Q&A on the Coming Weeks and Months in Venezuela

Happy New Year to all of our readers.

A journalist sent me some questions by regarding Venezuela’s current political context in the coming weeks and months, which I responded to as follows.

What will the opposition do in the coming year?

Juan Guaidó will likely be reelected as president of the National Assembly and continue on with the idea of pushing for a transition. But the real challenge goes beyond simply getting reelected. A sober reading of political conditions would suggest the opposition coalition needs to come up with a clear and unified strategy for going to legislative elections. Otherwise the opposition will wiped out of the one institutional space where it still has a majority. If they do not participate and Chavismo sweeps the National Assembly, it is likely that at least some of the countries that currently recognize Guaidó will stop doing so.

However, it is not clear how the opposition can participate in Venezuela’s political game again while maintaining their unity. Just going to negotiations from May to August significantly strained their coalition, as many wanted an immediate transition that wiped Chavismo off of the map. Going to legislative elections would be even more difficult. Doing so would not be impossible with a leader that could explain to the public the need for a change of course and demand conformity from his coalition. But it does not seem that Guaidó has that kind of leadership as many of the senior opposition leaders such as Leopoldo López and Julio Borges wield significant power over him.

If you thrown in the fact that the opposition’s main source of strength–the Trump administration–appears quite content with a long-term deadlock in Venezuela and is unlikely to take any risks in an election year, the prognosis for a needed pivot is poor.

Will there be more radicalization?

The Maduro government seems to have found a strategy that works for it. They are trying to show the world a willingness to dialogue and negotiate, an interest in holding legislative elections, and a desire for recognition. At the same time, internally they pursue and jail opposition leaders, harass journalists and control and spy on their citizens. This undermines internal opposition while trying to put on a democratic face for the world. This has worked quite well, especially in a context in which many other countries in the region have experienced waves of citizen protests that were brutally repressed by security forces, and explained away by leaders using conspiracy theories. All of this has made Maduro stand out less than he did before.

Ironically, U.S. sanctions have actually led the Maduro government to carryout some processes of economic liberalization that have provided a mini-recovery and relief to some citizens. It seems likely that Maduro will continue towards what can be thought of as a Chinese model of neoliberal state-socialism.

Thus it does not look like there will be significant radicalization by the Maduro government. Rather, there will be an attempt to normalize with the world, and normalize with citizens, all while maintaining crack-downs on mid-level political opponents within Venezuela.

Do you consider viable a new attempt at dialogue after the failure of the Oslo negotiations?

It is normal for peacemaking processes to stop and start, break down and start up again. Peace talks in Northern Ireland took decades, as did the peace accords in Colombia. It is likely there will be new efforts to broker some sort of deal.

The Norwegian-led negotiations broke down because each side has international sponsors that enabled spoilers within the political conflict. The US undermined negotiations at a key conjuncture by rolling out new sanctions with theatrical announcements suggesting negotiations were a waste of time. And Russian has consistently provided Maduro with the support he needs to navigate international pressure.

For this reason, European countries could play an important role in. Only the European Union has the geopolitical weight to provide an alternative to the Cold War redux that has Venezuela as its proxy conflict. And the Norwegian diplomats that work on Venezuela are unphased by the breakdown of the last round of negotiations are in for the long haul, just as they were with Colombia. With a concerted, astute diplomatic engagement of the both the opposition and the Maduro government, it is possible that a deal could be brokered that would allow not for a “solution,” but for a process that could re-democratize Venezuela’s political conflict, returning it to institutionalized spaces which are controlled by citizens through democratic consultation. Doing so would require the U.S. and Russian to be on board as they can easily prevent an agreement.

What role will Trump play in the middle of his election campaign?

In an electoral year, the Trump Administration has no motivation to alter the current situation. Having a deadlock in Venezuela will help them mobilize the electorate in South Florida and at the same time use Venezuela’s governance disaster to stigmatize “socialism.” This is the Cuba playbook that has served Republican so well for the past half century in Florida and the Venezuela conflict has provided it with new energy. Any kind of military intervention or significant diplomatic push would pose significant risks for Trump and are unattractive options compared to the status-quo.