27. May 2021 | EDP Wire | Jonas Wolff

The EU, Venezuela, and democracy promotion: A rejoinder to Elliott Abrams’ comments

In this EDP Wire, Jonas Wolff responds to Elliott Abrams’ critical comment on an article Jonas published earlier this year with the European Democracy Hub.

In his blog post “The EU and Venezuela: More Bad Advice”, published on the website of the Council on Foreign Relations, Elliott Abrams critically reviews my thoughts on “A New Framework for Dealing with Venezuela: From Democracy to Conflict Resolution”. His thorough and blunt examination of the arguments presented in my piece for the European Democracy Hub is most welcome, given that I would far from pretend to simply know what should be done. In fact, I don’t. My much more humble suggestion was and still is that it might be worthwhile reconsidering an approach that has been tried without much success. In a nutshell, I argued that the EU should shift from what I call the “democracy framework” to a “framework of peace mediation and conflict resolution”. Abrams’ comments give me the opportunity to clarify some issues and tease out key differences between his approach and the one I am arguing for.

The “democracy frame” and the question of democracy promotion

To start with an important misunderstanding, or misinterpretation: While Abrams suggests that I see “the problem with EU policy in Venezuela” in the fact “that it has been promotion democracy”, this is actually not what I argue. The problem, I submit, is rather that the EU approach is based “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”. This is what I call the “democracy framework”. The alternative framework would, instead, recognize “that Venezuela now has an entrenched authoritarian regime confronted by a long-running intrastate conflict and a deep humanitarian crisis”.

This is not to say that the (ultimate) goal should not be to promote democracy. My argument, however, is that the aim to promote democracy is simply not served by the types of policies that have been tried so far and that Elliott Abrams continues to advocate. Sure, recognizing the then president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, as the legitimate, and somehow legal, president of the country and supporting him through all kinds of means looked very much like doing democracy promotion. And the same may apply to the series of sanctions imposed on Venezuela. Yet, empirically, as far as I can see, neither of these activities has actually promoted democracy. Supporting inclusive dialogue with a view to reaching a negotiated political settlement, the alternative I favor, does not automatically and necessarily lead to democracy either. Still, as experiences from around the world show, it can lead the way out of protracted stalemates and, thereby, pave the way for subsequent political reforms.

The “conflict resolution frame” and the question of neutrality

Probably the most important argument Elliott Abrams makes against the “conflict resolution frame” concerns the charge that it refrains from taking side in the intra-Venezuelan conflict but adopts a position of “neutrality”. His counter argument has both a domestic and an international dimension. With a view to Venezuelan domestic politics, Abrams sees a “murderous and repressive” regime on the one hand and “democrats hanging on desperately to their principles and their lives”. In this conflict, the EU “should be backing negotiations […] and backing the democratic opposition in those negotiations“. This is also important, he suggests, because at the international stage the regime has “the backing of Russia, China, [and] Cuba”. “Democratic nations”, therefore, have to back the other side.

This criticism of my position contains both another misunderstanding but, perhaps more importantly, also reveals a key distinction between the “democracy frame” and the “conflict resolution frame”.

As to the misunderstanding: In my piece, I argue that under the current political circumstances in Venezuela, the quarrel over the democratic legitimacy or the democratic credentials of the different stakeholders, representatives and institutions is not particularly helpful. In contrast, given that external actors disagree on these questions, these debates have contributed to obstructing a coordinated international response. Notably, these disagreements do not simply reflect a divergence between democratic and non-democratic governments (like the above-mentioned Russia, China and Cuba). They also divide Latin American democracies and the EU itself.[1]

Also, whereas in Abrams’ binary world view there can be no one else but either backers of dictatorship or genuine democrats, the reality – everywhere and also in Venezuela – is much more complicated. The two of us agree that the Maduro regime is authoritarian and repressive, and that there are currently no political institutions in Venezuela that can plausibly claim democratic legitimacy. But this does not mean that all those opposing the regime are “democrats hanging on desperately to their principles”, as Abrams has it. I think it is hard to doubt that the political opposition, and the wider range of sociopolitical forces that oppose the current regime, include a most heterogeneous range of individuals and groups. Some, for instance, supported the 2002 coup against then-President Hugo Chávez and/or more recent attempts at a military upheaval or foreign invasion. Others supported Chavismo for a long time and, in one way of another, aim at recuperating the Bolivarian revolution (to just mention two subsectors).

Now, one could engage in endless debates about which of these positions should be regarded as disqualifying the corresponding groups as part of the “democratic opposition” (and what about those parts of the opposition that continue to participate in Venezuela’s existing institutions?). But this is precisely the type of controversy the shift from a democracy to a conflict resolution frame aims at overcoming. The test, in a nutshell, would not be about the democratic credentials or the democratic legitimacy of the different stakeholders but about their willingness to engage in meaningful negotiations.

The result, then, is not a position of “neutrality”, but a position that judges and treats sociopolitical actors according to their behavior vis-á-vis negotiations and the overarching aim of peaceful conflict resolution. This can imply, as I explicitly emphasize, the use of sanctions. But while the EU envisages “targeted restrictive measures against those undermining democracy or the rule of law”, the conflict resolution frame would consider threats, sanctions and incentives as “means to push the Maduro regime – or parts of it – toward meaningful negotiations”.

But the controversy at hand is not only about misunderstandings. There is also a crucial political difference between Abrams’ position and the approach I defend. Understanding the Venezuelan crisis as a struggle between good (“the democratic opposition”) and evil (the “murderous and repressive regime”), Elliott Abrams favors a strategy that lends decided support to one side (the good guys, to be sure, which always happen to be simultaneously pro-democracy, pro-capitalism, and pro-US). While it is to be appreciated that he also argues in favor of a negotiated solution, the effects of this strategy in the case of Venezuela can be observed (and are hardly unexpected): External actors, by choosing clear-cut sides according to their respective preferences, inhibit any serious internationally coordinated strategy, tend to cancel out their respective strategies vis-á-vis the Venezuelan crisis, while jointly contributing to the deepening of intra-Venezuelan polarization.

A conflict resolution frame, in contrast, would aim at reducing polarization in Venezuela, with a view to enabling the building of bridges between (parts of) the supporters and/or members of both the regime and the opposition. At the same time, such an approach would try to bring together as many external actors as possible behind the joint aim to move negotiations forward (which, I happen to think, is not entirely futile with a view, e.g., to Cuba but also China, perhaps even Russia).

Supporting democrats versus promoting democratization

In the end, I belief, the controversy at hand reflects two fundamentally different views on what “democracy promotion” can or should entail in the case of contemporary Venezuela. For Abrams, promoting democracy means supporting democrats against their opponents, be it through material and diplomatic support, covert operations, economic sanctions or open military interventions. In line with the broader neoconservative worldview, democratization occurs as a result of the struggle between good and evil and the key task is to shift the balance in favor of the former. The alternative view conceptualizes democratization as a messy and complicated process in which all sorts of actors, many of which are hardly genuine democrats, participate. Such a process becomes even more complicated when the question of democratization combines with the challenge of dealing with an at least partially violent intrastate conflict and a humanitarian crisis. While I clearly tend towards the latter approach, I would not necessarily argue that the former is always wrong. But in the case of contemporary Venezuela, I do continue to think that it might be worthwhile to try to adopt a “conflict resolution frame” that integrates democratization as a rather mid- to long-term goal.

Editorial postscriptum

Finally, an institutional clarification, only because Abrams presents my article as if it was an official statement by either the European Democracy Hub or the European Partnership for Democracy (EPD) (two different initiatives, by the way): As is explicitly stated on the respective website, “A New Framework for Dealing with Venezuela: From Democracy to Conflict Resolution” represents my personal views only. And the same applies, of course, for this rejoinder.


[1]Ironically enough, Elliott Abrams himself struggles with what to make of Guaidó. According to Abrams, Guaidó is “the de jure leader of the democratic opposition”. If this is meant seriously, it implies that Abrams no longer considers the former president of Venezuela’s National Assembly as the de jure president of the country (because one individual can hardly be both at the same time), and de facto Guaidó is clearly not Venezuela’s president. Again, in arguing that the EU (and other external actors) should “move beyond a focus on the status of Guaidó”, I don’t suggest that he “be pushed aside”, as Abrams interprets my suggestion. But I just don’t think that the cause of negotiations and, ultimately, democracy in Venezuela is served by the (potentially endless) quarrel about the legal status of a key figure like Guaidó – a quarrel from which Abrams himself apparently doesn’t find a way out.

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