Friday, October 27, 2023

Challenges After Venezuela Summit: A Tough Road Ahead


The conference on Venezuela’s political crisis, which was convened by Colombian President Gustavo Petro, aimed to relaunch stalled talks between the Venezuelan government and the opposition ahead of presidential elections next year. However, after the five-hour meeting in Bogota on Tuesday, diplomats from 19 countries and the European Union struggled to come up with a concrete plan on how to get both sides back to the table, raising questions about what comes next. The Venezuelan government, which oversaw 2018 presidential elections that were widely considered illegitimate, has been accused of suppressing opposition voices – a campaign that some fear could ramp up before the elections in 2024. Meanwhile, the international community and the Venezuelan opposition have agreed that a free and fair vote could help resolve the crisis in the country, which has seen a mass exodus amid political instability and socioeconomic hardships.

The global energy crisis caused by the war in Ukraine, the massive exodus of more than seven million migrants and refugees from Venezuela, and a political shift towards the left in Latin America have put pressure on the international community to support the talks held in Mexico since 2021. Analysts said the conference in Colombia’s capital, which neither the Venezuelan government nor the opposition were invited to attend, helped firm up that support, but it also showed that any quick fixes to the Venezuelan crisis are unlikely.

While observers lauded the United States’s decision to send a high-level delegation, as well as President Petro’s new role in helping to promote dialogue, Maduro’s response to the conference deflated any expectations of a prompt return to negotiations. In a statement released by the Venezuelan Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Tuesday, the Maduro government outlined its conditions for restarting talks, including the release of Venezuelan diplomat Alex Saab, who is jailed in the US on money laundering charges, and the creation of a multibillion-dollar humanitarian fund that was agreed to in the last round of political discussions.

Both sides had agreed in November to unfreeze $3bn held in foreign banks to create a United Nations-administered fund that would provide humanitarian relief to impoverished Venezuelans and repair the country’s crumbling energy grid. It is still unclear, however, when the funds would be available, and analysts have said that unfreezing the assets could take time. Meanwhile, the foreign ministry statement omitted any mention of upcoming elections, which experts said appeared to show the Maduro government’s reluctance to negotiate fair voting terms.

Luis Salamanca, a political science professor at the Central University of Venezuela in the capital of Caracas, attributed that reluctance to the possibility of Maduro losing in the event of fair elections. “They don’t want to negotiate because they don’t want to risk the possibility of having power taken away from them,” Salamanca told Al Jazeera.

In 2018, Maduro won the presidency after barring opposition figures from participating. When the legislature determined the elections to be illegitimate, Juan Guiado, then a prominent lawmaker, declared himself interim president. The international community widely backed Guiado, recognising the opposition leader as the rightful head of state, cutting relations with Maduro, and applying new sanctions. But as Maduro held on to power, the opposition fragmented. In December, the opposition voted to dissolve the interim government led by Guiado as some countries in the region, such as Colombia and Peru, restored diplomatic relations with Maduro.

That change in the international approach to Venezuela has given Maduro a second wind and leverage when negotiating in Mexico, said Ronal Rodriguez, a researcher at Rosario University’s Venezuela Observatory in Bogota. “Maduro has defeated the ‘maximum pressure’ strategy led by the United States, Colombia [under former right-wing President Ivan Duque], and Brazil, and feels that he has favourable conditions to help him negotiate,” Rodriguez told Al Jazeera.

Guiado’s act of protest also demonstrated significant differences in opinion within the opposition. One side believed that talks and lifting sanctions on Venezuela will only help to empower Maduro, while the another, supported by the international community, considered lifting sanctions – in return for fair elections – as part of a solution to the political crisis.

Meanwhile, amid the continuing split on the prospect of returning to negotiations, the opposition has moved to unite in the lead-up to next year’s election, scheduling a primary in October that would determine Maduro’s main challenger. Some contenders, such as Henrique Capriles and Guiado, have decided to compete in the primaries despite being disqualified from participating in elections. If elected, they would be barred by the National Electoral Council from registering as a presidential candidate.

According to Jimenez at the Washington Office on Latin America, moving forward with the presidential elections without the rightful winner of the primaries, as well as a series of other guarantees, could further destabilise the country. While the exact terms for a level playing field are yet to be determined by negotiators, the European Union suggested 23 reforms after observing Venezuela’s 2021 regional elections.

These recommendations, which were mentioned at the Bogota conference, include greater independence for Venezuela’s highest court and balance in state-owned media coverage of electoral campaigns. “If the elections are not held with the guarantees that we would like to see, we could be talking about another six-year term mired in a deep political conflict,” Jimenez said. “We have to fight to turn these elections into an opportunity and not a continuation of the crisis.”

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