New York Times Español: International Contact Group Represents Best Opportunity for all Sides in the Venezuela Crisis

(We have an op-ed published in New York Times Español today, which you can read here. The English original is below.)

Last week the multilateral International Contact Group (ICG) held its first meeting to address the Venezuela crisis. Originating with the European Union (represented by France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom) but also including several Latin American countries (Costa Rica, Ecuador and Uruguay), it resolved to work with international partners to “establish necessary guarantees for a credible electoral process, within the earliest timeframe possible,” and to enable the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

As the meeting was taking place, U.S. Envoy for Venezuela Elliot Abrams, criticized the effort saying “Maduro has proven he will manipulate any calls for negotiations to his advantage and has often used so-called dialogues as a way to play for time.” The discrepancy shows what while there is considerable consensus among Western countries regarding the illegitimacy of the Maduro government, there are still significant disagreements regarding what to do about it. The ICG could be the best possibility for generating a successful democratic transition: it does not seek to promote an abstract dialogue, but rather a negotiation between the ICG and the Maduro government and the opposition regarding the organization of free and fair elections.

The United States has responded to the situation not only by vociferously supporting National Assembly President Juan Guaidó’s claim to the interim presidency, but by leveling comprehensive sanctions against Venezuelan oil and openly encouraging defections from the military. The most recent strategy for driving a wedge between the Maduro and his armed forces is to send humanitarian aid to Venezuela’s border, making military officials decide between their loyalty to the Maduro government or their loyalty to their hungry fellow citizens. In the back of everyone’s mind are the Trump administration’s constant reminders that “all options are on the table.”

There are good reasons to reject dialogue with the Maduro government. In 2014 four months of street mobilization against the Maduro government ended when opposition leaders went to dialogue with the government and achieved nothing. In 2016, dialogue with the government actually led to a plausible accord that would have led to recognition of the National Assembly. But the Maduro government quickly reneged on its commitments, leading even the Vatican representative to refuse further involvement. From December 2017 to March 2018 another round of dialogue failed as the Maduro government refused to sign on to an agreement that some of its allies had drafted. In each case dialogue gave the Maduro government some breathing room and demobilized the opposition.

It is important to realize, however, that the ICG initiative is fundamentally different than past proposals. The ICG has an explicit mandate “not to be a mediator” nor to promote dialogue, but to push for the conditions needed for credible elections to occur so that Venezuelans themselves can elect their leaders. The only dialogue that will take place will be between the ICG countries and between the ICG and Venezuelan political actors through shuttle diplomacy.

For their initiative to succeed, the ICG will indeed have to deflect what will be constant pressure to sponsor hollow dialogue. On the eve of the ICG meeting, Mexico, Uruguay, and Caribbean nations issued a statement in favor of a separate “Montevideo Mechanism,” which would promote a dialogue without conditions. Unsurprisingly, Nicolás Maduro immediately backed the idea. However, this initiative was stillborn as the Venezuelan opposition has made clear it would not participate in such an effort. Fortunately, Uruguay seems to be playing on two fields at the same time, and hosted the ICG meeting the next day in which the group restated its commitment to new elections.

This initiative will also have to confront skepticism from the United States. But the Trump administration may be more willing to embrace an electoral solution to the crisis than its hardline rhetoric suggests. National Security Council advisor Mauricio Claver Carone recently signaled to Colombian paper El Tiempo that the U.S. might get behind an offer of new elections under Maduro as long as the terms of the election were accepted by National Assembly President Juan Guaido.

The opposition, too, may need to reach out more concertedly to elements of Chavismo advance the electoral solution that the ICG is proposing. The fact that we haven’t seen major defections from the military or from Maduro’s civilian coalition suggests that those around him do not see their interests reflected in the transition that the opposition is pushing forward. A potential amnesty offer has not proved to be attractive enough, meaning the opposition may have to consider offering some sort of guarantees or power-sharing arrangement with Chavismo.

Part of this will mean that the opposition will have to relinquish aspirations of significant structural reform before elections happen. You cannot ask people to make the painful sacrifices that significant reform inevitably entails without democratic legitimacy. This may seem obvious but among perpetually over-confident opposition commentators, one hears estimates of a transition government lasting anywhere from four months to four years.

Time is not on the side of either the opposition or the ICG. Within a month or two U.S. oil sanctions could significantly alter the playing field, as only government vehicles will have gas, and only government officials will be eating well. The net effect of these sanctions will be to weaken the population’s ability to organize against the government and allow Maduro to ratchet down his authoritarian project, as happened in Cuba in the 1960s.

A successful democratic transition would require significant concessions from Maduro. The ICG has communicated that Maduro will have to engage in serious confidence-building measures before credible elections can be held. These include releasing political prisoners, naming new members of the National Electoral Council, and ending bans on all political parties and politicians in the electoral process. It is also clear that Maduro will have to cede control over the electoral process to neutral forces. After the electoral abuses of the past three years, it is indeed difficult to imagine a legitimate election with Maduro overseeing it.

Of course, carrying out these measures would virtually ensure that Maduro will be voted out of power, and he and his coalition know that. But they must see that this may be their last chance to relinquish power in a dignified, non-violent way that could not only ensure their physical survival but their political representation of the significant swath of the population that still support the government. Going out with some modicum of grace could salvage the memory of Chavismo from the ignominious depths it has sunk to.

David Smilde is a professor of sociology at Tulane University and a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America.

Geoff Ramsey is the assistant director for Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America.