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The US and Venezuela’s opposition must change tack

The writer is a professor of political economy at IESA business school in Caracas

In February, Juan Guaidó went on a global tour in an attempt to re-energise Venezuela’s exhausted opposition. Recognised by almost 60 countries as interim president, Mr Guaidó met French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in London and US President Donald Trump in Washington. Shortly after, the US reiterated its commitment to ousting Nicolás Maduro from power and that it would continue the hardline policy formulated by Mr Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton.

Yet four months later, Mr Maduro is still in power. This is despite Venezuela’s growing humanitarian crisis, an exodus of 5m refugees and fresh rounds of US sanctions that have done nothing to split the military from the government. 

Meanwhile, Mr Guaidó has struggled to keep the opposition united. It has little to show for itself politically; repression has seen dozens of key figures jailed or forced into exile; financial scandals and a failed armed incursion from Colombia have also stained its reputation. It is time for the opposition and its international supporters to recognise that a different approach is required. 

The latest blow to any chance of resolution of Venezuela’s crisis came on June 12, when the government-controlled Supreme Court appointed the five members of the National Electoral Council (CNE). This dashed hopes that December elections for a new parliament — the sole stronghold of opposition power and the institution from which Mr Guaidó draws his claim to the presidency — would be overseen by a neutral CNE. 

The court also arbitrarily granted leadership of the two largest democratic parties to opposition politicians loyal to the government and threatened to declare Mr Guaidó’s own party a terrorist organisation. This rendered Venezuela’s main opposition parties impotent. 

Essentially, the move left the regime well placed to elect a new parliament using the same kind of electoral manipulations that led to Mr Maduro’s illegitimate 2018 election as president. It also left the opposition and the US struggling to respond. 

Mr Guaidó and the US have since considered declaring the continuity of the current parliament and thereby extending (albeit without a clear democratic mandate) Mr Guaidó’s claim to the presidency. Yet this would surely prompt the regime to force his parallel government into exile. 

Regretfully, the experience of regime change by exile is dire. That has certainly been the experience of Cuba, Venezuela’s closest ally. Indeed, the only real political difference between Venezuela and Cuba now is the size of Venezuela’s domestic opposition and the popular support and international acceptance it enjoys. These elements are now at serious risk. 

What should happen instead? For one, US policy should change — whether Mr Trump loses or wins November’s US presidential election. He has alternately praised Mr Maduro as being “tough” and said that invading the country would be “cool”, according to Mr Bolton’s memoirs. What is clear is that US policy has failed to produce regime change. The international isolation it has fostered has, meanwhile, led the regime to cement relationships with authoritarian states such as Iran, Turkey and Russia. It has also pushed the Maduro government to deepen links with illegal organisations that help supplant the oil revenues lost since the country’s energy sector collapsed.

An alternative way forward is to resume the so-called Oslo process that seeks a negotiated democratic settlement. The US previously suggested a framework that involved Mr Maduro’s rendition — an idea with little chance of success. Instead, the US should unconditionally embrace a more flexible transition process.

It will require several elements. The key political figures required to facilitate this transition will need real guarantees for their safety if they are to participate. At the same time, diplomatic strong-arming will be necessary from both the opposition’s and the government’s international allies. One format could see the EU, US, Russia, China, Colombia and Cuba support the talks, from a so-called “second floor” of the negotiations, as happened during Colombia’s 2012-16 peace talks. Venezuela’s military should also be there as an observer. 

At this point, neither side has a strong incentive to re-engage. Yet talks are probably the sole way forward. Only a negotiated solution can isolate extremist actors on both sides who believe, against all evidence, that exterminating the other is the best pathway to restoring constitutional rule in Venezuela.

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