Smilde & Lowenthal in the Washington Post on Recent U.S. Policy Moves on Venezuela

Today the Washington Post published an op ed Abe Lowenthal and I wrote after discussing the current context of U.S. Venezuela policy and thinking where it left this ever evolving tragedy. In our view the balance of the Trump Administration’s series of moves on Venezuela over the past month is negative. The unsealing of indictments on Maduro and his closest officials, and large scale anti-drug operations off of the Venezuelan coast do not contribute to a solution. But sandwiched within those moves was presentation of the State Department’s transition framework, which represents an advance in their policy.

It recognizes the possibility of a transitional government with Chavismo; it suggests what sanctions relief could look like; it even leaves open the possibility that Maduro could run for president. (If you do not realize how unwelcome this is among Venezuela’s diaspora radicals, listen to the Q&A of U.S. Envoy for Venezuela Elliott Abrams’ presentation organized by CSIS.)

Of course, it is not clear who in the Maduro government is in the mood for negotiations since the head of every branch of the Maduro government is now indicted. Making this plan viable or even relevant would require some clear offer of protection from prosecution.

The push of recent actions, however, including those just described and the ratcheting up of sanctions on gasoline seems to be aimed at causing some sort of rebellion. This is extraordinarily improbable. If a population that was poor and hungry was not able to overthrow a government that was not poor and not hungry, a population that is poor, hungry and has no gasoline is in even worse position to overthrow a government that is not hungry, not poor and now has exclusive access to gasoline.

The other theory of change that U.S. officials might have in mind is that so much suffering will cause a regime split in which mid-level military officers would turn against the regime. However, the probability of this in an armed forces shot through with counter-intelligence operations is exceedingly low. Witnessing Venezuela’s downward spiral and the immiseration of its population has indeed caused a couple of small military uprisings and conspiracies. But they were either detected before the gained traction or easily put down. There is no reason to believe the situation is different now.

The end result of this push, then, is likely to be more suffering among the population, an opposition that considered even more irrelevant by the population, and Maduro consolidating power.

In the piece we suggest a much better direction would be to try to diplomatically engage international stakeholders, such as Russia, to make a deal regarding Venezuela that could obligate the two sides to see negotiations as the only way out. Here are our last two paragraphs:

The chances for a successful negotiated transition in Venezuela would greatly improve if international cooperation can be achieved to support the negotiations and a compromise outcome. Up to now, the U.S. government and Russia have each provided their respective Venezuelan allies with a better alternative than a negotiated agreement. If the United States and Russia were to align on Venezuela, it would be virtually impossible for either side to resist meaningful compromise.

Last June, Sweden organized a meeting in Stockholm of governments concerned with Venezuela, but the U.S. government did not attend. If a second Stockholm meeting is arranged, the Trump administration would do well to participate actively and help forge an international compromise on how to support a transition in Venezuela. International consensus could possibly lay the foundation for Venezuelans to undertake the difficult but desperately needed turn to national reconciliation and reconstruction.