At the end of last year, Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly voted to disband the “interim government,” led by Juan Guaidó, a four-year project designed to displace the country’s ruler, Nicolas Maduro. This comes amid a shifting regional landscape, with newly elected leftist governments in neighboring Brazil and Colombia supporting a negotiated solution to the conflict, and a more nuanced approach from many of the opposition’s traditional international supporters. The key to progress in the year ahead will be maintaining consistent negotiations, which remain the most efficient venue for key decisions, such as on elections, and engagement. There are several key ways to help nurture and sustain these talks, and to make them more impactful in achieving short-term improvements in the lives of the Venezuelan people.
A Return to Negotiations
After a hiatus of over 15 months, the government of Nicolas Maduro and members of the democratic opposition, represented through a “Unitary Platform,” returned to Mexico City on November 26 to sign a humanitarian agreement and announce that political negotiations would resume. Some are skeptical the talks will last, others that they will yield anything. Both views are reasonable given the long record of five rounds of unproductive, truncated talks going back to 2014.
Just over a month after the formal talks were re-launched, the opposition parties of the National Assembly elected in 2015 — which many in Venezuela and abroad recognize as the country’s last remaining democratic institution — voted virtually to dissolve the interim government. (The opposition-controlled National Assembly was technically replaced by a new legislature loyal to Maduro after elections in 2020 that lacked legitimacy.) The interim government was established in January 2019 using a constitutional provision that allows for the head of the National Assembly to take the reins of power when there is a void in governing legitimacy.
The interim government was a gamble from the start, established to provide a shock to the country’s political, civil and security institutions that would realign the country’s power base and displace the Maduro government. From a high of 85 percent in the early heady days of 2019, the alternative government’s support is now in low double digits due to the failure of the gambit to remove Maduro. In agreeing not to extend the interim government further, the assembly established a commission to oversee the country’s assets abroad, preventing access to the Maduro regime.
The international perception of the interim government has tracked generally with that inside Venezuela, with support declining from 60 countries in mid-2019 to only six at year’s end, including the United States. American officials initially expressed caution about abandoning the interim government, but have since clarified they accept the will of the opposition and will support the new approach, which allows the opposition to return to challenging the government without the burden of trying to govern without resources and real power. There are other significant changes in the international environment as neighbors Colombia and Brazil are normalizing relations with the Maduro regime, and other regional players similarly expressing support for a new approach.
These various shifts leave neither side with much popular support, and with needs that can best be met with sustained and serious negotiations, even if the ruling party has the upper hand in an asymmetric dynamic.
Here are six ways to help sustain negotiations through the year.
1. Keep U.S. sanctions in play as a negotiation tool.
From the start, the Venezuelan negotiations have been challenged to productively bring to bear the only real leverage the opposition has over the Maduro regime: relief from U.S. sanctions. Employing sanctions relief as a tool is often difficult due to U.S. domestic criticism that it emboldens a dictator. But for the talks to continue and to ultimately bear fruit, American policymakers will need to continue to offer sanctions relief in coordination with the democratic opposition and in response to genuine steps by the government to open political space, while avoiding the negotiations morphing into a dialogue between the United States and Maduro regime.
In addition, the United States should begin to think about how to restore a relationship with the Maduro government, which many close to the regime believe it wants just as badly as sanctions relief. The curtailing of diplomatic relations in 2019 as part of the decision to elevate the opposition to governing status was a bold move, but only made sense when there was a chance the interim government could displace the ruling regime and govern. That point has long passed, leaving the policy of non-recognition doing arguably more harm to the United States and its democratic allies than to the regime itself. Reestablishment of some form of diplomatic relations would require political will and legal creativity in Washington. But it is a step most other countries have now taken and could help advance other areas of bilateral relations such as migration, in addition to facilitate support for democratic actors inside Venezuela and the negotiations themselves.
2. Expand representation in the talks.
One of the areas that could limit progress in the talks and ultimately reduce popular support for their outcomes is the lack of broad inclusion of other political parties, human rights groups and victims, and civil society in general. There have been several efforts to increase participation, notably the Memorandum of Understanding signed in August 2021 that included a provision for “consultation mechanisms with other political and social actors.”
There are a number of proven means to broaden participation in negotiation processes, including sending parties to listen to citizens in different parts of the country, setting up a “second table” of civil society that is available outside the negotiating room to comment and bring technical advice and new ideas to the negotiation team, and delegating members of civil society to the implementing bodies of partial agreements. Among the actors who could be incorporated via such means are newer democratic political parties that made a good showing in the mayoral elections of 2021, human rights organizations and victims, and associations of civil society and the business and religious communities.
3. Communicate more effectively.
Polling data among Venezuelans consistently shows support for a negotiated solution to the conflict, but at the same time they are skeptical negotiations will succeed. If and when there is progress in talks, there is currently no clear mechanism for the opposition to convey it. The regime has a massive public messaging mechanism at its disposal and uses it with some effectiveness to sell the notion that the negotiations demonstrate its acceptance by the international community and the inability of its opponents to deliver for the Venezuelan people. The opposition needs a more agile and comprehensive messaging system both internally and with the international community to convey the gains and challenges of the negotiation process and what can be achieved by their continuation.
The messaging should often be keyed to any agreements that improve the lives of the Venezuelan people. Recent Delphos polling shows 36 percent of Venezuelans believe the situation in the country is improving, with the top two preferred goals of the negotiations being improving the economy (57%) and measures to permit humanitarian assistance (17%) to enter the country. A negotiation process that yields small gains in day-to-day living will yield far greater support than one set up to channel politicians engaging in existential political combat.
4. Stay focused on the needs of the Venezuelan people.
One area on the table that would improve the country’s humanitarian situation is unlocking Venezuela’s assets abroad. There has been tenuous agreement on how to move forward on this, but it will require sustained effort, compromise by the two parties and a strong and consistent push by the international community to bear fruit.
On the first day of the resumption of the talks in Mexico, the parties signed an agreement to unblock over $3 billion dollars in Venezuelan assets abroad to be managed by the U.N. in a fund that will finance humanitarian projects in health, electricity, food security, education and climate change adaptation. These priority projects will be defined by a “Social Attention Board” composed of three representatives from each party, with the opportunity to convene experts and civil society on an ad hoc basis for consultations.
The agreement also creates two subsidiary bodies to the general “Negotiation and Dialogue Table”: a verification commission and an “overcompliance” group. The verification commission will be composed of five representatives from each of the parties and a representative from Norway. This commission will last as long as it takes for the humanitarian projects to be fully implemented and will continue functioning if the negotiations are suspended or terminated before such a milestone. The “overcompliance” group is a body created by the parties to identify and study the effects of international sanctions on Venezuelan assets abroad.
5. Forge opposition unity through competitive primaries.
The democratic opposition has made a concerted effort to maintain unity amid the evolving political and international environments. Success in the negotiations will require them to forge deeper unity in the year ahead, taking advantage of what democratic space they have to hold primaries to elect a candidate for the 2024 presidential election who can also provide leadership for the negotiations process and serve as an interlocutor for the international community. The profile of the leader who emerges from the primary will also signal the opposition’s approach to the negotiations and elections. The international community can do a great deal to support the Venezuelan opposition’s planning and designing of the primary elections.
6. Enlist the new governments of the region.
Many countries in Latin America supported the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign, but the failure of that effort and the election of left-wing governments throughout the region has produced a shift in favor of a negotiated solution to the conflict. Governments in Brazil, Colombia, Chile and others could form a new group of friends and guide the Maduro regime in the direction of competitive leftist politics and away from revolutionary authoritarianism. Key countries in Europe could also help advance reconciliation between the two parties. Brazil and Colombia will have special leverage given their shared border and socioeconomic interdependence with Venezuela.
An Exercise in Patience
The Venezuela crisis has been the result of two decades of government repression, failed messianic economic projects, and vitriol and rancor that has come to define Venezuelan politics. Digging out from the morass will take years, and will be achieved incrementally, not in a single 48-hour period the way many have hoped over the past four years. The Venezuelan people almost universally want change, but they prefer that it be at the ballot box, not through the barrel of a gun. For all the tragedy they have experienced these decades, they continue to believe in their capacity to produce democratic change. With patience, skillful diplomacy, and a combination of pressure and incentives, the international community supporting the country’s return to democracy can move the negotiations along in a positive direction, helping to create the conditions for democratic coexistence between Venezuelans.
Nicolas Devia-Valbuena is a research associate for USIP’s Latin American Program.