from Pressure Points

The EU and Venezuela: More Bad Advice

The "European Democracy Hub" urges "sidelining" democracy in Venezuela

The “European Democracy Hub” (EPD) and the Carnegie Endowment’s Europe office have produced a new paper giving a considerable amount of bad advice on the situation in Venezuela.

The EPD is an association of 15 NGOs in 13 European countries. The new paper, written by Jonas Wolff, who is head of the research department on “intrastate conflict" at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, is entitled “A New Framework for Dealing with Venezuela: From Democracy to Conflict Resolution.” It is thoughtful document, but the gist of it is delivered right in the introduction:

[T]he 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.

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Think about that for a moment. In plainer English, it says the problem with EU policy in Venezuela is that it has been promoting democracy. Give that up, it advises; some “other external actors” don’t like it, and a “more coordinated international response” would be possible if we all just forgot about it. Then perhaps we could move to “some kind of inclusive political settlement.” [I’ve previously commented on EU policy toward Venezuela in Foreign Policy magazine, here.]

To give the EPD credit, the paper pulls few punches:

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.

Sideline democracy, says the EPD, which is theoretically dedicated to promoting democracy. Of course, sidelining democracy should not be the EU’s “ultimate objective.” Nice to know.

This perspective is the product of the frustration every democrat feels about the situation in Venezuela, and the failure of combined international efforts—by the US, Canada, UK, EU, Lima Group, International Contact Group, and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, for example—to bring about progress toward democracy there. But that frustration leads, here, to a suggested position of neutrality between the Venezuelans struggling for democracy and the regime. Guaido and the opposition have not won, so we should stop supporting them and instead look for a negotiation with the regime. Guaido should be pushed aside—though the paper recognizes that the European Parliament and the Biden administration continue to support him and recognize him as Venezuela’s legitimate president. We must “move beyond a focus on the status of Guaido.” Moreover, “[w]hatever observers may think of the newly elected parliament, there is no question that it exists….” In other words, turn away from the de jure leader of the democratic opposition, and deal with the phony parliament “elected” last year in a fraudulent display denounced by democracies across the globe.

The paper reflects a tough-minded judgment about the situation in Venezuela:

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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.

This is, sadly, quite accurate. But this description leads Mr. Wolff and the EPD into a thicket where they simply lose sight of democracy:

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.

Here, the EU is pulled away from supporting the democratic opposition and urged simply not to be “ignoring the existence of opposition forces.” Moreover, and even worse, the paper attacks the opposition with that slur about its democratic credentials.  Remember, the UN and NGOs have said regime forces have killed around 10,000 people in extrajudicial executions; there are hundreds of political prisoners; many elected political leaders are in exile; but here the “European Democracy Hub” is undermining the legitimacy of the opposition. This is quite shameful.

What does the EPD actually recommend? First, neutrality:

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.

My, my. The European Democracy Hub is here suggesting that “classifying” interlocutors as to whether they are murderous and repressive, or are democrats hanging on desperately to their principles and their lives, is unhelpful. This is not encouraging—nor are the examples given. If the EU was “not bothered” about who it was negotiating with when it entered a nuclear deal with Iran in 2015, it should have been—and it should still today be “bothered” by all its dealings with a regime that as recently as November 2019 suppressed a broad democratic uprising with mass killings and jailings.

But let’s return to Venezuela. What actually is the paper calling for? Negotiations. First comes double-talk:

[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.

Here we have “inclusive civic mechanisms,” “sociopolitical cleavages,” “longer-term foundations,” and other doctoral-dissertation language instead of “encouraging the democratic opposition in an immediately political sense.” Any Venezuelan democrat at risk today will understand what that means: knock off the clamor for free speech, freedom of assembly, free elections, or at least don’t expect European support if you continue with those untimely demands.

Why does the EPD take this position? Here is the heart of the argument: the EU’s (and the United States’s) demands for “credible, inclusive and transparent legislative and presidential elections” are going to get in the way of “a Venezuelan-led dialogue and transition process” that might produce an “inclusive political settlement,” and “[s]uch a settlement might well deliberately limit electoral competition.” So: negotiations, not elections.

This is bad negotiating advice. In any negotiation there must be the regime on one side and the democratic opposition on the other. There can certainly be additional parties as well: the Army, the Church, civil society organizations, trade unions, business groups. But the heart of the negotiation must be the regime and the opposition, if democracy is to be even the “ultimate” objective. And there will no doubt be many compromises, for in no transition back from dictatorship to democracy (think of South American examples, or South Africa, or Eastern Europe) has there been perfect justice.

But the role of the EU here, it seems clear to me, should be backing negotiations—most likely hosted by Norway like last time—and backing the democratic opposition in those negotiations. This is the great error of this EPD paper—to conclude that because a negotiated resolution of the conflict is desirable, the EU should turn away from the democratic opposition. This is exactly wrong. In a negotiation, the regime will have the backing of Russia, China, Cuba, the Army, the police, the criminal gangs it organizes, and its own state-controlled media. Who will back the opposition? Democratic nations must, and the EU should play a leading role.

In this paper, the EPD urges that negotiations may be a better way forward than demanding immediate elections. Right or wrong, that’s a reasonable argument. But neither in the context of negotiations nor in any other policy context is it reasonable, helpful, or moral for the EU to adopt a policy of neutrality between the regime and the democrats, or to “sideline” democracy. For which reason I hope EU policymakers will reject the advice being offered in this “New Framework” and will instead stick with their principled support for courageous Venezuelans struggling to save democracy and human rights in their country.