The Race to Consolidate Power and Stave Off Disaster
Since May 2016, the Union of South American Republics (UNASUR), an intergovernmental organization comprising 12 South American states, has attempted to mediate between the government and the opposition, in the hope of averting a meltdown. In October, after the Venezuelan government-controlled electoral commission (CNE) waved off a constitutional referendum and indefinitely suspended local elections—blocking an electoral resolution until the 2018 presidential elections—the Vatican stepped in.
Those mediation efforts have predictably failed, thanks to an inability on the part of the mediators and other outside parties to impose real costs on the government. Since March, the Maduro government has violently repressed street demonstrations, resulting in over 70 deaths, and it continues to imprison at least 120 of its political opponents. The government has resisted calls to hold elections before 2018, refused to recognize the right to a constitutional recall referendum, and, most recently, called for an illegal constituent assembly to revise the constitution. However, it has faced no consequences from the mediators.
Meanwhile, the economic and social situation in what was once one of the region’s richest countries is collapsing. Some 11.4 percent of Venezuela’s children are malnourished and 10.5 percent of its workforce is unemployed. The economy is on track to shrink for the third straight year, with GDP set to drop 20.7 percent below its 2014 level, and inflation expected to reach 1,700 percent.
As the mediation efforts first floundered then stalled, Venezuela’s economic, humanitarian, and political crises continued to deepen. The country is now on the brink of becoming a failed state. To stop Venezuela’s slide into chaos, Latin American states and actors outside the region, such as the United States, need to develop a coordinated policy that pressures the Venezuelan government into respecting human rights and threatens it with real consequences should it fail to do so.
To effectively mediate a conflict, mediators must make sure the parties involved face real consequences for their actions. Outside actors must threaten to impose costs for noncompliance—sanctions, for example—or promise to provide benefits for compliance, such as financial aid or improved diplomatic relations. In the Suez crisis of 1956, for example, the United States convinced Israel to withdraw its troops from the Suez Canal zone by threatening to cut off military support. During the Sudanese Civil War in 2005, the United States managed to force the government and the rebels to strike a deal when Washington made it clear that failure to do so would lead to a downgrading of diplomatic relations. And sanctions—or the threat of sanctions—were crucial to resolving conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and, more recently, in pressuring Iran to negotiate over its nuclear program.
Yet so far, neither UNASUR nor the Vatican has made Venezuela pay any real price for failing to cooperate. As a result, in November 2016, the Vatican/UNASUR efforts were officially suspended after the opposition walked away, claiming—with legitimacy—that the government had used them to distract from any genuine discussion. Maduro and his allies had failed to meet even minimal conditions for negotiations, such as the release of political prisoners and respect for human rights and the constitution, and the mediators had failed to demand or enforce the same.
Latin American nations have also been reluctant to impose real costs on Venezuela. This is partly due to the region’s historic resistance to any perceived intervention, and partly because of the breakdown of the Organization of American States (OAS), the hemisphere’s primary post-World War II multilateral organization. At the heyday of democratic consensus in the hemisphere in the late 1990s and early 2000s, OAS member states amended the body’s charter to allow it to react to democratic breakdown through means such as diplomatic isolation and voluntary sanctions. Since then, however, the region has become more polarized, both ideologically and economically. The election of Maduro’s predecessor, former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, coincided with a wave of populist left-wing leaders across the region, as well as a surge in oil prices. This allowed oil-rich Venezuela to cultivate allies and build diplomatic support by providing cut-rate oil to Caribbean and select Central American countries.
The mediation efforts have also failed for another reason: they are not based on any principle of international law. This stems from the nature of UNASUR itself, which lacks a normative framework for promoting human rights and defending democracy, focusing instead on notions of national sovereignty, non-intervention, and regional solidarity. In fact, the opening preamble of the UNASUR charter commits the organization to “unlimited respect” for state sovereignty. As I’ve argued before in Foreign Affairs, such a position stands in contrast to the founding principles of the majority of postwar multilateral organizations, which are committed to protect human rights and international norms.
As the political scientists I. William Zartman and Saadia Touval have written, successful mediators “try to promote solutions that can be interpreted as compatible with the standards of the Geneva Conventions and of their charters.” Doing so reassures participants and observers that the mediation efforts are based on international standards and on restricting the power of a state to abuse citizens or engage in crimes against humanity with impunity.
Even as regional efforts at mediation have failed, the United States has, over the past two years, imposed sanctions against more than a dozen Venezuelan officials for offenses including corruption, drug trafficking, money laundering, and human-rights violations. Among those sanctioned have been the vice president, Tareck El Aissami, and members of the Supreme Court, after its March decision to shutter the National Assembly. Yet these sanctions have only targeted individuals, rather than the government or the entire country (like the U.S. embargo on Cuba). Individual sanctions can be a valuable tool in forcing government officials to reconsider the personal costs of repression. But it is unclear whether they are damaging enough to bring the government to the negotiating table. At the same time, many of the countries that have supported recognition of the democratic breakdown in Venezuela—such as Argentina, Canada, Colombia, and Mexico—have remained mute on sanctions, both regarding the United States’ and their own intentions.
Heading off an even deeper economic and political meltdown will require more forceful international intervention to support serious mediation efforts, which remain the most stable and democratic path out of Venezuela’s current death spiral.
But that requires realism. Other Latin American countries need to recognize that continuing to deal with the Maduro government without imposing costs on it is insufficient. Not all governments in the region will agree to such a strategy—Venezuela still has ideological allies in countries such in Bolivia and Ecuador, and still counts on the loyalty of some of the Caribbean beneficiaries of its Petrocaribe oil program, such as St. Vincent and Grenadines, Dominica, St. Kitts and Nevis. The repeated failures of efforts at the OAS to gain a majority of its 34 members to express their concern over human rights violations in Venezuela (a minimal standard)—most recently in June at the OAS General Assembly—have demonstrated that it is time for a more informal but committed collection of countries to establish their own costs and benefits for Venezuela. As a result, the region’s diplomatic heavyweights such as Argentina, Canada, Colombia, and Mexico, need to step up and threaten their own sanctions.
What should those sanctions include? As the cases of the Suez crisis and Sudan have shown, threatening to cut off or downgrade diplomatic relations provides a powerful incentive. Such threats won’t work from the United States, given that Maduro cynically and reflexively blames Washington for all of his troubles, but they could work from many of Venezuela’s neighbors, who have for too long have clung to a regional norm of non-intervention to justify remaining on the sidelines as the country festers. Second, as the case of the former Yugoslavia demonstrates, economic pressure can bring even the most genocidal autocrat to the negotiating table.
Latin American countries should demand a reset of mediation efforts as quickly as possible—which should include a demand for Venezuela to respect human rights and a timetable for it to meet these demands. Specifically, they should demand that any future efforts at mediation begin with the government respecting basic international norms by releasing political prisoners, ending the repression of peaceful protestors, restoring the constitutional powers of the democratically elected National Assembly, promising to investigate abuses by government forces, and agreeing to an electoral calendar for the unconstitutionally suspended elections. As comparative analyses have shown, such conditions have been key to the success of past efforts stretching back decades.
Should the Venezuelan government fail to meet those demands, regional governments need to be prepared to impose sanctions, including targeted sanctions on government officials, and should consider withdrawing their ambassadors. While the Maduro administration has shown a remarkable willingness to impose economic suffering on its own people, it still craves international and diplomatic credibility. Governments across the region need to be prepared to deny the Venezuelan government that credibility as a means to bring it to the mediation table for meaningful, democratic dialogue.
Finally, the regional community needs to be ready to offer Venezuela financial and humanitarian aid should its government decide to negotiate an end to the crisis in good faith. Short of such concrete costs and benefits, further mediation is doomed to fail, as it has—predictably—in the past.