Venezuela Weekly: Battle of the Bands on the Border

The visual politics of Venezuela’s battle for power normally take place in the streets of Caracas, with opposition and government organizing dual concentrations and emitting aerial photos favorable to their side and disfavorable to the other. This week this battle has moved to the Venezuelan-Colombian border where the U.S. and Venezuelan opposition are stockpiling humanitarian aid and have set February 23 as the date for getting it across the border.

In perhaps the most interesting twist. British billionaire Richard Branson announced last week that he would be organizing a Live-Aid type concert in Cúcuta on February 22. Called “Aid and Liberty: Music for Venezuela,” some of the most important musicians in Latin America have confirmed, including Carlos Vives, Luis Fonsi, Maluma and even Peter Gabriel.

So common has it become for the Maduro government to follow the opposition’s announcements of street mobilizations with almost identical mobilizations of their own, that after Branson’s announcement one journalist immediately speculated that Chavismo would organize a dueling concert.

And indeed, on Monday the Maduro government announced that it would be organizing for the 22nd and 23rd   the “Hands Off Venezuela” concert on the Simón Bolívar Bridge, while also bringing doctors and dentists for medical attention and 20,000 CLAP boxes to distribute.

In the end, the spectacle will most likely favor the Venezuelan opposition as it will draw even more international attention to the situation of Venezuela, humanitarian aid and the government’s refusal to let it in. Maduro has said that the aid is an attempt to “poison” the Venezuelan people with humiliation.

However, there is considerable risk for the opposition and the Trump administration as well. AN Deputy Miguel Pizarro who is coordinating the operation has said that it is the Maduro government that is politicizing the aid. The opposition would be quite happy if they could bring it in without confrontation. Yet, aid organizations such as Caritas have made clear that they would only participate in distribution of the aid if it fulfills international standards. The United Nations has also warned about politicization of humanitarian aid. Any efforts or operations on the border that appear like they are intentionally putting people in harm’s way, could generate a backlash.

  • It is not completely true that Maduro has blocked all aid. He recently accepted $9 million in health and nutritional aid from the United Nations. There have also been a number of groups getting aid into the country under the radar.

Trump 2020

On Monday, U.S. President Donald Trump gave a speech on Venezuela in Miami that reaffirmed that Venezuela has become one of the central foreign policy elements of his 2020 presidential bid. Delivered at Florida International University in the western suburbs where many Venezuelan expats live, he had Florida politicians such as Senators Rubio and Scott and Governor DeSantis in attendance, and gave an emotional tribute to Oscar Pérez—the police officer who rebelled against the Maduro government and was eventually killed by security forces—even inviting his mother on stage.

In his speech Trump urged the Venezuelan military to accept offers of amnesty and warned that if they don’t they “will find no safe harbor, no easy exit and no way out.” He suggested that the U.S. sought a “peaceful transition” in Venezuela, but again reasserted that “all options are open.”

The speech made clear that while in Afghanistan and Syria, Trump’s “America first” vision is holding sway, in Latin America policy it is his neoconservative advisors that are in charge. He represented the push for a transition in Venezuela as just the first step in an effort to free Cuba and Nicaragua as well. When that happens, he said, “this will become the first free hemisphere in all of human history.”

He also mentioned socialism from beginning to end in the speech, repeatedly tying the situation in Venezuela to those who want to install socialism in the United States, implicitly referring to some left democrats who have increasingly adopted the term for their politics.

The centrality that Venezuela has taken in his discourse, and his insertion of Venezuela into broader policy goals for the region, suggest it is unlikely Trump will put Venezuela on the back burner.

Momentum

  • The humanitarian operation on the Colombian Venezuelan border effectively responds to a series of articles that came out suggesting that the U.S. and Venezuelan opposition had no Plan B. While both the Trump administration and Venezuelan opposition thought the Venezuelan military would quickly flip when Guaidó assumed the interim presidency, when this did not happen, it seemed they had no clear ideas for what to do next (see Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Bloomberg and Washington Post)

Negotiation

A group of deputies from the European Parliament were not allowed to enter Venezuela upon arriving over the weekend. In Venezuela this caused widespread confusion as many people thought they were part of the technical mission of the International Contact Group. However, the deputies were not actually even on an official European Parliament mission, but travelling on their own, invited by Juan Guaidó. One of them, Esteban González Pons of Spain’s Popular Party called for Spain to pull out of the International Contact Group. Venezuela policy is one of the main points of conflict between the Partido Popular and the Socialist government of Pedro Sánchez (see for example here).

However, EU High Representative for Foreign Affiars Federica Mogherini condemned Venezuela’s refusal to let the deputies enter, but quickly clarified that this would not have any impact on the ICG.Their technical commission arrives to Venezuela tomorrow.

  • Analyst Michael Penfold provided an extended analysis of the current context and suggested that turning international legitimacy into the power to govern will only be possible when a viable transitions is pacted among all relevant political actors.
  • A piece from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs suggested there needed to be a transition government including both pro and anti-Maduro forces that could then negotiate elections.
  • There have actually been some signs of openness to this within the opposition. Carlos Vecchio, appointed Venezuela Ambassador to the U.S. by Guaidó, pointed out that Chavismo controls 53 seats in the National Assembly and could work for the transition from there. Vice President of the AN Stalin González said more broadly “we need to give space to sectors of Chavismo that are not because we need political stability.”
  • The role of the Church has been in the spotlight. An Italian newspaper revealed that the Pope had sent a letter to Nicolás Maduro suggesting the time was not right for Vatican involvement since Maduro had not made good on commitments made in previous rounds of dialogue. An analytic piece suggests that the “positive” in positive neutrality means the Vatican is working behind the scenes for resolution. Father Arturo Sosa, Superior Provincial of the Society of Jesus, who is also Venezuelan, said there is no division between the national hierarchy and the Vatican regarding Venezuela and the need for a new government.

The goal of Venezuela Weekly is to provide a news digest that is brief yet highlights concrete information. As such most of our links will be to local and regional Spanish-language press. English-language links will be highlighted in bold.

Did I miss something important or get something wrong? Let me know at VenezuelaWeekly