How the International Contact Group on Venezuela Can Advance a Path Out of Crisis

(Update: In a statement emerging from its inaugural meeting, the International Contact Group maintained its support for new elections in Venezuela, and continues its commitment to this goal rather than calls for dialogue with no preconditions. It vowed to proceed with the aim to: “i) establish the necessary guarantees for a credible electoral process, within the earliest timeframe possible; ii) enable the urgent delivery of assistance in accordance with international humanitarian principles.” To implement these goals, the Group agreed to send a technical mission to Venezuela. The Group also agreed to reconvene at a ministerial level by early March.)

Today in Montevideo, Uruguay, representatives of a unique selection of the international community will meet to address the crisis in Venezuela. It will be the first meeting of the International Contact Group on Venezuela, bringing together the European Union and eight of its Member States (France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom) and countries from Latin America (Costa Rica, Ecuador, Uruguay, and Bolivia).

This group’s focus on elections and recognition of the fact that Maduro has not acted in good faith in previous rounds of talks makes this proposal different, and it should not be confused with other proposals. It is a significant departure from calls for neutrality or dialogue that emphasize non-intervention, even though the Uruguayan government has–outside of the Contact Group–made proposals to this effect. On February 6, the Uruguayan and Mexican Foreign Ministers outlined a proposed “Montevideo Mechanism,” which lays out a four-phase plan for dialogue with no preconditions. In remarks to press, Uruguayan Foreign Minister Rodolfo Nin Novoa said, “If we ask for elections at that moment, we are imposing conditions that hinder dialogue. It is they who must agree. We go to the dialogue without conditions.” This plan is clearly a non-starter, and it is possible that this plan was released by Uruguay to provide the government with political cover with respect to the governing Frente Amplio party’s base, and will not prevent them from participating in the International Contact Group.

Again, this is not to be confused with the International Contact Group, which has a clear mandate to facilitate new elections. According to its Terms of Reference, the objective of the International Contact Group is “not to be a mediator,” but instead to “build trust and create the necessary conditions for a credible process to emerge, in line with the relevant provisions of the Venezuelan Constitution.” The document lists a series of conditions and minimum confidence building measures to get to this solution, including releasing political prisoners, renaming members of the National Electoral Council, and ending restrictions on all political parties and politicians in the electoral process, among others.

As advocates for a nonviolent democratic solution to Venezuela’s crisis that have been calling for the creation of contact group or “group of friends” mechanism for the last two years, we were encouraged by the announcement. As we wrote in a January memo to U.S. policymakers:

“Like the Contadora Group, there is much that a regional group of countries could do to lay groundwork for genuine dialogue and an eventual negotiated solution to Venezuela’s crisis. Working with both the opposition and government, they could provide the blueprints for a path out of the current political crisis—one that gets Venezuela back on the path of electoral democracy.”

In our report, we also recommend that the U.S. government do what it can to offer support for this initiative, offering resources and advancing shuttle diplomacy through the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations. However, we caution that “it is clear that the United States government cannot be a member of this contact group,” because the U.S. government lacks the positioning to lead a negotiated solution.

The makeup of this group is significant. All of the European Union countries participating in the group have all announced that they recognize Guaidó as the legitimate interim president of Venezuela. The same applies to Costa Rica, which is also a member of the Lima Group. Ecuador and Uruguay have voted against the Maduro regime at the OAS on many occasions even as they have not joined the Lima Group. Uruguay also voted for Venezuela’s expulsion from Mercosur  until a “verified democratic order” could be reestablished. Bolivia, then, is the only country in the group that has consistently voted with the Maduro regime in international forums.

To be effective in their work, of course, the International Contact Group must have buy-in from both Maduro and the opposition-controlled National Assembly. So far, both sides have kept their distance. Maduro has said he will not hold new presidential elections, and in fact appears to be moving towards holding new legislative elections in an apparent attempt to undercut the sideline the last remaining democratically legitimate institution in Venezuela. However, on February 6 he stated that he supported the “Montevideo Mechanism” launched by Uruguay and Mexico. While we will have to see what emerges from the International Contact Group meeting today, Maduro’s embrace of this proposal may make it difficult for him to continue to reject the Contact Group.

The opposition has neither  embraced nor rejected the EU effort. On February 5, the National Assembly approved a resolution that thanked the EU for the initiative but requested that the group make its objective more clear. They called for the group to explicitly aim at  Maduro’s departure from power. In the resolution the opposition “requests that the Contact Group initiative have the sole objective of offering and agreeing with the usurper regime, the guarantees and conditions for the power to be delivered according to the Constitution, and a Transition process where the full validity of the Magna Carta and the Rule of Law are restored.” The resolution also states that “any attempt at dialogue or contact with the usurper regime must be conditioned to a single objective: the guarantees and conditions to achieve the cessation of the usurpation, transitional government and free elections.”

This message was reinforced by National Assembly President Juan Guaidó, who Tweeted the resolution and repeated his three-step vision: “1) Cessation of the usurpation. 2) Transitional government. 3) Free Elections.”

It is understandable that the opposition has signalled it will not accept new elections held while Maduro remains in power, and this will be an essential hurdle for the International Contact Group. As the case of the Henri Falcon campaign in 2018 showed, Maduro has clear incentives to renege on any offers to hold free and fair elections. But this does not necessarily mean that those around him would not accept new, credible elections if their interests are taken into account. Anonymous U.S. intelligence sources have told reporters that Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino threatened to resign in December if Maduro didn’t step down. Under the right circumstances, then, Padrino or others in the upper ranks of the military may be willing to pressure Maduro for new elections–even if so far they appear unwilling to rise up and depose him by force.