[This post was co-authored with John Polga-Hecimovich*. It is the third of a series that begins with this post.]
The collapse in Venezuela has many potential costs: democratic regression in Latin America; destabilization of neighboring countries, including, potentially, the fragile peace process in Colombia; the possibility of a significant migrant crisis; rising violence, corruption, and criminality; and threats to hemispheric energy security. A mix of frustration with President Nicolás Maduro’s recent moves and apprehension about the potential outcomes of the crisis has led to a frantic search for alternatives, none of which seems particularly likely to be effective on its own. The paucity of alternatives suggests that the best the international community may be able to hope for is to isolate the regime, demonstrate to moderates within the regime that there are costs to sticking with Maduro, and make efforts to ameliorate the worst humanitarian consequences of the crisis.
Taking Advantage of Latin American Leverage
In recent years, U.S. policymakers have tried to encourage South American nations to take the lead on regional matters, recognizing that the region may be better positioned to foment meaningful dialogue and consensus than the United States, especially given the checkered past of U.S. interventions in Latin America and lingering local sensitivities about U.S. involvement. But Latin America has been slow to recognize the deterioration of the Chavista regime into an authoritarian state. Chavismo’s determined but patient degradation of checks and balances over the course of seventeen years; the huge revenues available to influence regional friends; the ideological affinities between Hugo Chávez, Nicolás Maduro, and regional leaders; and the government effort to present at least a façade of comity have helped dilute regional opposition to the regime. But this tolerance is slowly changing, not least because of the deepening crisis and shifting ideological winds in South America.
At the level of regional bodies, three initiatives are underway. Mercosur has taken an increasingly firm stand against Maduro. During June and July, the new Brazilian administration joined Argentina and Paraguay to overcome Uruguayan resistance and suspend Venezuela from the Mercosur presidency. It also gave Venezuela until early December to meet conditions for accession that it had never met since joining the grouping in 2012. In effect, this signaled Venezuela’s impending expulsion, given that there was never much chance that Venezuela would meet the economic requirements imposed by the bloc. But a lack of consensus meant that Mercosur did not invoke the “democratic clause” that allows the trade grouping to suspend any member who fails to guarantee basic democratic rights.
The four original Mercosur members will undertake discussions on the democratic clause on the sidelines of the Ibero-American Summit in Cartagena on October 28 and 29. Such a move to call out Maduro for his authoritarianism would be a significant symbolic rebuke, after years of close ties between the four original Mercosur nations and Chavismo, and it would increase the Venezuelan government’s international isolation. But it would do little to change the internal calculus that keeps Maduro in power, and the sanctions it imposes—suspension from the trade group—will have little practical effect on the Maduro administration in light of Venezuela’s already tenuous claim to membership. A major downside is that such a move might also complicate a more energetic effort to push humanitarian aid, such as medicines and medical relief, which Maduro would be unlikely to accept from the United States, and which Latin America is unlikely to offer if Brazil and Argentina do not lead the push.
A second initiative is underway in the Organization of American States (OAS), whose Secretary General Luis Almagro is one of Latin America’s most passionate critics of the Maduro regime’s restrictions of political and civil rights. But Almagro leads a fractured organization, and it will be an uphill climb to the two-thirds support needed to invoke the OAS’ Democratic Charter suspending Venezuela from membership. It is telling that even a joint communique from the organization condemning last week’s events obtained only twelve signatories. Most importantly, of the silent countries, seventeen are members of Petrocaribe, who have benefited from considerable oil subsidies from Chávez and Maduro and remain net debtors to Venezuela. There may be room to split some of these nations from their support for Maduro, but the United States itself had until recently been reluctant to invoke the Democratic Charter, for fear of destabilizing ongoing talks by U.S. officials in Caracas. So it may take a while to gear up new efforts in this regard.
Finally, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) has been playing a complex role. Of the three organizations, UNASUR under Secretary General Ernesto Samper is the most ideologically aligned with Maduro, and therefore may offer the best prospect for bringing him into dialogue. But this also raises suspicions among the Venezuelan opposition. UNASUR earlier this year created a special commission of former national leaders José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (Spain), Martín Torrijos (Panama), and Leonel Fernández (Dominican Republic), who visited Caracas several times beginning in May to stimulate dialogue in the run-up to the expected recall vote. But these efforts paid few dividends, and some observers, including Almagro himself, have suggested that the UNASUR mission was a calculated ploy designed to slow the recall.
After a hastily arranged visit with Maduro, reportedly requested by Samper, Pope Francis on Monday offered his good offices to “avoid an escalation of violence.” Talks sponsored by the Vatican and UNASUR are to begin on Venezuela’s Isla Margarita on Sunday, October 30. But almost immediately after the announcement, it became clear that not all members of the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition were aware that talks were being discussed, raising concerns that this might be yet another stalling action by Maduro. The repeated use of such talks by the Maduro regime to delay progress or defuse opposition mobilization has left many MUD members skeptical of the value of trying to negotiate with the regime.
There are not many good levers available to the U.S. government as it works to ameliorate the crisis. The best option available to Washington seems to be a combination of dialogue, continued work within regional bodies to pry away votes for the Maduro regime, targeted sanctions, and planning for post-crisis reconstruction.
Talks between the Maduro regime and the U.S. government have been underway, most notably during a high-profile visit by Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon to Caracas in June. Such talks have not shown many public results, but they are important to defuse the worst paranoid rhetoric out of the Maduro regime, to keep open a channel for dialogue, and to demonstrate to the region the willingness of the United States to contribute to a negotiated solution.
It may be difficult to find the ten or so additional votes needed to invoke the OAS Democratic Charter, but patient efforts to sway Caribbean nations from their support of the Chavista regime may begin to pay off as the regime’s ability to invest in petrodiplomacy falters. Vice President Biden signaled the wedge that the Obama administration hopes to drive in a January speech to Caribbean leaders, noting that “no country should be able to use natural resources as a tool of coercion against any other country.” Meanwhile, the important repudiation of the regime by previously supportive governments in South America may yet contribute to a broader shift in Caribbean sentiment.
The United States has already implemented targeted sanctions against members of the regime: Obama’s Executive Order 13692 in 2015 led to sanctions against seven senior officials. There was broad outrage in Venezuela and throughout Latin America against the order, not least because it labeled Venezuela as a national security threat (U.S. law requires such a determination before sanctions can be imposed). Maduro was able to use the order as a cudgel against the opposition, and he has promoted some of those who have been sanctioned or indicted in the United States.
Yet narrowly targeted sanctions, announced publicly so as to send a clear signal, may be more effective today than they were even in the recent past, given the depth of the crisis. Sanctions against individuals—such as permanent visa restrictions and Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) determinations—underline to Maduro’s moderate allies that they must be careful in how far they go in their support of a wobbling strongman. Individually targeted sanctions also send a message to regional governments about the worst players in the Maduro coalition, including embezzlers, cocaine traffickers, and abusers of human rights. So too do efforts to pursue Venezuelans abroad, like Maduro’s nephews in Haiti or the failed effort to nab a former intelligence chief in Aruba. Strategically targeted sanctions may contribute to breaking apart two coalitions: domestic supporters of Maduro’s regime, and the coalition of Latin nations that is stymying international efforts against that regime.
Finally, the depth of the crisis suggests that there must be a significant international effort to design humanitarian aid and financial reconstruction. On the humanitarian side, as a recent Human Rights Watch report makes wrenchingly clear, Venezuela is facing one of the most horrific self-inflicted humanitarian disasters ever seen in Latin America. Although Latin American nations (led perhaps, by Brazil’s much-vaunted peacekeepers?) may be better able to orchestrate the delivery of humanitarian aid, the United States is uniquely positioned to provide the scarce medicines and equipment that will be needed to put Venezuela on a steadier footing.
With regard to financial reconstruction, as CFR’s Robert Kahn has noted, the depth of the crisis in Venezuela means that returning the country to long-term solvency will be a massive project for international financial institutions. Proactive planning is needed to structure a financial reconstruction plan, as well as to engage with Venezuela’s biggest creditor, China, to ensure the plan’s credibility. The U.S. government must also think hard about what political conditions it will require on the ground before it lent its backing to such a significant financial support package.
The good news is that the U.S. government already is engaged on many of these fronts. The bad news, unfortunately, is that none of these policies seem likely to bring quick relief to the Venezuelan people.
*John Polga-Hecimovich is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the U.S. Naval Academy. His research interests include comparative institutions of Latin America, especially the executive and the bureaucracy, as well as presidential instability. He has published peer-reviewed articles in The Journal of Politics, Political Research Quarterly, Electoral Studies, Party Politics, Latin American Politics and Society, and others, and conducted fieldwork in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Brazil. His Twitter handle is @jpolga.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are solely those of the authors and do not represent the views of or endorsement by the United States Naval Academy, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the United States government.