Washington and Brussels articulate a joint foreign policy stance towards Venezuela without lifting sanctions against the Caracas regime. Here is an analysis of the reactions from, impact on, and perspectives among local actors.

By Ingrid Jiménez

Despite President Biden’s short time in office, international politics is moving on both sides of the Atlantic. Once again, the Venezuelan crisis is more prominent. The statement issued after the last summit held in Brussels by the United States (US) and the European Union (EU) shows a joint strategy regarding Venezuela, which has become a real challenge for Western diplomacy, as all dialogue and negotiation initiatives have failed.

Since Barack Obama’s administration, the US began to harden its position towards the Venezuelan regime by applying economic and financial sanctions that increased during Trump’s four years in the White House. The EU, with a much more moderate rhetoric, enforced individual sanctions against high-ranking government officials from Chavismo.

Unlike the US, the Europeans have always insisted on the need to settle the conflict through elections with democratic guarantees, under a phased negotiation scheme. This is far from the zero-sum game encouraged by the Trump administration and by not so few sections of the Venezuelan opposition.

The U.S. and EU joint statement along with Canada is a clear sign of both powers’ shift regarding their policy towards Venezuela, and constitutes an implicit recognition of the failure of sanctions as a means to produce an immediate change of regime. The text reads, “We welcome substantive, credible advancements to restore core democratic processes and institutions in Venezuela and are willing to review sanctions policies based on meaningful progress in a comprehensive negotiation.” It further calls for the convening of “all political actors in Venezuela,” and not just the so-called interim government headed by former Congressman Juan Guaidó.

In fact, a more moderate opposition faction led by former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles and numerous civil society organizations actively participated in the negotiations that made possible the appointment of a National Electoral Council. This body included two directors not belonging to the ruling party. This faction is the one that has been patiently working on making way to reopen the electoral game as a mechanism to trigger the organization of the democratic groups. 

This new less coercive and more pragmatic policy is likely to contribute to unlock the complex Venezuelan political game. The statement mentions the search for: “A time-bound and comprehensive negotiation process should restore the country’s institutions and allow for all Venezuelans to express themselves politically through credible, inclusive and transparent local, parliamentary, and presidential elections”.

As always, the crucial point is the free elections; but the text stresses the importance of local elections as a first step. The statement implicitly recognizes that achieving a presidential election is a long-term objective that entails the fulfillment of countless guarantees currently non-existent in the Venezuelan electoral system.

As is known, Maduro’s only objective in the future negotiation is the lifting of sanctions. However, this seems unlikely if no major concessions are made by the regime in the coming months. Although the statement is worded in a conciliatory tone, it is clear in its demands: “We call for the unconditional release of all those unjustly detained for political reasons, the independence of political parties, freedom of expression including for members of the press, and an end to human rights abuses”.

Maduro’s initial gestures have been the release of some political prisoners, the appointment of the new National Electoral Council as mentioned above, and the offer to eliminate state and municipal “protectors”. These have been officials appointed by the President of the Republic to exercise executive duties in the states and municipalities where pro-government candidates lost the elections.

Under this complex scenario, local elections cannot be assessed exclusively from the perspective of a change of power in national offices. It is essential to frame them within the negotiation that is gradually taking shape. 

There is still time to organize moderately competitive local elections, especially if an EU electoral observation mission is sent. The divided opposition leadership, faced with a demobilized electorate, has the challenge of rebuilding a democratic platform in a few months; but all must be clear that the commitment and close monitoring of the Europeans and the Biden administration will be crucial to achieve this goal. 

After the tumultuous Trump years, the alignment of Washington and Brussels’ foreign policy towards Venezuela puts the country on track for a perhaps slower but more realistic solution to its two-decade-old conflict.

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