Venezuela enters 2022 with persistent challenges but also some tangible opportunities. Left behind are the unrealistic aspirations of the immediate exodus of Chavismo — leaving room for the incremental development of democratic co-existence. But for any positive change to occur, the Maduro government and democratic opposition will need to return to the negotiating table, where they have established a platform for coordination and progress on issues such as restoring democratic institutions, humanitarian relief and, ultimately, elections. The international community, especially the United States, will be a key player and should not fall into a pattern of inertia. In the Venezuela of 2022, small efforts can make a real difference in the lives of ordinary citizens.
It would be easy, even defensible, for supporters of democracy in Venezuela to disengage and sit on the sidelines. For many, there simply is not a clear to-do list, and there is the ever-present fear that any direct engagement in the country’s problems simply emboldens the autocrats. But a closer look reveals several things in play that could make a material difference in the lives of Venezuelans while keeping alive options for re-democratization in the future. Here are four things to keep an eye on in the coming year:
Supporting Local Solutions to Local Problems
Unsurprisingly, the November 2021 regional elections were dominated by the ruling party. In a generally bleak landscape, only four of the 23 governor’s contests went to the opposition, although there were some bright spots. The contest in Barinas, the birthplace of Hugo Chavez and a traditional bastion of Chavismo, was finally decided after a revote on January 9, orchestrated by the Maduro regime after a loss in November. Shocking many observers, the regime lost a second time, revealing of the lack of broad support for the ruling party, especially the further one gets from Caracas. Electoral results at the local level reinforced this analysis, with a third of the 335 mayoral races going to candidates other than the ruling party, up from only 29 in the last election in 2017. This gives the democratic opposition the opportunity to chart a course and govern locally.
It will not be an easy course, since resources and power ultimately continue to reside in the central government, but as the opposition governors and mayors have found in the past, there is still much that can be achieved that will make a difference in the lives of Venezuelan citizens and that will help to bolster support for democratic forces moving forward. The international community can support these local officials by not punishing them for participating in a contested election, as has happened in the past. Rather, international actors should reach out and offer as much help as is possible to bolster their standing and their profile.
International actors can also do much to support the “re-institutionalization” of the country — defined by some civil society actors as the process of preserving and strengthening what remains of the country’s democratic institutions — while keeping open the door to a full restoration of democracy in the future. Accepting that Venezuela’s reset to democracy will not come in a single weekend of dramatic power plays or a massive march on the palace, but rather incrementally, many Venezuelans are focused on these more modest changes.
As one recent example, the negotiated appointment of a more balanced National Electoral Council by the Maduro government in 2021 allowed for an improved, if still flawed, election in November. A process of renewal for the Supreme Court is slated to take place in the upcoming months. Democratic forces and their international supporters should learn from their small victory in the appointment of the electoral authority and seek to influence the renewal of the judiciary, further contributing to the re-institutionalization process.
A More United Opposition
A second area where the international community can be helpful is in promoting unity among the opposition. The democratic opposition is justifiably sensitive about this persistent call for unity from outsiders, which they perceive as unfair given the wide variety of democratic parties in any other democracy. Still, in the recent November election, Venezuelan election analyst Anibal Sanchez notes that basic unity would have won the opposition six additional governorships while deeper coordination could have won them as many as ten.
Lack of unity splinters the democratic forces in ways that are destructive both to winning elections and showing the Venezuelan people that they have the means to address the country’s problems. The plummeting support for the opposition from a high of over 60 percent to the low teens today demonstrates the cost of this weakness. The opposition should be encouraged to develop new mechanisms for selecting leaders, allowing for a broader expression of democracy that does not dismiss whole swatches of the opposition as Maduro government collaborators and gets away from the poisonous personalism that has been the bane of Venezuela’s political system from its inception.
A persistent issue in the question of unity is the status of the interim government of Juan Guaido, which was established three years ago as an alternate pole to the ruling government after the opposition-led National Assembly of 2015 declared Nicolas Maduro illegitimate. For the third year, members of the 2015 National Assembly met in late December to extend the mandate of the interim government. They have changed the decision-making structure from that of a presidency, however, to an 18-member delegate commission chosen from the members of the National Assembly, which was sworn in on January 7.
But despite the controversy it ignites, there is an opportunity in this interim government, which is still supported by many Venezuelans and is recognized by the United States and a handful of other countries. Significantly, it will have some say over the management of Venezuelan assets abroad and could provide a place for joint action if it is inclusive and has consultative links with all political parties and with civil society.
No Substitute for Negotiations
All opportunities for positive change will be enhanced, and some can only be brought about, through a continuation of the negotiation platform established in Mexico City last year. The three rounds of talks to date, with facilitation by Norway, have been productive but a bit halting, ending in November with a government walkout over the U.S. extradition of Maduro associate and envoy Alex Saab from Cape Verde to the United States.
The negotiations had the highest number of women involved to date of any previous rounds, two on each side, and explored the inclusion of civil society in future talks. Moreover, they set a political framework that established a basically respectful relationship and largely affirmed political co-existence as the intermediate goal, setting aside efforts to crush one another. There is no guarantee that the negotiations will restart, but it will be a huge lost opportunity if they do not.
The development of a semi-permanent platform of negotiations could create some openings in the year ahead for cooperation on humanitarian issues that require the release of Venezuelan assets abroad — assets that the opposition controls but needs coordination with the Maduro government in order to utilize for humanitarian purposes.
Another possibility — largely aspirational at this point — should be at least entertained. Many proposals for restoring democratic institutions in Venezuela call for a form of joint or blended government. Such ideas are not realistic, given the insistence by both sides to adhere strictly to the Venezuelan constitution, which makes no such allowance. But there could be space to channel many national decisions to an established negotiating body for resolution and collaboration.
So, the Mexico City talks have set the stage for small but persistent gains in humanitarian and institutional matters. Ultimately, they could provide the platform where more important decisions about elections might take place. It is imperative that the negotiations continue.
A Key Role for the United States
The key player in supporting the continuation and expansion of the negotiating table is the United States. The United States has shifted its earlier position of opposing negotiations — now acquiescing and even offering conditional support for them. But to achieve real progress, the United States would need to be more even involved, putting relief from sanctions on the table as the only real leverage that could create the conditions for substantial progress.
Some Venezuelans have suggested a “roadmap” that would allow the United States and the Maduro government to more clearly align concessions with benefits. On the U.S. side, this would largely revolve around offering sanctions relief in support for democratic progress inside Venezuela, closely coordinated with the democratic opposition. Given the ease of snapback for most U.S. sanctions, this arrangement could be safely employed without fear of emboldening or strengthening the Maduro government.
The next year will not have the drama of 2021, which featured high expectations for the incoming Biden administration followed by key Venezuelan elections. But the opportunities to improve the country’s dire humanitarian situation, rebuild or preserve key institutions, enhance unity among democratic forces and allow local officials and others to govern with at least some effectiveness should not be missed.