New Spanish Government Carves out a Position with Respect to Venezuela

“Spain will not interfere in Venezuela,” said Spanish president Pedro Sánchez on August 28, in a joint press conference with Chile’s President, Sebastián Piñera. “Spain has no aspirations to become a country with a vocation for interference in Latin American politics, on the contrary, [Spain] wants to give support, to learn, and to share,” he added. Sánchez was in the middle of his first visit to Latin America since becoming head of government in Spain. He visited Chile, Bolivia, Colombia, and Costa Rica. While not included for a visit, Venezuela was an important part of Sánchez’s agenda during the visits.

Sánchez’s declarations seemed designed to avoid the confrontational stances of his predecessor Mariano Rajoy, and contrasted with Piñera’s who in the same press conference said Venezuela is “no longer a democracy. It is a country that has followed the wrong path. There is no democracy; there is no separation of powers, no respect for human rights, and no rule of law.” Instead of dialogue, Piñera spoke of “doing all we can so that Venezuela recovers its democracy and freedom.” Then he turned to Sánchez beside him and admonished Spain to play a “leadership” role in solving Venezuela’s crisis.

Sánchez said there was a need for Venezuela to “have a dialogue with itself” and that Spain was willing to “actively accompany this process”–a discourse reminiscent of the pro-dialogue position of Spanish ex-prime minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who belongs to the same Spanish socialist party (PSOE). Zaptero’s role as mediator in previous dialogue efforts has been heavily criticized by Venezuela’s opposition, which sees the ex-prime minister as too close with the Maduro government.

Sánchez made tougher statements about Venezuela before becoming head of the Spanish government in June. On the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) home page he is quoted expressing concern for the “destruction of democratic freedom in Venezuela” and asking for the liberation of political prisoners. He also criticized the PODEMOS leadership, the party to the left of PSOE in Spain’s political spectrum, for their past links to the Venezuelan government.

Before becoming prime minister, Sánchez met in 2015 with leaders of the Venezuelan opposition, including Lilian Tintori, wife of prominent political prisoner Leopoldo López. In 2016 he also met Mitzy Capriles de Ledezma, wife of then political prisoner Antonio Ledezma, now in exile in Spain. He was generally thought, within his party, to be more in line with also ex-prime minister Felipe González, who has had a tough stand on Venezuela, than with the pro-dialogue position of Zapatero.

However Sánchez had only mild critiques for the May 20 elections in Venezuela. He said he would have liked to have seen “maximum guarantees” for those elections, guarantees which should have included the liberation of political prisoners. But he also pledged support for the polemical mediation role by Zapatero, praising him for his efforts in favor of political prisoners and for a “dialogue solution” in Venezuela. At the time of these declarations, Sánchez was negotiating with parties to his left–including PODEMOS–a motion of censure in parliament against Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, which would eventually oust him as head of government and put Sánchez in the post.

Rajoy had strongly supported the Venezuelan opposition. His right-wing party Partido Popular has strong, long standing links with Venezuelan opposition parties Primero Justicia and Voluntad Popular. In November 2017, Antonio Ledezma escaped house arrest in Venezuela and made it to Colombia, and finally traveled to Spain. Rajoy immediately met him at the Moncloa presidential palace in Madrid. The Venezuelan government reacted strongly, calling the meeting an “act of interference” in Venezuela’s internal affairs.

PODEMOS’ support of Sánchez parliamentary move to oust Rajoy from power prompted fears that the PSOE leader would include in his new government podemistas, known for their past Chavista sympathies, and thus shift Spain’s policy of support of Venezuela’s opposition. But Sáchez quickly named an all-PSOE party government and excluded PODEMOS from any ministerial post, and so far the leftist party has played little or no role in his government.

Diplomatic relations between Spain and Venezuela have been difficult in the past year. In January the Venezuelan government expelled the Spanish ambassador in Caracas accusing him of “constant aggression and meddling,” and Spain promptly reciprocated by sending Venezuela’s ambassador home. However, in April, it was Rajoy who first made gestures to the Venezuelan government in order to “normalize” diplomatic relations between the two countries. Ambassadors were again exchanged that same month.

Dialogue does not seem a priority at the moment for the Venezuelan government or for the opposition, which is now struggling to reconstruct an even basic level of coordination. But, if there are new dialogue attempts in the future, Spain could be in a unique position to mediate such efforts. Sánchez seems to know that if Spain is going to play such role, he will have to take a moderate stance vis-à-vis Latin American leaders such as Piñera and new Colombian president Iván Duque. In his tour he therefore avoided directly calling the Maduro government a dictatorship: when pressed in an interview in Chile to clearly say whether Venezuela was under a dictatorship or not, he preferred to say that a country with political prisoners “is not a democracy.” When meeting Duque, he also stirred clear of labeling Maduro a dictator; he preferred to emphasize his support to Duque in the face of the migratory crisis from Venezuela in which Colombia is in the front line. The same caution seems to have been taken in Sánchez’ meeting with Maduro’s regional ally, Bolivia’s president Evo Morales; in this case the Venezuelan crisis seems to have been absent from the agenda.

In his tour Sánchez also insisted that Spain would prefer to be alongside regional Latin American initiatives on Venezuela than acting unilaterally. Always stressing the migration aspect of the crisis and avoiding labeling the Venezuelan government he said in an interview:  “It is very important that we are aware that the crisis in Venezuela has a regional dimension that transcends Venezuela’s borders, therefore it is important that any act of solidarity with migrants be a regional response, with the support of the international community, and of course, the government of Spain.”