The humanitarian crisis in Venezuela is reaching proportions not seen in Latin America since the 1930s. Meanwhile, USIP’s Keith Mines says the country is at a “tragic impasse, and that impasse is entirely political,” as both Juan Guaidó and Nicolás Maduro maintain their respective claims to power.

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.


Tim Farley: President Trump this week floated the idea in an interview with Axios, as Jonathan Swan had reported, that the United States, he might sit down with Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela. He didn't rule out the possibility. “I am never opposed,” is what he said. I would maybe think about that. He did later back off a little bit saying, “For now, I've said no.” But this has caused a reaction from a lot of Democrats, for example, who have dug down with the president's comments. The Biden campaign has gone after the president for this. Let's make sense of this and the related issue, the relations between the U.S. and Venezuela, with our next guest Keith Mines, United States Institute of Peace senior advisor for Columbia and Venezuela. He is tweeting @USIP. Keith, welcome. Thank you for being here today.

Keith Mines: Thank you. It's good to be here.

Tim Farley: Just in a very general sense, you know, we've heard the famous phrase from the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, where he had said, “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.” He was actually quoted at the United Nations by President Barack Obama. Is it different with Nicolás Maduro, or is there a problem with negotiating with Nicolás Maduro or even meeting with him?

Keith Mines: So, the Venezuela crisis is really at a tragic impasse and that impasse is entirely political. You've got two competing sides, each claiming to govern, neither able to completely control their country and its resources, and then added to that is a humanitarian crisis on a scale that we really haven't seen since the 1930s in the Americas. You really have to go back to the Chaco War to see the specter of famine in the hemisphere. Today there haven't been any really productive negotiations and there's not an established mechanism for negotiating. So there's been the talks that were associated with the last presidential election, it ended in frustration; before that, you had the Vatican that tried to get the two sides together to establish some basic rules for cooperation, get the country back to a democratic framework; going back before that, there were others but they never really panned out.

Keith Mines: And the supporters of the different talks didn't really stay with it. So you have players coming and going at different points, not really establishing the relationships required for success. So, while the two key protagonists are obviously Venezuelan, outside actors are involved to a degree that you can't solve it without them. And so there really does need to be some mechanism to draw them in protecting their interests in exchange for them supporting a resolution to the conflict. And that would be the United States, Russia, China, and Cuba. Of course, the U.S., there's no question the U.S. needs to be involved. It would be quite dramatic, I think, the jump straight from where we are now to a POTUS-Maduro meeting. So that's, that is a little bit dramatic, I think, for where we are at present, but there's been other ideas raised about how to maybe strengthen the ability to pass messages, to coordinate, to connect the two sides the United States and Venezuela. Óscar Arias last week raised the question of an eminence group, a very interesting idea that was used in Central America, of course, in the 80s. And the Norwegians are the kind of established negotiators that do some of this already, maybe could be strengthened. Some of us have called for a stronger role for the U.N., which is well-placed to do some of this as well. So there's, there's a need for this. I'm just not, I think that was probably, again, a bit dramatic, which is where some of the backlash probably came in.

Tim Farley: Well to the point, you've kind of described almost a World War One trench warfare in that both Nicolás Maduro and Juan Guaidó have enough support to keep themselves in consideration, but evidently not enough to be able to say, all right, I am the president and without issue, I'm going to remain the president and in charge, regardless of what you do. When you mentioned an eminence group, explain that a little bit more fully, what that would be.

Keith Mines: Well, I'll say what was done in Central America in the eighties was very prominent individuals, Nobel Prize winners, and others led by Óscar Arias, basically without a direct stake in the conflict—I mean, [he] obviously did because he was Costa Rican and the conflict was all around him, but he wasn't one of the, the protagonists—but they, he and some others were able to kind of come in and engage besides in a way that hadn't been done before. So, it was a very productive process that eventually laid the groundwork for the agreement to the end the Salvadorian conflict and, to a lesser degree, the Nicaraguan conflict that followed. So, it's basically prominent people that have the respect of both sides [that] are neutral enough that they can come in and do some of some of this work.

Keith Mines: The work to be done, it's interesting too. And I think this is something that Venezuelans are, are thinking through is exactly what is it they're looking for. They, what many Venezuelans say is that their last time they had an effective political pact was in 1958, the Pact of Puntofijo in which the parties of the day got together and established an agreement that bought them decades worth of political peace. It eventually broke down, but some say that something like that is probably what's needed now, not just getting to an election, which is the immediate issue, but even going beyond that to a kind of a larger political pact that would that would show that all the current actors that they have in place, and they're not going to be excluded going forward. And I think that's part of the challenge that they face is they both kind of framed it in an all-or-nothing pattern where it, you know, it's a winner-take-all framework. And I think they're going to have to get beyond that to a place where everybody sees that they have a place in the next phase of transition.

Tim Farley: Keith Mines with us, United States Institute of Peace senior advisor for Columbia and Venezuela, talking about the situation in Venezuela, specifically with reference to the United States. But I wanted to touch more on the people because as we have seen the economic crisis in Venezuela, as you mentioned at the beginning of humanitarian crisis is a proportions we have not seen aside from the fact that the oil price just dropped right through the floor, refugees have been leaving because of unemployment, challenges to find things just like food and medication, there's hyperinflation within the country. It does seem that it, I don't know that calling it a death spiral is very useful, but on the other hand, this is these seem to be dire times in Venezuela for the citizens.

Keith Mines: Yeah, it's, it is a very, a very difficult time that the Maduro regime has tried to do a couple of things to lessen the impact on the margins: they've dollarized the economy to a large degree and they've led it more imports and less than loosened up a little bit their framework for the private sector, which has been quite severe, but it's still it's in a, it's in a very bad place, five million, five-plus million people have left the country just for economic reasons. Now, those people are in play now, and many of them actually are going to start coming back because they've now lost their livelihoods in other parts of the region. So, there is actually going to be presumably more demand on the country when the refugees start coming back but it is a very, very difficult place.

And now the gas crisis is what has frozen, everything is frozen, movement and agriculture has suffered. So the gas crisis has made everything even worse. There was one kind of interesting thing a few weeks ago where the two sides were able to do a very small agreement with the Pan-American Health Organization. It was the first time they had actually signed a piece of paper together in quite a while, and that was to allow some humanitarian cooperation. So that was encouraging, and there was talk that, that could have maybe evolved into something larger. We still hope for that, because there's a real need for The World Food Programme to get into Venezuela. That's the real instrument for improving the humanitarian situation. The Maduro government has not deemed it fit to allow them in yet and that's something that really needs to happen to improve the humanitarian access. But also this small agreement could be expanded into something a little bit larger where the two sides cooperate. They each own a piece of the humanitarian crisis and their cooperation would really be, would really be helpful.

Tim Farley: Keith, before we leave, we've noted and you have noted some of the countries that have an interest. Obviously the world has an interest in seeing the people of Venezuela do better in just the most general sense, but specifically and strategically, there are other countries that have an interest. And I wonder as is so often the case in the world when we see an absence of a particular power in a particular country, is there a concern that there's a third party that might try to come in and take over that be even more problematic for both the people of the region and for the, for the world?

Keith Mines: Well, there's certainly, there's certainly outside players that have their own designs on the country, and that is something that has to be on disentangled and not all of them have good intentions, obviously for the future of Venezuela—the Russians and the Chinese and the Cubans are there for their own interests and not, not really with the future of Venezuela in mind, so that would have to be disentangled. I think at the same time, they're going to have to be like any other player and see that they have a way forward that works for them. And somehow covers their geostrategic interests or economic interests or whatever. They're there for in a way that that allows them to then cooperate on this, this critical next step of forming some kind of a political pact that allows the country a way forward.

Tim Farley: Yeah. When you mentioned China, it's fascinating to me because China often takes this public posture that they do not want, want to be involved in trying to determine the destiny of any particular country that they play the game of hands-off. This is one of the reasons why they vote the way they do in the Security Council at the U.N. so often, but it sounds like what you're saying, they have a vested interest specifically in Venezuela.

Keith Mines: Yeah, I think, but I think they need to be cognizant that they're losing support in the rest of the hemisphere because of what they're doing in Venezuela. And that's something that the Lima Group and others have tried to make clear for them. So they're, they're actually making a short term calculus, as I read it, in Venezuela that it's hurting them elsewhere. I mean, their, their instincts are totally global, which is very different than Russia that in this case really just wants a key ally in one place. It's not worried so much about the rest of the hemisphere. The Chinese are really want things everywhere across the hemisphere, and I think they, they stand to possibly lose that if they, if they continue to support a, you know, an outcome that is leading to just such dire outcomes for the for the Venezuelan people. So, I think there's a calculus there that is not really well thought through.

Tim Farley: Keith, Thanks so much for helping clarify some things for us. Obviously it's a lot of complicated developments yet to come we'll watch and see, and we'll get you back. Thanks for being on POTUS today.

Keith Mines: Thank you. It's good to be here.

Tim Farley: Keith Mines, United States Institute of Peace senior advisor for Columbia and Venezuela, the relationship between Nicolás Maduro and Juan Guaidó. Who's going to be in charge, the U.S., all tied in together. He is tweeting @USIP.

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