THE CRISIS IN VENEZUELA:
Some Fresh Options
By Grace Jaramillo, Fellow, CIDP
Originally Published: 18 January 2018
Venezuela just moved one further step into the downward whirlwind of polarization and civil violence. Just this past week, lieutenant Oscar Perez was executed — all captured on Facebook Live — while the lieutenant was asking for the possibility of surrender to the official forces. Lieutenant Perez was leading one of the many rebel groups which had taken up arms against the government of Nicolas Maduro. Lieutenant Perez did exactly what former lieutenant Hugo Chávez did in 1993, for which he was pardoned the following year. Notwithstanding this precedent, Maduro is meeting all uprisings with the full force of the government — including the military. As the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights has declared that the Venezuelan government may have committed crimes against humanity, it is fair to ask when and how this crisis started and more importantly, what can be done to address it.
If we should mark a date for the commencement of the latest democratic breakdown, it should be April 14th 2013. By this time, the economy was in dire straits. From 2004 to 2013, amidst a boom in oil prices, Venezuela had already run fiscal deficits of around 17% of GDP, according to the Venezuelan economist Ricardo Hausmann. In the preceding months, the regime had contracted immense amounts of debt. Following a dramatic drop in the price of oil, the government desperately overheated the economy in order to guarantee an easy re-election for a cancer-ridden populist leader. Chavez won the presidency for the third time in October 2012, without being able to campaign in person due to his treatment. He would never be sworn into office.
The result was immediate political turmoil. Maduro assumed power and faced the immediate effects of the economic crisis. His economic team halted payment of imported goods almost immediately, expropriated even more private companies and called the crisis an economic war initiated by the so-called ‘oligarchy’ and the United States upon Venezuela. The effects were devastating for the population as a whole: food scarcity and harsh restrictions on basic grocery items like toilet paper and diapers followed. The imposed price controls and ensuing food and supply rationing pushed the country into a full-scale humanitarian crisis.
Amid the chaos, including incommensurable scarcity and inflation of almost 700% a year, the administration called for the election of a Constitutional Assembly in March 2017. The election became immediately questioned not only by the National Assembly — which has the constitutional authority to sanction it — but also by the international community that considered the decision as yet another move into a full dictatorship.
It should be noted that Chavez was himself victim of a coup-d’etat in April 2002 that although only lasting a few days, certainly weighs on Maduro’s mind now. While the military restored Chavez to office in 2002, trust between the military and the civilian leadership remains low. Today, Maduro has been a loyal follower of the steady move towards a socialist regime similar to Cuba where there is no market economy, but more importantly, where democracy in all its content and formalities, is non-existent. In short, he is centralizing power.
For its part, Latin America as a region has failed Venezuela. The polarization and division along ideological lines have poisoned any reasonable path to mediation through Latin American channels accepted by all sides, like the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the newly created Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). Even the Organization of American States (OAS) is staying out of this crisis, even though arbitration of democratic breakdowns is mandatory under its charter. UNASUR managed to get a mission of mediation approved by the Venezuelan government but, for a variety of reasons, failed to bring about a lasting solution.
So what are the realistic options for Venezuela and what can be done internationally to help Venezuelan democracy? There are three important principles that need to be considered in order to start solving the crisis. Albeit difficult to attain, any peaceful solution of Venezuela’s crisis needs a combination of all three.
First, direct US involvement needs to stop. For years, Venezeula has perpetuated a narrative of animosity and open propaganda that blames the US for all Venezuelan ills, including gruesome involvement in Chavez’s death. Moreover, the Bolivarian revolution only wins whenever there is a perception that US will try to meddle in Venezuelan affairs. US intervention disempowers the organized opposition. Moreover, the unilateral batch of sanctions by the US and the unhelpful inclusion of Venezuela in President Trump’s recent address has only made the problem worse by providing the Socialist government in Venezuela the perfect justification for economic hardship, food scarcity and even authoritarian control.
Second, the UN needs to take a leading role. Only a mission backed by a UN Security Council resolution can make the Venezuelan government change course. Mediation has been tried in the past: UNASUR set up a commission of accepted international leaders to set up dialogue but they did not have the leverage to have Maduro’s regime accountable to its commitments and as a result, it quickly lost confidence among opposition leaders. Moreover, the lack of consensus among Latin American leaders about the Venezuelan crisis has resulted in division and polarization in the three international organizations that can oversee a working mediation scheme (OAS, UNASUR or CELAC). These three organizations treated the crisis as a zero-sum game, hence the need for the UN intervention. If there is going to be an enforceable arrangement that prevents a conflict of unpredictable proportions, the United Nations has to get involved. The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres needs to secure a mandate from the Security Council to conduct a truly impartial mediation process with committed professionals and leaders acceptable to both sides with a mandate to find a democratic and transparent solution to the crisis. Interestingly, some positive signs that a Guterres-led intervention can make a difference happened just last week when the president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Julio Borges, accepted the dialogue proposed by Guterres, advancing some conditions that could make it feasible. It can be a good starting point to a new, enduring solution.
Finally, Latin America should lead the process of mediation but with new actors. The humanitarian crisis is already ongoing with spillover effects in most neighbouring countries. Despite recent quarrels and ideological disputes inside its long-standing organizations, comparative regionalism has demonstrated that regional bodies are the best institutions to guarantee compliance and long-term supportive commitment. The African Union has been far more successful at implementing peace agreements in Sudan, Rwanda and Uganda than UN agencies or foreign forces. Latin America also has a long tradition of post-conflict compliance bodies in border disputes, like the five guarantors in the peace agreement between Ecuador and Peru and the Contadora Group in the Central American Peace Process. Latin American countries can reach common ground through GRULAC, the Group of Latin American States that deliberates and works together at the United Nations. GRULAC could lead UN efforts and move the debate forward to avert a humanitarian crisis like Syria in a near future. Even more, the Secretary General of the OAS, Luis Almagro, could be an active part of this initiative empowering its own region into action into a wider and authoritative forum.
The three principles of regional buy-in, UN leadership, and frankly, US patience and willingness to step back, are the best hope for the Venezuelan people. History suggests this attempt could work, and only through the will and commitment of Venezuela’s neighbours and the UN itself, will we know for certain.