Postmortem: Venezuela in the 2018 Summit of the Americas

The Summit of the Americas was a little anti-climactic (See John Holman’s solid review on AJE). While everyone was bracing for a potential news storm and shake-up stemming from the participation of United States’ Loose-Cannon-in-Chief (see my piece in The Hill as well as a letter from Senate democrats), his last minute cancellation and substitution by Vice President Mike Pence led to a much more predictable US involvement. This combined with the three Ecuadorian journalists killed as well as the airstrikes on Syria pushed the Summit down in the news cycle. In addition to Trump, Ecuador’s Lenin Moreno had to return to Quito to address the three journalists killed there by dissident FARC guerrillas, and Cuba’s Raúl Castro, as well as the presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala and Paraguay stayed home. All of this reduced the salience of the Summit as a significant event able to impact dynamics in Venezuela.

Pence’s statements fortunately did not standout against the many condemnations of the Maduro government by regional governments. What was unfortunate, however, was the continual injunction to “isolate” Venezuela. This type of situation of conflict requires pressure and engagement, not isolation. An authoritarian government is defined by the fact that it has the upper-hand in its national space. Isolating it from the international context signals disapproval but also allows it to consolidate its internal control. As I said before, I think it was a mistake to dis-invite Maduro from the Summit. Images of him being criticized to his face by regional leaders would have been much more effective than images of him being criticized in absentia. And being engaged by other leaders in such a context could conceivably have produced some movement in a positive direction.

Unsurprisingly, Maduro who at one point said that Peru could not stop him from attending and that he would show up by land or by sea, instead argued that the Summit was a failure and a waste of time. However, even some supporters of the Summit are pointing to a malaise in its effectiveness. The need for consensus to approve any kind of resolution unsurprisingly prevents anything of substance being achieved. Some have suggested the Summit needs to adapt and allow non-consenus resolutions, as the East Asia Summit does.

In this case it was a foregone conclusion that there would be no resolution on Venezuela as Bolivia and Cuba remain important strategic allies—even more so now that relations between the US and Cuba have cooled. The Lima Group did come forward with a statement that was signed by the 14 member countries as well as the US and the Bahamas, suggesting that election without a full set of guarantees would lack credibility and legitimacy. It thus provides a similar set of statements as the one published in February and is good as far as it goes. However, as Mariano de Alba has suggested, the elephant in the room is what this lack of recognition will actually mean on May 21. Will countries really not recognize the Venezuelan government? What will this mean in terms of diplomatic and commercial relations. This all needs to be worked out otherwise it seems like an empty threat.

Whatever the case, as I told Nick Casey of the NYT, international pressure and engagement cannot provoke democratic change in Venezuela on their own. They require a relatively unified and functional opposition on the ground in Venezuela, which is lacking. The government has done a good job creating situations that divide the opposition. The opposition has done a very poor job of finding a way to outmaneuver the government.