Non-Recognition and Beyond: Mariano de Alba Games Out International Responses to Venezuela’s Election

In the very likely event that incumbent Nicolas Maduro is declared the winner of Venezuela’s presidential election on Sunday, May 20, his government will face a host of new challenges, not least in the international arena. Rather than see the vote as providing Maduro with a clear mandate from the Venezuelan people, many countries will consider the vote to have been fundamentally flawed and will likely respond by refusing to acknowledge the government’s legitimacy and/or imposing additional sanctions. Mariano de Alba is an expert on international law and international relations who is closely following the global response to Venezuela’s crisis. Ahead of Sunday’s vote, I reached out to Mariano with questions about how the international community is likely to respond, and what kinds of scenarios are likely moving forward. See our exchange below.

The United States, the European Union, and several Latin American governments have all said that the May 20 vote will not be free and fair and that they will not recognize the results. Does this mean that they will not recognize Venezuela’s government?

It’s complicated. Once Maduro starts his second period, the most likely scenario is that the U.S., the E.U., and most Latin American governments will not deem the government to be legitimate, but still see it as the de facto government with whom they will maintain (possibly reduced) diplomatic relations. It seems that this group of countries will decide that rather than isolate the Maduro de facto government through a comprehensive process of non-recognition, minimal diplomatic ties will be maintained but with a policy to promote the reestablishment of democracy in Venezuela. Here is where additional measures like targeted sanctions, investigations and freezing of assets of people linked to the regime involved in acts of corruption could come into play, and even some diplomatic efforts, such as trying to expel Venezuela from the OAS.

How does non-recognition of a government work under international law? Does it automatically mean recognition of a parallel authority, a “government in exile?” What are the implications of non-recognition?

Non-recognition of a government is a political decision with legal implications. Theoretically, non-recognition means that the de facto government is not seen as legitimate. Consequently, diplomatic and commercial relations are cut. But lately, such a complete severing of relations has rarely been the case. For example, in the early nineties in Nigeria after a coup, most states did not sever diplomatic relations but only withdrew most economic and military aid. In Cambodia in the late nineties, most donor states suspended non-humanitarian assistance, the World Bank pulled back from starting new projects, and the Association of South East Asian Nations suspended Cambodia’s application for admission. Therefore, the current consequences of non-recognition mean a further limitation of commercial relations (to the extent such relations exist) and political measures such as sanctions and suspension of international organizations. That seems where we are heading to in the case of Venezuela, where at least some form of diplomatic relation will be maintained.

Non-recognition does not automatically mean recognition of a parallel authority, although eventually we could see countries recognizing a parallel government or a government in exile. There is precedent for recognition of governments in exile. However, I believe that this will not remove some degree of acknowledgment of the Maduro de facto government, mainly to make the case that although illegitimate, the de facto control of Venezuelan territory creates responsibility for human rights violations and other illegal acts taking place in the country.

Is Venezuela’s opposition poised to create such a parallel government? Do you think this would help its cause or hurt it?

It is a possibility. For the creation of a legitimate parallel government, it will be critical to follow the regulations of the Venezuelan Constitution (which on this are very debatable). That is the only way of guaranteeing that it will gain recognition from a significant number of countries. Moreover, as the experience of the “Supreme Court in exile” has shown, it will be critical that the parallel government takes executable or performable decisions, as to prevent grandiose statements that later on only remain as words.

What kind of consequences, in practical terms, will Venezuela’s government face internationally for going through with the elections on May 20? What kinds of sanctions do you think we’ll see in the short and long-term?

In the short-term, it seems that we will see targeted sanctions from Latin American countries, which is unprecedented. In fact, several Latin American nations had the policy of only considering legal sanctions approved by the UN Security Council. The fact that they will change such policy for the Venezuela case shows the gravity and level of worry that the Venezuelan crisis is having throughout the region. The Maduro regime is indeed already a threat to the stability of countries in the region like Colombia. In Europe, the U.S. and Canada, I believe we could see more targeted sanctions and a stronger push to freeze assets to people linked to the Venezuelan government involved in corruption. In the longer-term, I believe it is likely that we will see some measure by the U.S. against the Venezuelan oil sector. Until now, the view that any move which might affect the Venezuelan population seems to be winning, but every day that passes and reveals that a solution is farther away, increases the pressure to take extreme measures.

How do you see the status of international pressure on Venezuela? Is it effective?

The pressure has been extraordinary. The positions and measures being taken nowadays would have seemed incredible one year ago. And I think that many countries will continue to surprise us on how far they are willing to go to promote a restoration of democracy in Venezuela. But the crisis is so profound that, in my view, the international response has been insufficient. Better coordination can be achieved, as well as a more nimble response to developing events. A further effort to freeze assets abroad obtained from acts of corruption in Venezuela is vital. Moreover, I believe that Western democracies should redouble their diplomatic efforts to try to convince members of the government coalition that there could be a place for them in a future Venezuela, if they take a step aside now. Venezuelans are in need of humanitarian help to survive, so further efforts should be made.

Are you optimistic about the prospect for some kind of peaceful, democratic resolution to Venezuela’s crisis?

To be honest, I am puzzled. If there is still the possibility of a peaceful and democratic resolution, the necessary ingredients do not appear to be present. The regime has shown its willingness to do whatever it is required to remain in power. The opposition—facing extremely adverse conditions—is trying to learn how to deal with a totalitarian government. If there is going to be a democratic resolution to the crisis, we will need to see a well-organized opposition with a group of leaders that inspire the people toward rebuilding a different Venezuela, at least some members of the current government (and military) understanding that there is an urgent need for change and acting upon that, and a massive deal of international help for Venezuela to emerge from the shadows and start the long road toward democracy and prosperity.