The next few weeks may determine the fate of Venezuela

Negotiations are going on right now between two political forces, with Norway as mediator. On the one hand the regime of disputed president Nicolás Maduro, who largely has control over the state authorities. On the other, representatives of the opposition, led by the president of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó. These talks represent an opportunity to find a way out of the political stalemate which has paralyzed Venezuela for months.

I have written in previous blogposts on the development of the deep political, economic and social crisis in Venezuela. Under Maduro, Venezuela’s decline has accelerated. Food, medicine and fuel are in short supply and the crumbling electricity system causes reoccurring black-outs in parts of the country. Thousands of Venezuelans are leaving every day, to escape the insecurity and the misery.

The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights recently reported on the appalling HR situation in the country. Detentions for political reasons, torture and extrajudicial killings are all part of that dark picture.

Maduro’s presidency is considered illegitimate by the opposition, as the last election was neither free, nor constitutional. Guaidó, as speaker of the democratically elected National Assembly, is seen as the lawful, interim president. He is supported by many of the world’s democracies, the US and EU among them. The US is pressing for a democratic regime change by financial sanctions on key figures of the regime, and lately also on Venezuela’s all-important oil export. Other countries, e.g. EU, Canada, Switzerland, Mexico and Panama, have placed sanctions on key regime figures as well.

However, Maduro’s regime is supported as legitimate by several nations, particularly those with authoritarian leadership or socialist orientation. Most importantly Russia and China, who both have very large economic exposures in oil-rich Venezuela, and Cuba.

The regime argues that the sanctions are the cause of the economic misery. It is true that the sanctions limit Venezuela’s capacity to import food, medicine and other crucial goods, such as spare parts. But it is also true that the decline began long before the sanctions, under Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chávez, due to failed economic policies, waste and corruption. Maduro’s government has no credible plan to pull Venezuela out of the morass, and as long as the regime opposes a new, democratic presidential election, the sanctions will stay. The harsh conditions for ordinary people make it urgent to find the escape from the present political crisis. 

The opposition regularly musters large crowds on the streets of Venezuela’s cities, demanding return to democracy and normality. There is also a hard core of followers of the regime, who turns out when called upon to demonstrate support for the “Bolivarian revolution”, which was led by Chávez. It was built on promises of social justice and improvements for the poor. But all indications are now that public opinion is massively behind the struggle to get rid of the present regime and to reestablish democracy, order and a functioning economy.    

Away from this turmoil, on the Caribbean island of Barbados, Norwegian diplomats are now trying to nudge the two political forces towards an agreement on democratic elections, as a beginning of the restoration of Venezuela. Their task is not easy. Will they succeed? They have the support from the US, Latin American neighbors and from EU countries, including Sweden. A hopeful sign is that Russia now endorses the negotiations and the goal of new elections. A recent meeting in Stockholm, arranged by the Swedish government, helped to bring about that change.

But the mistrust between the Venezuelan political camps is deep. In the political movement created by Chávez, liberal and right-wing politicians are regarded with great suspicion. Many of them are seen as mainly representing the economic interests of the old elite. The label “fascists”, although misleading, is often applied in the overheated political rhetoric.

The hardliners in the opposition, on the other hand, see negotiations with the regime as meaningless. Maduro and his circle will not risk losing everything through elections that are fair, so the talks are simply a delaying tactic. The hardliners also find it unpalatable to negotiate with a regime which is criminal and corrupt.

Nevertheless, representatives of both sides are now meeting and talking. That is fortunate, because there is no good alternative outcome. The perspective of a hard-fisted regime, which has lost the confidence both among its own people and abroad, clinging to power through repression while the economic meltdown continues, is awful. 

Another possibility was the plan to urge the military to get rid of Maduro and install a transitional government or junta, to prepare the country for elections. That plan was, in similar forms, pursued both by the opposition, backed by the US, and moderate elements within the “chavismo”. But the military leadership was unwilling to make that move, perhaps because there were insufficient guarantees for their wellbeing and impunity.

And a military intervention from abroad, however unlikely, would be the worst outcome of all.

An agreement on trustworthy elections under international supervision is the outcome that could give a majority af Venezuelans confidence in their future and open the road to economic and social recovery.

Some in the inner circle around Maduro are unwilling to compromise, but growing pressure and the economy’s collapse have brought the regime to the table. Guaidó, under pressure from the opposition’s hardliners, has said that the process will not be allowed to drag on indefinitely; he has given it another three weeks. So now, there is a window of opportunity to find a solution that can bring a better future for Venezuela.

For sure, an agreement would come with a price. It will be necessary to give leading regime figures some guarantees against prosecution and revenge. To protect the process from attacks, different factions, including from the “chavismo” and the military, should be included in the transition. 

This is a difficult balancing act for Guaidó. So far, he has managed it with courage and good judgement. 

Of course, once democracy is reestablished there will be different political groupings, across the political spectrum. Election results and political compromise will determine the future reform agenda. But for now, all good forces should unite behind the effort to reach an agreement on elections, as soon as possible. The opposition should mend its rifts, get behind Guaidó and the international democratic forces in support of the negotiations.

For Venezuela’s sake, we must hope that the Norwegian diplomats are successful. The next few weeks will be decisive.