latin America and after that erupted into global feuding. Early in 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump, with the support of the mainstream opposition, openly sought to oust Maduro through “maximum pressure”: harsh economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation and vague threats of military intervention. The bid failed. But it drew a clear dividing line between states supportive of Maduro, including Russia and China, and nearly 60 others that backed the U.S. gambit and opposition leader Juan Guaidó’s “interim presidency”. Three years on, the country remains politically deadlocked and mired in humanitarian emergency. But the two sides returned to the table in 2021. Foreign allies of both sides should urgently back these tentative efforts, which are now stalled, to reach a negotiated settlement for Venezuela.

The consummate charismatic populist, Chávez used cheap oil, generous finance and acts of solidarity to cultivate a circle of close allies in Latin America and the world, with Cuba foremost among them. At the same time, he demonised those who opposed his rule – the U.S. and its acolytes, in particular. But the onset soon after his 2013 death of a devastating economic slump intensified Venezuela’s internal political conflict and extended it far beyond the nation’s borders. Neighbouring countries absorbed most of the massive exodus of migrants, now estimated at six million, fleeing poverty and collapsing public services. Meanwhile, organised crime and armed groups from Colombia looked to turn an illicit profit and collude with cash-starved security forces across the border, sparking Bogotá’s ire. The two states severed relations in 2019.

As the Venezuelan government honed its state security apparatus and adopted a more repressive stance, the U.S. from 2015 onward tightened its sanctions on state officials and eventually expanded them to target whole economic sectors. Numerous countries in Europe and Latin America rallied to this cause after Maduro was re-elected in 2018 amid a mainstream opposition boycott and accusations of fraud. These circumstances led the opposition-held National Assembly to name Guaidó head of state in January 2019. Dozens of states recognised his new “interim government”.

Maduro’s supporters immediately rose up in his defence, leading to vitriolic confrontation on the international stage. Moscow, already a financial, military and diplomatic backer of Caracas, helped it evade sanctions and blocked U.S. efforts to muster support for punitive measures at the UN Security Council. Beijing had also invested heavily in Venezuela, often to its regret, but it likewise joined efforts to safeguard the Maduro government. Turkey and Iran, for their part, emerged as crucial economic partners of the beleaguered South American state.

 Foreign governments might now be in a position to foster rather than hinder a peaceful resolution of the crisis. 

Three years after Guaidó staked his claim and Venezuela’s international partners split into rival blocs, foreign governments might now be in a position to foster rather than hinder a peaceful resolution of the crisis. Government and opposition resumed Norwegian-facilitated negotiations in August 2021 in Mexico City, though the government suspended its participation two months later. A role for foreign powers is explicitly contemplated in the memorandum of understanding signed at the outset of the talks. Russia and the Netherlands have been invited to “accompany” the process. There is also provision for a Group of Friends, comprising an equal number of allies of each side, even if the part these countries will play – and the group’s composition – has yet to be defined.

The talks began amid an international climate in some ways more favourable to a settlement than at any time in the recent past. Under President Joe Biden, Washington has adopted a more multilateral stance and modified Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy, enabling much closer alignment among the U.S., Canada and the European Union on Venezuela. Latin America is more evenly divided than before and, with some exceptions, less bent on kicking Maduro out of office. With support for Guaidó’s claim to the interim presidency eroding, and the Maduro government’s collapse seemingly averted, Russia and China may be less worried about regime change and its effects on their global standing, and more concerned to rescue their depreciating investments.

Even so, achieving consensus across the Venezuelan divide is far from easy given tense relations between major powers, made all the more challenging by the standoff over Ukraine. The U.S. perceives the growing footprint of Russia and China in Latin America as a threat. Neither Moscow nor Beijing is keen to see a settlement that would represent a clear strategic gain for Washington, especially if it would hurt their economic interests, too.

Bringing the various foreign powers on board with compromise will require adapting to their key interests and red lines. The U.S. has a small but influential Venezuela lobby that will actively oppose any agreement it perceives as too lenient with Maduro. Cuba and other Caribbean nations will need assurances that their energy needs will be met. Russia and China will seek guarantees for their investments, particularly in the energy sector, and of the repayment of bilateral debts. Bogotá will be unhappy with any deal that does not address the issue of safe haven in Venezuela for armed groups dedicated to illicit profit-making in Colombia.

Yet these difficulties should not obscure the evidence that champions of both sides have an interest in seeing the impasse resolved. To this end, they should encourage their Venezuelan counterparts to return to the negotiating table and work in good faith to achieve an agreement. They should offer incentives, especially to the government side, for moves toward compromise. They should also be ready to provide assistance of various kinds to skirt obstacles and ensure progress in the talks, from financial aid packages to support for internal security or justice reforms, or by pledging to verify compliance with a final agreement.

The geopolitical rift has made it easier for both sides in Venezuela to turn to foreign allies for support rather than make concessions to domestic foes. But so long as the country is suffering extreme socio-economic distress, all concerned have more to gain from a peaceful, negotiated solution to the long-running crisis.

Caracas/Bogotá/Brussels, 17 February 2022

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