The Most Realistic Path Out of Venezuela’s Crisis is Through Negotiations, and Many in the U.S. Government Know it

Venezuela hawks have applauded rhetoric from the NSC’s Juan Cruz that is supportive of a military coup in the country, but they miss a key detail: Cruz—like others in the U.S. foreign policy community—is also clear-eyed about the fact that any kind of solution to the crisis in Venezuela will have to involve some kind of negotiations.

There is a persistent division in Washington over the extent to which a peaceful and democratic solution can be reached through negotiations. At WOLA we believe in meaningful talks between the government and the opposition. This is partly because we support solutions that fully restore the rights of Venezuela’s people while avoiding bloodshed. But it is also because we are realistic about the current power dynamics in the country. We know that any meaningful solution will have to be a negotiated one, as political elites in Venezuela are unlikely to cede power without some kind of guarantees—however difficult these may be.

On the other side, there is more belligerent camp that rejects any kind of negotiations. They argue that the failure of previous rounds of talks show the futility of seeking further negotiations, and call for military action in the form of either direct U.S. intervention or open support for an anti-Maduro coup. Last week, former State Department official Roger Noriega—one of the loudest voices in this camp—furthered this argument in a New York Times op-ed titled “Out of Good Options for Venezuela.”

However, as David Smilde noted on Twitter, the problem with calling for a military coup—beyond the fact that such rhetoric has not caused one to materialize thus far—is that it is far from certain that this would lead to a democratic opening in Venezuela. The Venezuelan armed forces are seriously compromised by corruption, drug trafficking, and human rights abuses, and a coup could just as easily see the situation worsen.

This was not received well by Noriega, who accused David of trying to block productive action:

However, many in the United States government also see negotiations as an eventual necessity. In his op-ed, Noriega cited recent remarks by Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the NSC Juan Cruz, in which Cruz called on military officers to uphold the “oath they took to perform their functions,” offering veiled support for the military overthrow of Maduro. But as Geoff Ramsey pointed out in response, this ignores the second half of Cruz’s remarks, in which he acknowledged that a “more likely” scenario is a “multilateral solution that involves some kind of negotiations.”

In fact, Cruz’s statements reflect the opinion of many in the U.S. government, who back dialogue in good faith that seeks the restoration of democracy in Venezuela. This has been confirmed in meetings with State Department diplomats, and was expressed by State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert at the start of the failed Santo Domingo talks back in September.

While Noriega responded that a mention of Cruz’s remarks on negotiations was scrapped from his NYT op-ed in the editing process, he nevertheless made clear that he rejects them. Considering how the government has used previous rounds of negotiation to divide the opposition and buy itself some legitimacy, this skepticism is understandable. Indeed, Maduro has offered no signs that he is willing to make any meaningful concessions to the opposition that threaten his power. However, Maduro’s posturing cannot be taken at face value, and must instead be interpreted in the context of a government that is under extreme pressure internationally and within its own political coalition. Because it still perceives the crisis as weather-able, Maduro has no incentive to offer hope for a transition. But this may change, as David notes: