Sixth Time’s The Charm For Venezuela Negotiations?

Last weekend marked the sixth and latest round of negotiations between Venezuela’s government and its opposition. The two actors are working to move the country past its dictatorial rule and out of its protracted humanitarian crisis. For over two years, opposition leader Juan Guaidó has sparred with Venezuela’s incumbent president, Nicolás Maduro, over his rightful claim to the presidential palace. Meetings between their parties had led to nothing. All the while, Venezuela’s economy continued to plummet: joblessness and poverty rates have soared, inflation became rampant, and the conditions have led to a mass exodus of citizens to bordering nations. As global attention shifts once again to the negotiating table, is there reason to be more optimistic?

One difference this time around is Guaidó’s attitude. After Maduro won a rigged election in 2018, Guaido named himself interim president and has been recognized as such by over 50 countries including the United States, United Kingdom, and members of the European Union. At the time, Guaidó was relentless in his rhetoric about removing Maduro from power, a sentiment echoed by then-U.S. President Donald Trump. “Guaidó and other members of the opposition have all but conceded that their attempts to oust Maduro have failed,” reports Alex Vasquez of the Washington Post. The rhetoric from Guaidó and his party suggest a more concessionary approach to dealing with Maduro. Their attention has shifted towards the regional elections in November, and Guaidó’s primary focus is securing guarantees that those will be fair.  

Maduro himself has changed as well. Compared to earlier meetings, it has become unmistakably clear that Maduro is unable to stop Venezuela’s economic collapse. Since 2013, the country’s economy has contracted by an astonishing 75 percent and left 7 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. Maduro’s public reassurances have lost their weight among many of Venezuela’s citizens as each of his policy solutions proved ineffectual. According to The Economist, Maduro’s approval rating among Venezuelans is a mere 16 percent. The Economist’s Venezuela correspondent, Stephen Gibbs, believes Maduro’s push for sanctions relief from Western countries⁠—particularly the United States⁠—is likely an attempt to gain [some] respectability.  

The United States, too, is watching these latest negotiations through a different lens. Under Trump, the U.S. took a hardline position against Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian tactics and responded by slapping crippling sanctions on Venezuela. President Joe Biden has taken a more conciliatory approach, and his administration looks prepared to play a longer game. The Biden administration has indicated a willingness to gently loosen sanctions in return for good behavior and has placed particular emphasis on Venezuela ensuring free and fair elections this November.

Guaidó’s opposition party has followed Biden’s lead: they have recognized that Maduro is not going to walk out of the presidential palace soon and are therefore devoting their efforts to ensuring more robust democratic institutions. There have also been signals that Maduro may not run in the 2024 presidential elections. His agenda at these talks might be merely to set in motion some sort of exit plan. For Guaidó’s party, this means the primary focus is shifting towards running a successful presidential campaign. 

In any case, tempers appeared lower last weekend. Another contributing factor is that this is the second meeting this month to receive greater international oversight. The talks are being hosted by Mexico and mediated by Norway. Unlike past meetings, Mexico has also secured the formal backing of other countries in the negotiations including the Netherlands, Russia, Bolivia, and Turkey. It is a “key change” that there is a broad range of international players at the negotiating table now, says The Economist’s Stephen Gibbs. 

Yet, the increased attention from abroad is not reflected among the Venezuelan people at home. Five years ago, the populace expressed strong feelings about politics; today, many have lost hope. “Politics has become a dirty word,” says Gibbs. The silver lining, though, is that Venezuela finds itself in a considerably less polarized situation in which people are eager to get on with their lives. For now, the latest conversations between Venezuela’s dueling political parties are echoing this sentiment. Even so, past talks have descended abruptly into shouting matches, and members of the opposition party remain skeptical. Progress remains slow⁠ and highly fragile.

The first round of Mexico-hosted talks earlier this month were sullied by the spurious arrest of Freddy Guevara, fellow opposition leader and close ally of Juan Guaidó. Last weekend, too, the talks got off to a rocky start when representatives from Maduro’s party arrived a day late over concerns about Norway’s objectivity in mediating the negotiations. Their intentionally delayed arrival was prompted by public comments made by the Norwegian Prime Minister about the humanitarian situation in Venezuela. Matters on the ground also have the potential to raise tensions, as the steady flow of migrants out of Venezuela continues to prompt violent clashes at the border. On Saturday, several Chilean civilians set fire to belongings at an immigrant camp during a 3,000-member protest at the Venezuelan border. If sanctions continue to cripple Venezuela’s economy and flatten its chances of recovery, the exodus of Venezuelan citizens will only fuel these border disputes.     

Western leaders, with the Biden administration at the helm, must continue to advance a strategy of incentives rather than punishments. Trump’s attempt to force Maduro’s hand through sanctions has proven ineffective, and given the latter’s waning popularity at home, the most peaceful way forward is to grant quid-pro-quo concessions to deescalate the political, economic, and humanitarian crises in Venezuela. Meanwhile, Norway must tread carefully to preserve its impartiality in the negotiations. This is especially important in light of the Venezuelan government’s concerns this weekend over Norway’s objectivity. Given the slow rate of progress, Norway’s involvement in the matter must stay restricted to the responsibilities of arbitration. As for the other Western countries involved, they must make it clear that these ongoing negotiations are the sole path towards economic concessions.  

Caleb Loughrin

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