Previous attempts at talks provide valuable lessons on the role of international facilitators in the face of a government consolidated in power, a fragmented opposition, sanctions, and a humanitarian crisis in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
By Ingrid Jiménez
The hope of a negotiation regarding the complex Venezuelan politics gains momentum again. Juan Guaidó and Nicolás Maduro are willing to engage in a new process with the aim of unlocking the political game of the country, affected by economic and financial sanctions, poverty, forced migration, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is still too early to determine whether the door to negotiation will indeed be reopened. It is therefore timely to look back at the international facilitation initiatives that have taken place over the last twenty years.
Let us begin with the Round of Negotiation and Agreements (Mesa de Negociación y Acuerdos), initiated in 2002 after the difficult situation of governability arising from the confrontation between the government of Hugo Chávez and the democratic groups, in the face of the first authoritarian signs of Chavismo. This first process was decisively supported by the international community, being headed by Cesar Gaviria (at the time Secretary General of the Organization of American States [OAS] and former President of Colombia), the Carter Center, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and a group of countries friendly to Venezuela such as Brazil, Chile, the United States, Spain, and Portugal.
It should also be reminded that Maduro, a Chavista National Assembly congressman, was part of the negotiating team. The objective of this process was to find a solution to the crisis through the ballot box, as it is today 20 years later, when Chavismo is a consolidated regime.
For Martínez Meucci (2010), the facilitation focused on materializing the presidential recall referendum, disregarding other important issues such as the establishment of the Truth Commission and the disarmament of the civilian population. This was seized by the government to delay holding the referendum, which took place 17 months after what had been agreed, amidst the most unfair advantages for the regime ever witnessed in the country. The result of these tactics was the ratification of Hugo Chávez.
Just as the first facilitation process took place in the midst of the opposition insurrectional process that culminated with the coup d’état of April 2002, the following attempt took place in the midst of the growing protests staged in the country in 2013. The reason for such demonstrations was the doubts about Maduro’s legitimacy, also later in 2014 when a section of the opposition decided to resume the insurrectional path.
This attempt turned out to be much less thorough than the first one and was called directly by the government by establishing the National Conference for Peace (Conferencia Nacional por la Paz), which operated in the Miraflores Palace (seat of the Executive) between February and April 2014. On this occasion, the Union of South American Nations ([Unión de Naciones Suramericanas, UNASUR] USAN), the foreign ministers of Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and the Apostolic Nuncio in Caracas were facilitators.
This second facilitation failed very quickly. No agreement was reached regarding the installation of a Truth Commission or the consensual appointment of the members of the Citizen branch of government (as per the Venezuelan constitution, formed by the Attorney General’s Office, the Ombudsman’s Office, and the Comptroller’s Office) and the electoral authority (another branch of government in Venezuela).
The third facilitation occurred shortly thereafter in a completely different context. In 2015, the democratic groups overwhelmingly won the election of the National Assembly, and immediately began the process to activate a recall referendum against Maduro. As in 2014, the initiative for facilitation came from the government itself, this time with José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (former head of the Spanish government), Leonel Fernández (former president of the Dominican Republic), and Martín Torrijos (former president of Panama). The former presidents were joined by Ernesto Samper, Secretary General of UNASUR / USAN, along with Paul Tshering and Claudio Mario Celli, envoys of Pope Francis as international accompaniers (not observers).
It soon became evident that the government had no intention of reaching any agreement, let alone allowing a recall referendum. For this reason, the Vatican decided to withdraw, when it realized that no progress was being made.
A year after this third attempt, and following the unconstitutional ruling from the Supreme Court of Justice suppressing the powers of the National Assembly in March 2017, a new cycle of protests began in the country. At that critical moment, the fourth international facilitation hosted by the Dominican Republic was initiated. José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Danilo Medina, President of the Dominican Republic, and his Foreign Minister Miguel Vargas returned in their roles. The formula of convening friendly countries was also repeated, in this case Mexico, Chile, Nicaragua, and Bolivia, which formed a Follow-up Commission.
As expected, this facilitation also failed because it was not possible to reach minimum agreements between the parties. Consequently, the government of the Dominican Republic, the host country of the talks, declared the process in an indefinite recess.
In 2019, after presidential elections without minimum competitive conditions allowed the reelection of Maduro, the then National Assembly Speaker Juan Guaidó was sworn in as Interim President. His constitutional basis for such action was the interpretation of vacant seat of the president’s office.
Following new conflicts, a fifth attempt to unblock the prolonged Venezuelan crisis was made. The Kingdom of Norway, with extensive experience in these issues, decided to facilitate mediation.
In total, seven meetings were held in 2019 on the island of Barbados and in Oslo, in which no agreement was reached either. The only point to be discussed for the Maduro government was the lifting of sanctions, a measure that was not in the hands of either the Kingdom of Norway or the democratic groups. Despite having the support of the Contact Group sponsored by the European Union, this process came to an end without any concrete results.
In sum, all these facilitation processes show several factors to consider for the future: First, the systematic demolition of institutions by Chavismo makes it impossible to resolve the conflict without international facilitation; secondly, the regime is consolidated, so it will be much more difficult to reach an agreement than in 2003 or 2014; thirdly, free elections have been the main request of the opposition since 2002, without truly fair contests being held so far. It must be considered that, in all negotiations, the government has refused to make concessions in electoral matters, because it knows that they imply losing power; fourth, the opposition is very fragmented. While there are factions advocating for a peaceful solution to the conflict, there is a minority that disagrees with any type of negotiation.
Under this complex scenario, international facilitation must develop a multilateral strategy. While the United States and the European Union are key players, it will not be possible to reach a mutually satisfactory agreement without factoring in Cuba, Russia, and China.
There is also a favorable juncture, since the government’s strategic objective is the lifting of sanctions. In this regard, it has already stated its willingness to make some concessions, as was the case with the election of the board of directors of the National Electoral Council.
The experience in 2002 and 2003 is valuable to understand the role that international facilitation should play in the Venezuelan conflict. In the event that an agreement allowing free elections is reached, there must be a framework for basic conditions of competitiveness, with the return of international observation in mind.
History plays against the success of a new international facilitation process, and it is still early to see clearer signs. Therefore, we can only ask ourselves: Has the time come for negotiation in the country?