One of the serious crises in the world that has been overshadowed by the dominant news flow in the dismal year of 2020 is taking place in Venezuela.
The country is governed by a dictatorial regime. Human rights abuses are well documented. Political prisoners are counted in several hundreds, and thousands are killed extrajudicially by security forces every year. Opposition politicians are imprisoned or exiled. The economy is in ruins, not least its most important engine, the oil industry. The country is under pressure from sanctions against the regime, with the aim of restoring democracy, but they also hurt the people. Venezuela is potentially a rich country, but today a majority of the population lives in poverty. Some 5 million Venezuelans have found themselves forced to leave their country – the biggest refugee crisis in Latin America’s modern history.
Two years ago, there was some hope that a united and energetic opposition could pave the way for democratic elections and reverse the trend.
The opposition had assembled a coalition, which had a broad majority in the National Assembly. Juan Guaidó was elected president of the assembly in the beginning of 2019, and then became the leader of the coalition. When president Nicolás Maduro commenced his second six-year term, Guaidó declared himself interim president, with the support of the coalition. The background was the irregular reelection of Maduro in 2018. Guaidó got the support as the legitimately elected leader of Venezuela by more than 50 countries, with the United States in the lead.
The opposition’s plan was for popular protests and international pressure to make the military change sides and “convince” Maduro to step down. After that, new democratic elections would be prepared.
The plan has failed. The Maduro regime has full control over the state apparatus and has, contrary to the hopes, strengthened its position while the opposition has lost ground.
Is there a path that can lead to a reduction in misery and to the possibility for the population to choose, in free elections, its political leadership? Or will the future be a hopeless trudge along the same path as today – repression and economic decay, while those who hold power, and their friends, can enrich themselves.
One thing is clear. The regime will not willingly put its position at risk. It has little support in the population. A month ago, elections were held for a new National Assembly, an election that cannot be described as free. Despite pressure from the regime to get people to vote, turnout was low. The official results indicate that only around 20% of those entitled to vote chose the party supporting the regime. But it won an overwhelming majority of seats in the new parliament.
The opposition coalition, in the centre and right on the political spectrum, did not take part in the elections, as the conditions were considered unfair. But it also means that they lost their political platform when the new National Assembly took office on 5 January. Guaidó is not seated there and is no longer president. And he does not exercise any real power in the country either. Will the outside world continue to see him as Venezuela’s legitimate political leader anyway? The Trump administration does, but the question is whether the United States, under Biden, Europe and others will see it as constructive in the long run to stick to this course. Guaidó has also lost his previous strong support in public opinion, as the hopeful promises of rapid change have not been fulfilled.
Some smaller opposition parties, with a liberal or left-wing profile, chose to take part in the parliamentary elections, where they will form a small minority. They see it as a viable way to work from within the political system, to achieve change step by step. But they also run the risk of being exploited as a kind of democratic staffage by the regime.
The sanctions are pressuring the regime, but they are a blunt weapon. They hurt the entire economy and the population, while the ruling elite can find ways to escape the effects for their part. The pressure is also partly parried by support from Russia, Cuba and Iran and by some oil exports slipping past sanctions, particularly to China.
An authoritarian regime, which clings to power and a divided opposition – this is not a promising picture for a rapid return to democracy in Venezuela, which has a democratic history longer than any other country in Latin America.
And without a democratically elected government and depoliticised institutions – especially the judiciary and electoral authorities – there is also no hope of real reconstruction of the economy. This will require international financial support and major investments in the run-down production apparatus.
But there is one new factor that could signify a dawn: Joe Biden’s assuming the presidency of the United States. One effect will surely be that the talk of “all options are on the table” is silenced. It has certainly been mostly hollow words from the Trump administration – a military intervention was never realistic. But the change will make it clear that negotiations and diplomacy are the only way forward.
Maduro has signaled openness to negotiations, in order to ease sanctions. However, there is resistance to negotiations by leading figures in the circle around the regime, who believe that it can further strengthen its hold on power by knocking down the part of the opposition majority that remains in Venezuela, without having to make concessions.
In 2019, negotiations were conducted between the regime and the Guaidó-led opposition facilitated by Norwegian diplomats. But they foundered after Maduro made a separate deal with some smaller, cooperative parties, behind the backs of the majority. This failure, and several previous similar ones, has led to deep distrust of negotiations with Maduro from large parts of the opposition. But there are signs that understanding now has increased that there is no other way.
And the regime needs easing of sanctions to improve its weak support in the population. It is therefore likely that some form of negotiations between the regime and the opposition will get under way, in this round with the blessing of the United States.
An agreement to improve the dismal humanitarian situation could be a gateway to negotiations to resolve the democratic crisis. But such agreements must be made between the Venezuelan parties – they cannot be dictated by the outside world. Here, a great responsibility rests with the divided opposition to rally to a common position, which can get support in the population. The coalition led by Guaidó will certainly continue to play a role, but the forces operating inside Venezuela should also be included – the ‘minority opposition’ and civil society organisations.
The outside world can provide diplomatic and practical support for a negotiation process. This is particularly true of the United States, which has the greatest control over both the ‘whip and the carrots’ – the sanctions. Europe and the international contact group, which includes Sweden, also has a role to play. Perhaps Norwegian diplomacy, with its knowledge of the political forces in Venezuela and experience of conflict resolution, can once again contribute to a constructive negotiation process, and to bridge building between opposition factions.
But a further diplomatic effort is needed to find a way out of the crisis. And that is to get acceptance in Moscow, Havana, and Beijing that it basically is an interest for everyone that Venezuela rises from the ashes and re-builds its economy. And that, therefore, continued support for today’s repressive and deeply unpopular regime is neither in the interests of the country nor the outside world.
Sweden hosted a meeting of “key international players” in 2019 to promote a peaceful and democratic solution to the crisis and support the Norwegian-led negotiation process. Both Russian and American diplomats participated. Perhaps, once the Biden administration is in full swing, there can be room for a new, Swedish initiative of this kind.