Venezuela Weekly: International Contact Group Renews Mandate and is Ready to Discuss “Concrete Options.”

[I have been traveling over the past two weeks and have fallen somewhat behind on the Venezuela Weekly. This edition will review the political conflict and realignment over the past week. Next week I will catch up on the other issues we cover: migration, humanitarian emergency, crime and violence, media and human rights.]

The International Contact Group (ICG) met on May 6-7 to analyze the situation and decide on its next steps (Spanish-language coverage here).

In their final statement, the ICG said it “is ready to undertake a mission at political level to Caracas, to present and discuss concrete options for a peaceful and democratic solution to this crisis.” This will likely be a rescheduling of the vice-minister level mission to Caracas that was to take place last week. The mission will provide some concrete proposals that could focus the parties on a negotiated electoral path.

In the statement the ICG said they would set up a humanitarian working group in Caracas to facilitate the humanitarian response. They also pointed out that the meeting was attended by representatives of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the Vatican and Chilean Minister of Foreign Affairs and accepted the Lima Group’s invitation to meet.

The results of the meeting were more robust than anticipated in recent weeks, most likely because the April 30 uprising. The latter obliged the postponement of a high level technical mission scheduled for last week, but underlined the urgency of finding a political solution to the crisis.

What happened on April 30?

In the rest of this edition of the VW I will summarize what we know about the confusing events of April 30, as well as the consequences for the shape of the conflict and efforts at forging a solution.

  • The uprising started at dawn with National Assembly President, declared Interim President Juan Guaidó releasing a Twitter video claiming that elements of the military had decided to recognize his presidency and end Nicolás Maduro’s usurpation. He called on citizens to go to the streets and show their support. The most salient aspect of the video was the appearance of López who had been under some form of arrest for over 5 years. However, only hundreds appeared on the street, most likely because of the risk of violence.
  • Within two hours loyalist National Guard started to repress the demonstration, including an incident in which an armored vehicle ran over a protestor, which was broadcast around the world.
  • By noon, Vladimir Padrino López appeared on television suggesting that reports of him and other officials turning against Maduro were “fake news.”
  • The one official that did turn against Maduro—Sebin Director Manuel Ricardo Cristopher Figuera—made public a statement explaining his actions and suggesting others were negotiating behind Maduro’s back.
  • Around two in the afternoon, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton called out the three officials implicated in the plan who had not turned on Maduro: President of the Supreme Court Maikel Moreno, Minister of Defense Vladimir Padrino, and Head of the Presidential Guard Iván Hernández Dala. Shortly after Bolton’s statements, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested that Maduro had readied a plane to flee the country, but that the Russians had talked him out of it.
  • While there were rumors throughout the day that negotiations were taking place, which gained credence from the fact that Maduro had not appeared. By late afternoon Maduro appeared and stated that what had happened was a fake coup that had included military personnel under false pretenses.
  • López first sought refuge in the Chilean Embassy and then moved to the Spanish Embassy. Two dozen troops that supported the uprising sought refuge in the Brazilian embassy.
  • During all of this, much of Venezuela’s internet signal was blocked, returning only 20 minutes before Maduro was to speak that evening

What happened behind the scenes on April 30 and before?

  • The puzzlingly amateur character of the uprising lead many to suggest that Guaidó and López might be trying to do something other than carryout a coup d’etat such as trying to get arrested and thereby provoke foreign intervention. However, López’s seeking refuge in the Spanish Embassy in the afternoon made clear that it had simply been a failed uprising.
  • A number of journalistic reports have described what happened behind the scenes allowing for a probable explanation to be forwarded (in English see the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal’s coverage. In Spanish see El Confidencial, El País, Efecto Cocuyo, Armando.info, El Pitazo and Infobae.com)
  • All of these sources suggest that indeed there was a conspiracy and that there had been meetings in Bogotá, Panamá and the Dominican Republic. The agreement would have the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Maikel Moreno emitting a ruling that would give the National Assembly executive powers, eliminate the National Constituent Assembly, release political prisoners, and call for elections within one year. Maduro would leave the country.
  • Some versions say it was planned for May 1st, some for May 2nd. All agree that it was moved up to April 30, but disagree on the reasons.
    • Some sources have suggested it was Leopoldo López’s desire for a leading role and that when he appeared on the early AM video it spooked the government officials involved, leading them to back out of the plan (See El Confidencial and El Pitazo).
    • Others have said it was SEBIN Director Cristopher Figuera that decided to move up the operation because Moreno and Padrino López were backing out of the plan and Figuera feared he would be arrested (see Infobae.com).
  • This second explanation seems most likely since the hurried, haphazard nature of the operation seems more consistent with it being under threat, than simply being moved up by López (see Infobae.com). It would also be consistent with suggestions that that Padrino López and others never intended to turn on Maduro and used the overtures they received to smoke out the plotters (see Wall Street Journal). And this would explain why U.S. government officials called out Padrino López and Moreno. If there really had been a solid agreement with them and coordination had simply been off, it would be more rational to regroup and reinitiate contact than entirely burn these relationships.
  • Whatever the reason for moving the coup attempt up, Guaidó and López tried to generate a self-fulfilling dynamic by presenting their operation as a fait acompli. But with only a hand full of supporters and soldiers at a non-central military base, they did not convince many and within a couple of hours the uprising had been reduced to a pretty standard confrontation between protestors and National Guard.

Where does it leave the political conflict?

Opposition

  • Despite opposition spin that the April 30 operation was only meant to be the beginning and that Maduro’s coalition was mortally wounded, the failed operation clearly left the opposition weaker than they were before, and there is no evidence of a clear fracture in the military.
  • While Guaidó is still freely circulating, the TSJ has accused ten AN deputies of treason, after the ANC removed the parliamentary immunity of seven of them. This includes leading AN figures such as Henry Ramos Allup, Édgar Zambrano and Américo de Grazia. One deputy has already sought refuge in the Italian Embassy.
  • As this edition is published, Zambrano has been taken by the SEBIN which towed his vehicle with him in it after he refused to surrender to them.
  • It is not clear whether Leopoldo López will be able to communicate and negotiate as freely as he did before since Spain has aid it “will not permit its embassy to be converted in to a center of political activity by Mr. López, or anyone else.”

Maduro government

  • While the Maduro government easily put down the uprising and remained largely unified, having the head of the SEBIN turn against the government as well as all of the journalistic reports of negotiations among high ranking officials and the opposition, provides a clear sense of fragility. Statements from the U.S. that sanctioned government and military officials could be alleviated of them, and the lifting of sanctions on Cristopher Figuera provides a clear incentive for officers to defect.
  • Maduro has responded by purging the military of 54 officials who were apparently involved.

United States

  • The U.S. has very conspicuously suggested that it is reviewing military options for Venezuela, including a well-announced meeting at the Pentagon. This comes after some confrontations between Bolton and Pentagon officials regarding the latter’s reluctance regarding military action. It has also responded to suggestions it has repeatedly miscalculated in Venezuela, by affirming it does indeed have good intelligence on Venezuela. Florida legislators have been pushing the idea that Venezuela is a threat to US national security suggesting Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are all there. Some reports suggest that Trump is more cautious than Bolton and Pompeo with respect to military intervention.
  • Trump spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday and concluded that Russia had no interest in intervening in Venezuela. However, two days later, Foreign Minister Lavrov met with Venezuelan Foreign minister Jorge Arreaza. Meetings between Pompeo and Lavrov in Finland failed to achieve anything other than highlighting the two countries’ differences. Indeed, experts suggest that the possibility of an agreement with Russia is remote.
  • Vice President Mike Pence suggested the US would be offering opportunities to military officers who “do the right thing moving forward” and will sanction the 25 Supreme Court judges who have not been sanctioned if they do not “uphold the Constitution.”

Where does it leave peacemaking efforts?

As suggested above, last week’s events have given a sense urgency to those groups that are working on conflict resolution.

  • After a rather undiplomatic statement two weeks ago inviting the International Contact Group to conform to the Lima Group’s political line, on May 3 the Lima Group suggested it would propose to the ICG an urgent meeting to seek convergence in purpose.
  • The Lima Group has reached out to Cuba, seeking to integrate it in work for a solution to the crisis, and called on Russia and Turkey to contribute to a democratic transition. Canada has also spoken with Cuba. Cuba has responded saying that Maduro would only participate if Maduro requests it. Context for these overtures comes the Trump Administration’s activation of Title III of the Helms-Burton Act which allows for lawsuits over property confiscating in the 1959 revolution. The affects not only Cuba but Canada and Spain which have significant investment in Cuba.
  • Dimitris Pantoulas described Venezuela as a catastrophic deadlock and suggests a solution will only come when the sides seek solutions that do not include the eradication of the other.
  • The International Crisis Group released an analytical piece recommending the “formation of a transitional cabinet including representatives of both Chavismo and the opposition.”
  • The events of April 30 make clear that there is considerable back-channel negotiation already taking place between the two sides. However in a conflict of these dimensions, this type of direct negotiation often leads to more intrigue and betrayal than actual progress. As the Contact Group suggested in their analysis. “Left to their own devices…the two sides are unlikely to reach a workable agreement.”