What’s new? After years of political turmoil, elections for Venezuela’s National Assembly ended in a predictable victory for President Nicolás Maduro. Mainstream opposition parties boycotted the poll and, alongside the U.S. and Latin American and European countries, accuse the government of rigging the elections.
Why does it matter? Elimination of the opposition majority in parliament will greatly complicate efforts to resolve the standoff with the government. The boycott split the opposition, and dwindling support for its leader Juan Guaidó raises questions about who might face the government in future negotiations.
What should be done? The opposition should affirm that it backs a negotiated settlement, disavowing the government’s violent overthrow. To usher in talks, Maduro should release political prisoners and rein in the secret police, while the incoming U.S. administration should reconsider sanctions that cause humanitarian harm and seek multilateral solutions to the crisis.
The 6 December parliamentary elections marked yet another setback in efforts to forge a peaceful settlement to the country’s political conflict. The mainstream opposition led by outgoing parliamentary head Juan Guaidó boycotted the poll on the grounds that it was neither free nor fair. After the victory of President Nicolás Maduro’s ruling party, the opposition’s legislative mandate will expire on 5 January. From that moment on, it will be absent from parliament and every other Venezuelan elected institution, barring a few local and regional governments where its position is tenuous. Many of the nearly 60 countries that support Guaidó, including the U.S., as well as most of the EU and Venezuela’s neighbours, have indicated they do not accept the electoral results. Although the two sides are deadlocked and full-scale negotiations premature, partial agreements between them – especially on humanitarian issues – more flexibility by foreign powers, and clear guarantees for both sides might still point to a way out of Venezuela’s crisis.
Coming after Guaidó’s two-year campaign to overthrow Maduro, the standoff looks set to hinder resolution of the country’s protracted political crisis, which is the root cause of its economic collapse and the humanitarian emergency that has forced over five million Venezuelans to emigrate. Maduro has completed a clean sweep of the country’s institutions, following five years in which the opposition-controlled parliament – although prevented from exercising its functions – provided space to contest the government. In the new, expanded National Assembly, legislators aligned with the government will hold 257 of the 277 seats.
In response, the opposition leadership has mostly backed Guaidó’s decision to insist on the existing parliament’s legitimacy until free elections are held. But this attempt to extend the assembly’s lease on life will be vulnerable to state intimidation. Guaidó himself could be forced to choose between being prosecuted and joining most of his close collaborators outside the country, potentially giving rise to some form of government in exile.
At the same time, the opposition is once again splitting into factions: a handful of smaller opposition parties (including some that are mere government appendages) participated in the elections and will have a few seats in the new parliament. Other elements favour further negotiations with the Maduro government to improve conditions for future elections, including regional polls in 2021, a possible recall referendum in 2022 and the presidential vote set for 2024. Yet other elements hope for foreign military intervention. An exiled political leadership will inevitably find itself increasingly divorced from, and probably at odds with, those left behind. As a result of these internal divisions, the question of who represents the opposition in any potential negotiation will be harder to answer.
The proven failure of the “maximum pressure” policy coupled with the arrival of a new U.S. administration, offers an opportunity to overhaul the strategy and restructure Venezuela’s opposition.
Even so, the proven failure of the “maximum pressure” policy, applied by the Trump administration and the Guaidó-led opposition in a bid to oust Maduro, coupled with the arrival of a new U.S. administration, offers an opportunity to overhaul the strategy and restructure Venezuela’s opposition. The incoming Biden administration could opt for a more flexible policy with multilateral backing and might consider lifting the sanctions that cause the greatest humanitarian harm. Indeed, and despite winning the elections, the Maduro government faces a deepening socio-economic disaster made worse by COVID-19; is in dire need of economic and financial relief; and has strong incentives to negotiate a relaxation of U.S. sanctions. Whether it will be willing to consider any concession that loosens its hold on power will be the key question.
Government and opposition are leagues apart at present, and any attempt to return immediately to full-scale negotiations would likely flounder. But the seeming intractability of the main dispute should not preclude the two sides from reaching partial agreements in the interim. Steps to alleviate human suffering, under UN auspices, are an obvious place to start, including lifting U.S. sanctions that can be proven to cause humanitarian harm. The government for its part should immediately release all political prisoners and disband the repressive FAES secret police. Outside actors who support Guaidó can help by seizing the opportunity of a new U.S. administration to coordinate their positions, dropping the demand that Maduro must step down before initial elements of a transition can proceed.
Most important, government and opposition should adjust their zero-sum thinking in line with political reality: the government needs to accept that the crisis will not end without a free and fair election, while the opposition needs to accept that this contest will be possible only when both sides have received credible guarantees that the loser will be protected from majoritarian abuses. It would be best to hammer out these guarantees as part of a process of comprehensive, internationally backed negotiations. If such negotiations are to take place, the opposition will have to reunite around a policy that commands popular support, and the government will have to recognise it as a valid interlocutor.
Venezuela’s prospects after the 6 December elections may appear dim, but the country’s beleaguered citizenry deserves much better than inaction born of despair.
Caracas/Bogotá/Brussels, 21 December 2020
The triumph of Nicolás Maduro’s ruling party in the 6 December elections for Venezuela’s National Assembly completes the president’s step-by-step takeover of the country’s major political institutions. Faced with a sweeping opposition victory in the 2015 legislative elections that threatened his hold on power, he had the outgoing parliament pack the Supreme Court with unconditional loyalists, then used it to declare null and void all decisions taken by the new National Assembly. As a substitute, in 2017 he convened a National Constituent Assembly through an election that the opposition boycotted; this rival assembly never produced a new constitution and is now to be wound up. Earlier in 2020, the Supreme Court appointed a new board for the National Electoral Council, the body in charge of running the nation’s elections, arguing that parliament had failed to fulfil its duty to do so. The majority of members on the electoral board are close to the government.
This report surveys the political and diplomatic landscape following the latest electoral exercise in Venezuela. It is based on dozens of interviews over the course of 2020 with Maduro government figures, dissident members of the chavista movement that the president inherited from the late Hugo Chávez, opposition politicians, diplomats, aid workers and independent experts, as well as Crisis Group’s years of engagement with all the actors in Venezuela’s tragic story. Building on past Crisis Group work, it concludes with some recommendations for how the government and opposition can get back to the comprehensive negotiations that are the only peaceful path forward for the country.
In light of the circumstances, the results of the 6 December elections were hardly surprising. The main government party and its allies won 257 of the 277 seats. Non-government parties, which failed to unite around a single ticket, obtained around 30 per cent of the vote, and a non-proportional voting system left them with just 20 seats, 7 per cent of the total, and a largely symbolic presence in the new parliament. The election authority put turnout at 31.5 per cent, although opposition observers claimed it was much lower. The mainstream opposition led by Juan Guaidó, president of the current National Assembly, whose five-year mandate ends on 5 January 2021, refused to take part, calling the elections a sham. The U.S., EU member states and many other nations – nearly 60 of which recognise Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president – share the view that the poll was neither free nor fair. Among the most important reported flaws in the process are:
- The National Electoral Council was appointed by the government-controlled Supreme Court, not by parliament as the constitution stipulates. It is not an autonomous body.
- The council had already denied most opposition parties registration and the Supreme Court handed control of some parties to minority factions willing to play by government-imposed rules.
- The election regulations (changed less than six months prior to the elections, in violation of the constitution) guaranteed the over-representation of the largest party, the ruling United Socialist Part of Venezuela (PSUV).
- In defiance of the constitution, the government increased the number of legislators from 167 to 277; forty-eight “national” deputies were not directly elected but chosen from party lists based on the aggregate of votes cast at state level; indigenous deputies were not chosen by universal secret ballot.
The mainstream opposition’s refusal to take part deprived Guaidó’s “interim government” of the chance to renew its slender constitutional claim to legitimacy, which now hinges primarily on international recognition. The net effect is to further complicate efforts to achieve a peaceful settlement between the sides, restore legitimate state rule and address the humanitarian emergency that has led more than one in six Venezuelans to leave the country.
Maduro can fairly be said to have won – for now – the political feud that began in January 2019, when Guaidó first challenged his claim to the presidency. This, despite the fact that the parties that support the opposition leader say they will continue to recognise the “interim government”, pending genuinely free elections. In a bid to obtain some form of renewed mandate, they held a consultative referendum, conducted largely online from 7-12 December, although the process was fraught with difficulties. Claiming that almost 6.5 million people took part, at home and abroad, Guaidó called it a “fundamental step” toward the reorganisation of the opposition movement and called for mass, nationwide demonstrations on 5 January to support the current parliament’s continuity, in defiance of the Maduro government.
Within the mainstream opposition coalition, there are rumblings of discontent with Guaidó’s leadership and strategy.
Within the mainstream opposition coalition, whose nucleus is the G4 group of parties that held most seats in the outgoing parliament, there are rumblings of discontent with Guaidó’s leadership and strategy. A splinter movement led by former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles of Primero Justicia (who came close to beating Maduro in the 2013 election) and Stalin González of Un Nuevo Tiempo sought and failed to win better election conditions, and ultimately pulled out. But the split put further strain on a movement that has lost much of the impetus it gained in 2019. Primero Justicia proposed a rotating leadership, without success.
III.The Road Ahead for Government and Opposition
A.A Survival Strategy under Sanctions and COVID-19
Even before the December elections assured him total control over almost all the country’s institutions, the coronavirus pandemic had been relatively kind to Maduro. As soon as the government publicly acknowledged the first Venezuelan case of COVID-19, on 13 March, the president put lockdown measures in place, clearing the streets just as Guaidó was beginning a fresh protest campaign.
The repressive nature of Maduro’s rule is documented in reports from the UN high commissioner for human rights and a UN Human Rights Council fact-finding mission.
The increasingly authoritarian government restricted movement to contain contagion, but it also clamped down further on press freedom and centralised power to a greater extent. The repressive nature of Maduro’s rule is documented in reports from the UN high commissioner for human rights and a UN Human Rights Council fact-finding mission. In December, the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor reported that she saw a “reasonable basis” to believe Venezuelan civilian authorities, members of the armed forces and pro-government individuals had committed crimes against humanity. The prosecutor’s office is completing its “preliminary examination” into allegations and will likely decide in 2021 whether to pursue a full investigation. Particularly notable among these accusations is the use of uniformed and non-uniformed security forces and para-police units for the persecution of dissidents, with methods such as forced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial executions. For certain officers, the pandemic has brought more opportunities to extract bribes and hide misdeeds.
It is true that the government has faced an unprecedented socio-economic collapse, made worse by U.S. sanctions and the pandemic. By 2018, prior to the sectoral sanctions imposed by Washington, GDP had already fallen from over $200 billion in 2013 to around $80 billion. By 2019’s end, the economy was already more than two thirds smaller than it was when Maduro came to power in 2013. Sanctions, coming on top of a sustained decline in production of oil and derivatives, have particularly exacerbated the acute shortage of fuel, curtailing even essential travel and crippling the transport system. Meanwhile, oil exports have plummeted, from a high of over three million barrels per day in the early 2000s to around 0.5 million barrels per day in recent months, and for the first time in 100 years a non-oil product – gold – is earning more export dollars than petroleum. The sanctions also compel the government to operate largely in cash, and many foreign companies will not trade with Venezuela for fear of incurring secondary U.S. sanctions.
The socio-economic meltdown has had mixed political effects. It has made the government dependent on a few countries that are also sanctioned (like Iran) or the few countries that are willing to risk secondary U.S. sanctions (China and Russia). That said, it has also arguably helped the government crush organised opposition by forcing millions to emigrate and leaving most of the remainder dependent on state welfare.
Attributing the country’s economic misery almost exclusively to the impact of the sanctions, Maduro has given clear signs as to how he intends to proceed in 2021.
Attributing the country’s economic misery almost exclusively to the impact of the sanctions – or what he calls “the blockade” – Maduro has given clear signs as to how he intends to proceed in 2021. One clue is provided by the Anti-Blockade Law, approved by the National Constituent Assembly on 8 October. In essence, the law allows the government to waive any legal or regulatory restrictions it deems necessary to circumvent sanctions, as well as declaring any pertinent documents confidential. It empowers the authorities to modify the composition of joint ventures in which the state is a participant – bypassing laws introduced by Maduro’s predecessor and mentor Hugo Chávez requiring it to maintain majority control – and waive restrictions on the export of minerals and other strategic goods, in order to stimulate investment. All proceeds from these investments will go into a special fund operating outside the normal budgetary process and exempt from the supervision of parliament, even one dominated by the ruling PSUV party.
Approved without debate by the Constituent Assembly (itself elected amid great controversy, in 2017, and wholly occupied by pro-government loyalists), the law was condemned by a number of leading chavistas, including at least four assembly members. Using the pretext of sanctions, the government’s intent is to manage the country’s economy and finances at its own discretion and without oversight. While government’s off-the-books spending practices go back to the Chávez era, the law appears destined to encourage greater corruption in both the public and private sectors. The only foreign investors or traders likely to be attracted by a regulatory framework of this nature are those already operating outside the bounds of international law or those protected by governments prepared to ignore sanctions. As the Maduro government loses its ability to obtain hard currency and sustain the level of imports the country requires, it is relying ever more heavily on allies that find themselves in similar circumstances or are willing to challenge the sanctions regime.
B.Tensions in the Government Bloc
On 20 October, Maduro announced his intention to have the new legislature approve a Communal Parliament Law, obliging it to seek the approval of the communes – a network of local committees set up by Chávez – for any measure it wants to pass. The communes, which Chávez envisaged as an eventual substitute for the “bourgeois state”, are dominated by the ruling party and operate outside the framework established in the 1999 constitution, eschewing secret ballots and overlapping with local government’s conventional structures. As some analysts point out, Maduro has frequently promised at election time to introduce the communal state, but never followed through. Many communes languish forgotten or have simply disappeared, and the law – if eventually passed – may become a dead letter. Even so, by demanding that the new National Assembly subordinate itself to the communes’ writ, the president is signalling that he will keep parliament in check.
A bigger question is whether – now that the immediate challenge from the opposition has faded – the strains within chavismo will resurface. Several of the minor parties that previously made up the pro-government coalition Gran Polo Patriótico broke with the PSUV ahead of the 6 December elections to form the Alianza Popular Revolucionaria. The government responded with Supreme Court rulings that snatched control of two of them – Patria para Todos and the Partido Tupamaro – and handed it to government loyalists. A third, the Partido Comunista de Venezuela, reported a visit by the secret police, or SEBIN, to one of its regional headquarters. Juan Barreto, a former pro-government mayor of greater Caracas, took his leftist movement REDES – which has not been allowed to register as a party – into an alliance with a former opposition presidential candidate, Claudio Fermín, and his party Soluciones.
These dissident organisations regard themselves as representing the legacy of the late President Chávez, in contrast to what they see as its betrayal by the Maduro government, which in turn increasingly treats them as counter-revolutionaries. The Cuadrantes de Paz (or Cupaz), a recently formed para-police group, attacked an Alianza Popular Revolucionaria protest in central Caracas on 15 October, for instance. In addition to complaints about corruption and the increasing privatisation and dollarisation of the economy, these left-wing critics of the government stress the breakdown of public services, hunger and disease – issues that lie behind an increasing number of demonstrations across the country. In the lead-up to the 6 December elections, such protests increased noticeably in areas formerly considered bastions of chavismo.
Fractures in the chavista ranks may become increasingly visible.
Fractures in the chavista ranks may become increasingly visible. Around 20 per cent of the electorate reportedly comprises Chávez supporters who are now disaffected, some because of the sharp drop in their standard of living, others because they regard the Maduro government as having betrayed core principles of chavismo, primarily through an increasingly brazen free-market economic policy but also through a lack of internal democracy and human rights violations. At present, however, there is no national political figure capable of leading the dissidents, and without such a leader the discontent may remain largely latent. Nor would dissenters necessarily behave as a coherent bloc.
C.A Divided Opposition
Following his assumption of the “interim presidency” in January 2019, Juan Guaidó succeeded in uniting most of the disparate currents that make up the Venezuelan opposition. The notable exception was the group of small parties that favour electoral participation whatever the conditions, and whose principal figure is former chavista state governor Henri Falcón of Avanzada Progresista. But the successive failures associated with the “maximum pressure” strategy of Guaidó and the U.S., as well as the breakdown of the Norwegian-facilitated negotiating process (which the opposition leadership declared “exhausted” in September 2019), prompted declining popularity and a reassertion of rival leaderships. The challenge to Guaidó came to a head over the question of how to approach the end of the 2016-2021 parliamentary mandate and the December elections, particularly whether or not to insist on continuation of the current National Assembly and preservation of his own position as “interim president”.
Part of this challenge comes from hardline opposition factions intent on removing Maduro at any cost. María Corina Machado, whose faction (Soy Venezuela) favours foreign military intervention, rejected Guaidó’s 19 August invitation to opposition leaders to sign a unity pact. She outlined her rejection of the idea of negotiations of any kind with the government and insistence on the use of force in an open letter shortly afterward. Guaidó’s message in September to the UN General Assembly (which does not recognise his presidency) appeared aimed at placating her, by calling on member states and UN Secretary-General António Guterres to consider the application of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine in Venezuela in view of the government’s crimes against humanity that the UN fact-finding mission reported in September. But although Machado allies welcomed this call as long overdue, it falls short of what they demand. Machado considers Guaidó erratic and insufficiently committed to a military solution.
On the opposition’s other wing, the rift with moderates who favour negotiations to improve electoral conditions even if Maduro remains in power also shows no sign of healing. This tendency coalesced before the legislative elections around the figure of Henrique Capriles, the former presidential candidate who remains a member of the G4 party Primero Justicia. Unlike the parties that eventually took part in the 6 December poll, this group is not prepared to participate regardless of electoral conditions, but its leaders argue that even a rigged election could be an opportunity to advance their cause.
There has been fierce internal debate over how, or even whether, to keep alive the current parliament in order to sustain the argument that its leader, Guaidó, is the legitimate president. Some in the leadership maintained that it should remain in session on the basis of “administrative continuity”, but this legal principle applies to the bureaucracy rather than to elected bodies or individuals. Many opposition legislators also fear that they could be rounded up and jailed for impersonating a congressional deputy after 5 January. The majority favours leaving in charge a skeleton assembly, known as a legislative commission, comprising just a score of members, perhaps separated in some way from the “interim government”. Whatever the decision, there is a clear risk that those defying Maduro in this way may be jailed or driven abroad, leading to the establishment of a government in exile.
As for Guaidó himself, the future is likewise hedged with uncertainty. On 20 November, Maduro announced that he would ask the incoming National Assembly to set up a commission to investigate alleged corruption on Guaidó’s part and prepare the ground for a “public trial”. It is a move that may be intended to force Guaidó to flee the country, although he himself and other opposition leaders insist that he means to remain in Venezuela.
IV.Economic and Social Collapse
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Venezuela was suffering the most severe economic contraction in Latin American history, and one of the most catastrophic ever seen in a country not at war. The economy shrank by 65 per cent from 2013 to 2019, and by the end of 2020 will be just one fifth of the size it was when Maduro took power. Since late 2017 this depression has been combined with hyperinflation. The National Assembly puts accumulated inflation in January to October 2020 at over 1,799 per cent and the inter-annual rate at 3,332 per cent.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Venezuela was suffering the most severe economic contraction in Latin American history.
This decline has caused an alarming collapse of Venezuelans’ living standards. The World Food Programme estimated in early 2020 that “one out of every three Venezuelans (32.3 per cent) is food-insecure and in need of assistance”. Three quarters of families surveyed had adopted “coping strategies”, reducing the amount and variety of food they were consuming because of inadequate income. The Catholic charity Caritas reports that of every 100 children it is aiding, 59 show evidence of stunting as a result of malnutrition. “People have lost their resilience”, says a senior NGO worker. “Many people are dying of hunger in their homes”.
The government ceased providing reliable economic statistics several years ago. But a regular survey by the country’s top universities found that at the beginning of 2020, over 96 per cent of Venezuelans were poor, with almost 80 per cent suffering extreme poverty. Poverty in Venezuela, however, is not merely a function of income or the decline in GDP. It is multi-dimensional. In virtually every area of activity, the state has lost its ability to provide decent services. Before the pandemic hit, 50 per cent of homes were suffering daily power cuts and one quarter lacked cooking gas, forcing many people to cook with firewood. Water supplies were intermittent and of poor quality. In a country that has seen epidemics of everything from malaria and measles to diphtheria and dengue, 80 per cent of the primary health-care network was closed or inoperative by 2019, along with 70 per cent of hospital facilities. A weekly survey of public hospitals by the NGO Médicos por la Salud found that in 2019, 70 per cent had running water only once or twice per week, and around 50 per cent suffered frequent electricity outages. Only about half the country’s operating theatres were functioning.
In virtually every area of activity, the state has lost its ability to provide decent services.
Although this dire and worsening situation has undoubtedly cost the government much public support, and sparked numerous protests, it has also provided authorities with an opportunity to extend dramatically the population’s dependence on the few remaining elements of social provision. Among these, the CLAP system of food parcels, controlled by ruling-party offshoots, uniformed security forces or armed civilian colectivos, stands out. The intersection of social provision and political control is also exemplified by the Patria welfare system, which requires beneficiaries to be in good standing with the authorities in order to obtain services. Applicants must express support for government initiatives via questionnaires that invite the user’s opinion, for example, on U.S. sanctions.
V.The New International Landscape
Weariness with the Venezuelan crisis is palpable not only at the domestic level but also among foreign governments. The Organization of American States, whose secretary-general, Luis Almagro, is prone to declarations similar to those of the hardline opposition, has lost much of its relevance, particularly since the Maduro government formally withdrew from the regional body in April 2019. The Lima Group of Western Hemisphere nations, which follows Washington’s lead in supporting Guaidó, continues to issue communiqués on the crisis it was founded to resolve, but its members are preoccupied with domestic politics and the coronavirus. Venezuela figured in the U.S. elections – reflecting its importance to emigrés in the crucial swing state of Florida – but President Donald Trump’s personal interest in the subject had waned when he sensed that quick victory over Maduro was not in the cards. The EU, however, and its International Contact Group – to which several Latin American and Caribbean nations belong – remain engaged, and there is no sign that Maduro’s main external partners – Russia, China, Cuba and Iran – are thinking of withdrawing support.
A.How Could Biden Change U.S. Venezuela Policy?
Joe Biden’s victory in the 3 November U.S. presidential election is set to lead to a significant shift in Washington’s view of international relations. But the implications for Venezuela are as yet unclear. The campaign produced few specific commitments, while asserting that the core policy of restoring democracy to Venezuela would endure. That said, the Biden administration is likely to take a more multilateral tack and to abandon the “maximum pressure” doctrine; it certainly will not dabble with the idea of military intervention. “The U.S. should not be in the business of regime change”, Biden has said. That could, among other things, open up the possibility of greater collaboration on Venezuela with the EU, which – along with the International Contact Group it set up in February 2019 – has opted for a less confrontational approach and eschewed both military action and economic sanctions.
The Biden administration is likely to take a more multilateral tack and to abandon the “maximum pressure” doctrine.
Biden’s position on Maduro is likely to be more flexible than the Trump team’s. The latter insisted that the Venezuelan president step down as a condition for any genuine democratic transition. Biden may not regard Maduro’s departure as a prerequisite for seriously engaging with Venezuela and taking steps regarding the bilateral relationship (such as alleviating sanctions).
Among the most significant developments might be a renewed U.S. attempt to engage with Maduro’s closest ally, Cuba, whose personnel are reportedly involved in various key areas of the administration, including intelligence services, ports, public notaries, and immigration and citizen identification systems. Under Trump, Cuba was led to believe that regime change in Venezuela would be a stepping stone toward ousting the communist government in Havana. It has had every incentive to help Maduro survive for as long as possible. If Cuba can be given credible assurances that its government is not under U.S. threat, and offered an alternative to its heavy dependence on Venezuela (particularly for fuel) or promises by the opposition to continue oil supplies, it might be persuaded at least not to hinder a transition. It could be far more difficult to convince Moscow and Beijing to get on board.
Efforts to forge an international consensus to resolve the Venezuelan crisis have foundered so far, not only because of policy differences between Washington and its European allies, but also because of the support provided for the Maduro government by both Russia and China, its two biggest bilateral creditors. This dispute has been most apparent on the handful of occasions on which the issue of Venezuela has reached the UN Security Council, on which both countries sit as permanent (and hence veto-wielding) members.
Efforts to forge an international consensus to resolve the Venezuelan crisis have foundered so far.
Experts on Chinese foreign policy tend to attribute Beijing’s approach to Venezuela primarily to commercial and economic interests (particularly relating to extractive industries), whereas Moscow’s involvement is more explicitly geopolitical. China, the world’s largest oil importer, was granted privileged access to oil from Venezuela (possessor of the world’s largest reserves) in exchange for hefty loans on which Venezuela is now in arrears. Despite U.S. sanctions on the Venezuelan state oil corporation PDVSA, which obliged China to use intermediaries, bilateral trade once again appears to be increasing. But along with Chinese direct investment in Venezuela’s oil industry, the trade has been hard hit by the political and economic crisis. In the first half of 2019, China was importing an average of 350,000 barrels per day from Venezuela, but sanctions obliged it to use intermediaries and the volume dropped by more than two thirds. Direct imports resumed, however, in late 2020.
Chinese officials have privately expressed openness to the idea of a political transition, but Beijing is opposed to what it regards as outside interference in a sovereign state’s affairs, even though it appears to apply that principle less rigorously than in the past.
Venezuela cannot hope to rely on Russia as Cuba did on the Soviet Union prior to its collapse.
As for Russia, as one former senior U.S. official sees it, “it is in Venezuela largely as leverage against the U.S.”. But Maduro’s inability to stabilise Venezuela either politically or economically has led Moscow to re-evaluate the relationship, according to Russia analysts. Russia is also involved in Venezuela’s oil and gas sector, helping the country skirt sanctions, which led the U.S. to impose penalties on the Russian company involved, along with its president. Now that Maduro controls parliament, he can “legalise” whatever trade and investment deal he strikes with Moscow, but Russia is aware that international rejection of the elections limits any contract’s validity. Venezuela’s debt to Russia, incurred in part due to massive arms purchases under Chávez, is also a significant bilateral issue, and here Moscow is unwilling to back off. In effect, Venezuela cannot hope to rely on Russia as Cuba did on the Soviet Union prior to its collapse. But the primacy of geopolitics in Moscow’s Venezuela strategy suggests that Russia may demur at supporting a transition unless Washington is ready to make concessions elsewhere.
C.The View from Brussels
With election day approaching, EU High Representative Josep Borrell mounted a last-ditch effort to persuade Maduro to postpone voting, allowing time to negotiate improved conditions and permit EU election observers to carry out a monitoring mission. Assuring a fair election, Borrell hoped, would build enough confidence between the sides to enable further negotiations to take place. Yet a visit by a high-level delegation from Borrell’s office in late September failed to convince Maduro to budge, and Borrell faced criticism from some in the European Parliament for allegedly going behind member states’ backs with a “clandestine” mission – claims he firmly rebuffed. In a 30 September press release, Borrell declared that “conditions for a free, fair and democratic electoral process” did not exist, and that without significant improvements there could be no EU election mission.
The effort to promote opposition participation in the elections, which also had the support of the International Contact Group, encountered considerable resistance, above all in Washington and in the Guaidó camp. Both insisted that so long as Maduro remained in power there was no point in taking part, since elections would by definition be rigged. In a newspaper interview, U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams said it was “not useful to have Borrell’s office working on its own,” adding: “It’s fair to call it cowboy diplomacy”. The Biden administration’s advent is likely to end this trans-Atlantic sniping over Venezuela.
Venezuela’s neighbours in Latin America and the Caribbean have borne the brunt of a refugee crisis second only to that provoked by the war in Syria. More than five million people have fled the country, most of them since 2014. While the mass influx could contribute positively to economic growth in host countries, it also creates substantial short-term challenges in terms of public spending and welfare services, as well as disruptions to the labour market. The cost to Colombia of dealing with the influx over 2020-2022 has been put at 0.5 per cent of GDP, and the recession caused by the pandemic will bring pressure for cuts. In 2019, the UN received just over half the $738 million it had requested from donors to mitigate the migration crisis. The amount received in 2020 has been “derisory”, said a leading member of one Venezuelan humanitarian organisation, with under 20 per cent of the target funding covered. Opportunistic politicians often whip up xenophobic reactions among populations receiving migrants. The impact has been particularly severe in Colombia, which now hosts some 1.7 million Venezuelans.
Venezuela’s neighbours in Latin America and the Caribbean have borne the brunt of a refugee crisis second only to that provoked by the war in Syria.
The challenges of coping with this exodus have reinforced the uncompromising stance taken by various Latin American governments toward the Venezuelan crisis. Eleven of them, together with Canada, founded the Lima Group in August 2017, with the explicit intent to “contribute to the restoration of democracy [in Venezuela] through a peaceful and negotiated solution”. In practice, although the U.S. is not a member, the group has adhered very closely to Washington’s approach to the Venezuela crisis (albeit ruling out military intervention). Lima Group members have pressed the International Criminal Court to prosecute Maduro and other government leaders for crimes against humanity, leading to the possibility that a full investigation may be opened in 2021, and called for probes into their alleged links with terrorism, drug trafficking and other forms of organised crime. The group’s most recent declaration rejected the 6 December polls and called for a Venezuelan-led transition leading to free and fair elections.
Political changes in the region, however, mean that some countries are now less inclined to toe this line. Argentina, which does not recognise the “interim presidency”, declined to sign the latest declaration, signalling concern that the group was advocating “extra-regional intervention”. Other governments in the region, most importantly Mexico, share Argentina’s more cautious stance. Anticipated U.S. policy changes under Biden offer the possibility of a more united regional front if, as is likely, the Lima Group continues to follow Washington’s lead. A resumption of meetings between the Lima Group and the International Contact Group, in a bid to coordinate their approach, would be particularly beneficial at this juncture.
VI.Getting Back to Negotiations
In March 2020, Crisis Group published a report outlining a possible route to a negotiated transition in Venezuela. The report described the many obstacles to such an agreement, some of which have become even more daunting over the past nine months. Far from helping overcome the difficulties, the 6 December legislative elections and associated events have exacerbated them. While no easy solution is in view, certain aspects of the present situation nevertheless combine to present an opportunity to move forward so long as key players – both domestic and international – adapt their strategies.
The root cause of the political crisis is the Maduro government’s insistence on closing down what remains of Venezuela’s political space, which has in turn reinforced the hawkishness of the domestic and international opposition. Reluctant to cede ground in the first place, the chavista government has grown even more averse as the opposition hardens its line. The deterioration of the human rights situation, amply documented in a series of UN reports, as well as the repeated imposition of inequitable election conditions, reflect its reliance on coercion and partisan state and judicial institutions as means of compensating for its waning popularity. Although willing to engage in dialogue, the government has not yet shown itself open to making concessions that would erode its power, let alone threaten its hold on it. Instead, it has sought to use the opportunity provided by negotiations to weaken and divide its opponents.
The government has sought to use the opportunity provided by negotiations to weaken and divide its opponents.
A new opposition leadership under Juan Guaidó, in alliance with Washington, emerged in January 2019 with the goal of removing these obstacles to a handover of power via “maximum pressure”. The Trump administration insisted “all options [were] on the table” (including, at least implicitly, the use of force), and approved severe sanctions aimed at forcing the government to back down or causing splits in its ranks that would permit the installation of an interim authority ahead of fresh elections.
Instead of sowing discord, however, the pressure appeared to enhance the Maduro side’s cohesion and refusal to compromise. Facing an outside threat, and the fear of regime change that would call into question their future, members of the military and disgruntled chavistas did not break ranks with the president; at the same time, the government managed to find ways of evading sanctions even as they were tightened. Furthermore, the imposition of additional sanctions in August 2019 gave the government a pretext to suspend Norwegian-facilitated talks. The opposition responded the following month by declaring the process “exhausted” and began exploring military options.
Despite intermittent talks, both sides have tended to view the struggle as a zero-sum game in which the objective is the elimination of the other. The government has consistently seen remaining in power at all costs as a better option than anything on offer at the negotiating table. As for the Guaidó-led opposition, while it has declared its readiness to incorporate members of the government side into a transitional regime, it continues to insist that Maduro himself must leave power before any transition can begin. Nor has it done enough to reassure either the military or the chavista movement as to its intentions, and its resort, on more than one occasion, to the insurrectional route has merely confirmed the latter’s suspicions. The end result is that the opposition now looks more fragmented and more likely than its foe to undergo a leadership change.
B.Political and Diplomatic Opportunities
The expiry of the present National Assembly’s mandate in January 2021 coincides almost exactly with the Biden administration’s inauguration in Washington. In light of the tremendous suffering endured by the Venezuelan people, the moment is propitious for a thorough strategic review on the part of both internal and external players.
It is unrealistic to expect Maduro to step down as a condition for formal negotiations to begin and for him to play no part in any transition.
Drafting a new strategy will need to begin with an honest appraisal of the relative strengths of government and opposition. In particular, it is unrealistic to expect Maduro to step down as a condition for formal negotiations to begin and for him to play no part in any transition. Rather, any transition will necessarily be gradual, accompanied by a phased lifting of sanctions and credible guarantees for both sides. These guarantees likely will need to include some modifications to the constitution, including an end to indefinite presidential re-election, reintroduction of an upper chamber of parliament and restoration of proportional representation. All would give the loser in any election a greater stake in the system and prevent majoritarian abuses, if appropriately backed up by external guarantors. Other important elements are a transitional justice system, guarantees to the military regarding its institutional status and officers’ career prospects, and agreements on social and economic rights to assuage chavista fears of “neoliberal” backlash.
An agreement on fairer conditions for the forthcoming 2021 elections for state governors and mayors would constitute an important stepping stone toward such an agreement. While a fully free and fair presidential election will also be an essential component of any long-term solution, without a preceding, comprehensive political agreement it will not – in itself – resolve the crisis.
The opposition leadership’s belief that pressure would bring a rapid end to Maduro’s tenure has proven to be wildly optimistic, and it leaves behind a troublesome legacy that will also need to be resolved. While nearly 60 countries still recognise Guaidó as the legitimate president, it is clear from private conversations with foreign diplomats that once he no longer has a seat in parliament the legal basis for such a claim will be regarded as much weaker. Within the opposition, a number of leading voices also argue that the current National Assembly can be maintained – if at all – only in skeletal form after 5 January.
A sudden and ill-considered withdrawal of support for the opposition’s interim presidency would divide its external allies, hand a political victory to Maduro and produce a power vacuum.
Foreign backers of Guaidó will have to tread delicately around these issues in the months ahead. A sudden and ill-considered withdrawal of support for the opposition’s interim presidency would divide its external allies, hand a political victory to Maduro and produce a power vacuum. On the other hand, if the opposition leadership is to retain its role as the key interlocutor in any future talks with the government, it will be vital both to avoid becoming a government-in-exile and to broaden its domestic political base. That will mean taking on board constructive criticism from other opposition tendencies, as well as from civil society, and exercising greater transparency and internal democracy. Washington and the EU will also need to determine how to administer Venezuelan overseas assets the Guaidó team controls (at least nominally), pending a political solution. A formula allowing a neutral body to manage these assets would help avoid accusations of corruption and unseemly wrangling among opposition factions.
Meanwhile, the failure of the strategy to unseat Maduro, as well as the concentration of state power in his hands, does not mean that all opportunities to resolve the crisis and extract government concessions are lost. While there is no sign of any softening of the Maduro government’s position – if anything, quite the reverse – it badly needs some form of sanctions relief in order to restore a measure of economic stability, and it is eager to escape its diplomatic isolation by restoring ties with the U.S., Colombia and others.
Government willingness to make concessions and embark on fresh negotiations will receive a boost from the likely demise of President Trump’s strategy. A more nuanced U.S. approach, in alliance with other international players – particularly the EU and its International Contact Group – will not produce an instant solution, but it could open up avenues toward a negotiated settlement with chavismo. In response, the government will need to show genuine intention of reaching a settlement by putting a halt to political repression, including releasing political prisoners and disbanding the FAES special police force – as recommended by Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights.
The government will need to show genuine intention of reaching a settlement by putting a halt to political repression.
The restoration of full diplomatic relations between, on the one hand, Venezuela, and, on the other, the U.S., Colombia and others would seem a more distant goal at present. But steps in this direction by Caracas and other nations, such as re-establishing consular offices and creating a channel for communication among the U.S., Lima Group countries and Venezuela, possibly involving a trusted intermediary such as Norway, could alleviate the present distrust. The UN, which thus far has confined its Venezuela efforts to the humanitarian and human rights fronts, should take on a more political role if these efforts gain momentum. A good start would be for Secretary-General Guterres to appoint a special envoy with Security Council backing.
Additional support for future rounds of negotiations could emerge from Venezuelan civil society. The latter, parts of which have for too long either been in thrall to political parties or suspicious of politicians’ motives, is beginning to carve out an autonomous space from which it can demand from both sides the fulfilment of partial agreements to alleviate the suffering of ordinary Venezuelans. At the same time, it will be crucial for foreign nations, multilateral bodies and NGOs to push back against the Maduro government’s efforts to further limit space for dissent, using various means at their disposal, including withholding sanctions relief.
Patching up broken diplomatic ties is likely to take longer than Venezuela’s humanitarian emergency will allow. While chronic shortages cannot be resolved without a political solution, nor can they be entirely ignored while one is sought. Both sides are wary of allowing the other to take credit for humanitarian initiatives. The government fears that to allow in large-scale assistance would weaken its political control, while parts of the opposition believe that reducing the suffering would ease the pressure on the government. Partial agreements that alleviate the humanitarian emergency, under UN auspices, would help build public support for the process and establish some measure of trust between government and opposition.
Patching up broken diplomatic ties is likely to take longer than Venezuela’s hu-manitarian emergency will allow.
Draconian sectoral sanctions have hurt ordinary Venezuelans without achieving their strategic objectives. Simply to lift them unconditionally would be to reward Maduro’s obstinacy and repressive behaviour. But there is a strong case for the incoming U.S. administration to carry out an immediate humanitarian impact assessment, with a view to providing sanctions relief in acknowledgement of the exceptional circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some measures – particularly the Trump administration’s very damaging elimination of permits that allowed crude-for-diesel swaps, which threatens distribution of food and other essentials – should be reversed immediately. Other measures, such as restrictions on oil exports, have proven ineffective at sparking political change and have even lost some of their power to curb trading activity: oil exports nearly tripled in November, for example, as Chinese companies resumed making direct purchases. Over the long term, phased sanctions relief should be tied to gradual political advances and the restoration of civil and political rights.
Some elements of the negotiating position outlined in March 2020 by the U.S. State Department – especially the willingness to contemplate a phased reduction of sanctions in exchange for progress in negotiations and to involve chavistas in a transitional government – can be built upon to this end, and may help overcome resistance in Congress to perceived concessions to the Maduro government. The centrepiece of any potential roadmap will have to be an electoral calendar including regional elections in 2021, a potential recall referendum in 2022 and a presidential poll in 2024 (or earlier if possible), with restored political rights for non-government candidates and other assurances of credible polls, meaningful guarantees for the civilian and military wings of the incumbent administration, and sanctions relief. The core challenges will be to persuade the opposition to unite around a proposal that, while restoring political rights, would do so in a piecemeal fashion and convince the government that the end product must be a fully free and fair presidential election.
In many respects, the Venezuelan crisis seems further than ever from resolution. Despite the popular adage, the deepest darkness does not always presage the dawn. There are signs of hope, however. The failure of the strategy launched two years ago under Juan Guaidó’s leadership demands a fundamental rethink on the part of the opposition and its foreign allies. Maduro may be tempted to declare victory, but if the political pressure from outside does indeed diminish, demands from his own supporters for a better future could well grow louder. Without the lifting of sanctions, none of Venezuela’s underlying economic and financial troubles can begin to be resolved. A new administration in Washington offers the prospect of fresh, and more promising, initiatives on the international front.
A viable solution will be impossible unless the Venezuelan government accedes to pressure for a free and fair presidential election. But it will not do so except as the result of a comprehensive agreement that embodies credible post-electoral guarantees. It is time for the government to recognise that a fair presidential election in which its candidate may lose must be an essential element of any negotiated settlement, and for the opposition to recognise that any transition will necessarily be protracted and involve meaningful compromises with those in power. It is the task of both sides’ international allies to convince them of the need to proceed in this way and to build the framework for a set of negotiations that could produce such a result. Failure to do so will not only compromise the future of more than 30 million Venezuelans, but also further undermine regional stability.
Caracas/Bogotá/Brussels, 21 December 2020