Venezuela is mired in a prolonged, multifaceted crisis, to which no solutions are in sight. In the wake of the country’s December 2020 parliamentary election, the EU needs to rethink some of the basic premises of its policy toward Venezuela. Instead of quarreling about which domestic actors and political institutions should be recognized as democratic, the EU should approach the country through a lens of conflict resolution. While a democracy-based framework divides the EU and a broad range of other external actors, a framework focused on conflict resolution may increase the chances of a more coordinated international response. That approach may be more likely to lead—eventually and indirectly—to some kind of inclusive political settlement in Venezuela.
A fresh approach to a protracted stalemate
On December 6, 2020, Venezuela held a parliamentary election, which was widely regarded as deeply flawed. Important parts of the opposition, including the party of Juan Guaidó, the then president of the National Assembly, refrained from participating in the vote. That led to both a very low turnout—around 30 percent—and a comfortable win for President Nicolás Maduro’s governing party, which secured 91 percent of the seats in the parliament.
In terms of domestic politics, the new situation in Venezuela offers little promise. With Maduro strengthened institutionally and the opposition fragmented, there seems to be no way out of the protracted political stalemate that began with the opposition’s victory in the 2015 parliamentary election. The country’s economic collapse, which started with the decline in oil prices in 2014, continues unabated, as does the resulting humanitarian emergency. The impasse should prompt external actors to reassess their approaches to the Venezuelan crisis.
So far, the EU and others have operated on the premise that the challenge in Venezuela is either to save a democratic regime in the process of erosion or to help restore democracy after a temporary crisis. An alternative to this democracy framework would be to understand that Venezuela now has an entrenched authoritarian regime confronted by a long-running intrastate conflict and a deep humanitarian crisis. This situation calls for efforts at peace mediation and conflict resolution accompanied by international humanitarian assistance.
Such a shift in framework would mean rethinking three key elements of recent international debates and responses vis-à-vis Venezuela: the recognition of individual leaders, the normative evaluation of political institutions and processes, and the emphasis on competitive elections as a way out of the crisis.
The election of Venezuela’s new parliament presents an opportunity to move beyond a focus on the status of Guaidó. The controversy since 2019 over whether to recognize the opposition leader as interim president of the country has not helped the situation in Venezuela. And it has divided the EU, Latin America, and the broader international community.
Whatever observers may think of the newly elected parliament, there is no question that it exists and that Guaidó is not a member of it. Correspondingly, in a declaration on behalf of the EU on January 6, the union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, referred to Guaidó merely as one of the “representatives of the outgoing National Assembly elected in 2015.” In acknowledging that Guaidó is one—albeit prominent—representative of a broad range of “political and civil society actors,” Borrell’s statement also responded to the fragmentation of the Venezuelan opposition and the fact that the personalization of the conflict between Maduro and Guaidó has not helped the cause of democracy.
Yet, while EU foreign ministers on January 25 explicitly confirmed the framing of Borrell’s declaration, it is far from unanimously shared in the EU. Only a few days earlier, an overwhelming majority in the European Parliament had adopted a resolution calling on ministers and EU member states to “unequivocally recognise” Guaidó as the legitimate interim president of Venezuela.
Statements by the new U.S. secretary of state, Antony Blinken, suggest that the administration of President Joe Biden will continue to recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s head of state. In contrast, the Lima Group, which brings together several Latin American countries and Canada and has been very critical of the Maduro regime, on January 5 issued a statement in which it referred to Guaidó no longer as Venezuela’s interim president but merely as the head of a “Delegate Commission” established by the National Assembly.
Political institutions and processes
International actors need to abandon an interpretive framework that treats Venezuela as a case in which democracy is under threat and requires protection. Such a framework apparently continues to guide the EU’s approach to the country. The January 25 statement by EU foreign ministers lamented “the deteriorating situation of . . . democracy in Venezuela” and emphasized the EU’s willingness to “adopt additional targeted restrictive measures against those undermining democracy and the rule of law.”
This position assumes that the remnants of a previously democratic regime are still evident and are being undermined. To be sure, Venezuela could for some time be described as undergoing a process of democratic erosion or decay. But this characterization is now out of touch with political realities on the ground. Assessments of Venezuela’s political regime by research outfits such as the V-Dem Institute, Freedom House, the Bertelsmann Transformation Index, and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance make this clear.
Since the 2020 election, the status of Venezuela’s political regime should be obvious. There are no democratic institutions left to protect—neither a government nor a parliament that would comply with even minimal democratic standards. The Maduro government is the official executive with which external actors, including the EU, have to deal. Recognizing this political reality does not imply that the EU or its member states should acknowledge either Maduro or the new parliament as democratically elected. It only means accepting Venezuela’s political regime for what is it and not what one might hope for.
Offering diplomatic recognition to a state without democratic legitimacy is nothing remarkable for the EU. It is what the union routinely does in its foreign relations, as openly cooperative ties with authoritarian regimes around the world show. In addition, this approach does not mean ignoring the existence of opposition forces, such as those led by Guaidó and others—even if the democratic credentials of at least part of the Venezuelan opposition are ambiguous.
So far, the question has been how far the EU supports Venezuela’s opposition against the regime, and this has focused debates on who is democratic and who is not, and who should decide this. A framework of peace mediation and conflict resolution would instead enable the EU to focus on the dynamics of the political conflict, the major stakeholders and their interests and values, and the question of what a promising process of negotiations toward an inclusive political settlement could look like. As the EU’s official concept on peace mediation puts it, “mediation requires being open to speaking to all peace and conflict stakeholders whose positions have a bearing on the prospect for sustained peace.”
To be sure, in the past, the EU has shown its willingness to speak to all stakeholders. But the urge to classify them first according to their democratic standing has not been helpful in this regard. No one had to consider the former FARC-EP guerrilla group a democratic opposition before welcoming and supporting peace negotiations with the Colombian government. The EU was not bothered whether Iran’s government—or its parliament, for that matter—was democratically elected when it came to negotiating the 2015 nuclear deal.
Shifting the framework for the EU’s relations with Venezuela would also mean that the “targeted restrictive measures” threatened by the union should not focus on “those undermining democracy or the rule of law” but be considered as potential means to push the Maduro regime—or parts of it—toward meaningful negotiations. In the same vein, a conflict resolution framework would not imply that external actors should ignore Venezuelan civil society. Yet, instead of encouraging the democratic opposition in an immediately political sense, the EU’s priority would be to foster inclusive civic mechanisms and capacities that deliberately cut across sociopolitical cleavages with a view to improving the foundations for longer-term democratization. Such a shift in focus might well open up new possibilities for EU engagement and support for civil society actors on the ground.
This is categorically not to suggest that the EU should not care about Venezuelan democracy. Indeed, any lasting solution to the current crisis will most probably require a return to some kind of democratic regime. Yet, it is far from obvious that early competitive elections would offer a plausible path forward. Again, the 2020 vote provides an opportunity for a shift in emphasis.
Statements by Blinken reiterating the aim to “restore Venezuela to democracy, starting with free and fair elections” suggest continuity on the part of the United States. Yet, for the EU, the situation looks somewhat different. Before the 2020 election, the EU tried—and, ultimately, failed—to enable a reasonably free and fair process. Right after the vote, the International Contact Group, in which the EU and some member states play a key role, reiterated a previous statement that “credible, inclusive and transparent legislative and presidential elections” are “the only sustainable solution to the Venezuelan crisis.” More recently, however, the EU has suggested that elections will instead be the outcome of “a Venezuelan-led dialogue and transition process.”
Within a conflict resolution framework, the question of competitive elections and, thus, the restoration of democracy would be matters for future negotiations aimed at fostering an inclusive political settlement. Such a settlement might well deliberately limit electoral competition, for instance by introducing some kind of power-sharing agreement with mutual protections.
In and of itself, a shift from a democracy-based framework to one focused on peace mediation and conflict resolution would offer no solution to Venezuela’s protracted, multidimensional crisis. A fresh approach would neither solve the substantial issues that stand in the way of promising negotiations between the Maduro regime and opposition groups nor end the conflicts that divide the range of external actors that are engaged in Venezuela. Yet, such a shift might contribute to breaking the current stalemate. Since early 2019, the controversy over the recognition of Maduro or Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela and the broader challenge of how to deal with the competing political institutions that were temporarily in place have distorted efforts to coordinate an international response to the crisis.
Of course, even a united EU cannot, by itself, sideline the democracy question—in particular as the new U.S. administration seems inclined to continue recognizing Guaidó—and this should not be the union’s ultimate objective. Still, if at least a core of international actors around the EU and the International Contact Group agrees to lay to rest the controversies outlined here, this could enable a new initiative that aims at bringing together a broad and politically balanced group of governments and international organizations. These stakeholders might jointly have more leverage and entry points to push for meaningful negotiations and, eventually, contribute to paving the way out of the current impasse. At the same time, getting past some of the more explicitly political international disputes would help expand global efforts to address Venezuela’s dramatic humanitarian crisis.