A Country in Crisis: Five Points on Venezuela

In the aftermath of Juan Guaidó being recognized as interim Venezuelan president by the U.S., the Lima Group, and others in the international community, there are a number of questions about what the coming hours and days will hold. While much remains uncertain, here is what we can say about the situation so far:

  • Recognizing an interim president has raised the stakes, but made next steps unclear. The emphasis should be on supporting the opposition’s outreach to Chavismo. Setting aside the debate over the constitutionality of Guaidó’s claim to be interim president, the fact that the U.S. and most of Latin America recognizes him has boosted the opposition. But it has raised all kinds of questions about diplomatic and consular relations, not to mention commercial ties and Venezuela’s assets overseas. Still, it’s important not to confuse recognition with de facto power in Venezuela. The truth is that unless sectors of Chavismo and the military split from Maduro, a transition remains unlikely. The opposition knows this. The National Assembly has passed an amnesty law offering incentives for officials to break from Maduro, and Guaidó has at various points offered an olive branch to sectors of Chavismo in public statements. This is the right attitude, and the international community should be clear in supporting the opposition’s outreach to all reaches of Venezuelan society.
  • Room for optimism. We are heartened by the recent display of unity among the opposition under Juan Guaidó. In just a few weeks the opposition to Maduro has become more unified and active than they’ve been in a long time. The fact that people are protesting across class lines reveals just how widespread the level of dissatisfaction with Maduro is in Venezuela today.
  • Smart sanctions should be as coordinated as possible to be effective. All sanctioning countries need to adopt a set of clear language about what outcomes are needed for sanctions to be eased or lifted. That being said, sanctions need to avoid a toll on the broader public, which is why an oil embargo is such a bad idea.
  • Pressure needs to be paired with engagement. As we have said in our recent memo to U.S. policymakers, efforts at promoting meaningful negotiations between the opposition and the Maduro government are essential. The European Union proposal to create a “contact group” that could help create the conditions for credible negotiations should be supported, as should other efforts at promoting backchannel communication through diplomatic means. The governments of Mexico and Uruguay just yesterday came out in support of such an initiative, and have offered their good offices. If they are to be effective, they will need the support of other actors with more credibility among the opposition, as well as from EU governments and (at least tacitly) the United States.
  • Saber-rattling is not only bad policy, but incredibly divisive. Governments need to refrain from threatening military action, naming Venezuela a state sponsor of terror, and from imposing any sanction or action that could exacerbate the country’s humanitarian emergency. Not only would these extreme proposals deepen human suffering with no guarantee of ending the crisis, they are also deeply divisive among the opposition. Each of these proposals has mixed support from opposition parties and individuals, and if implemented would further polarize them. This is counterproductive at a time when the Venezuelan opposition urgently needs to unite under a common banner and present the country with an alternative vision for the future.