On October 22, 2019 the United States Institute for Peace hosted the event “A Negotiated Solution for Venezuela: Prospects for a Peaceful and Inclusive Settlement” in partnership with the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the Inter-American Dialogue, and Woodrow Wilson Center’s Latin America Program. The event featured a discussion among members of the Grupo Experto para Venezuela, which is an initiative of the Institute for Integrated Transitions (IFIT) that brings together a group of 16 high-level Venezuelan experts based in the country and committed to promoting ideas for a peaceful, negotiated, constitutional solution to the country’s crisis.
Steve Hege, senior expert on the Colombian peace process at the Institute of Peace, gave introductory remarks in which he highlighted the tragedy of the once prosperous Venezuela now plunged into a dramatic political, economic, and humanitarian crisis. To give dimension to the crisis, he reminded the audience that more than 4.5 million Venezuelans have left their country, of which more than 1.6 million are living in Colombia and more than 300,000 in the US. Regrettably, this has led to rising instability and xenophobia across the region as the capacity of Venezuela’s neighbors to absorb more migrants wears out. Talks between the government and the opposition have reached an uneasy statement, with both sides looking at other options. Hege finished by asking if a dialogue-based solution is even possible or if attempting to do so would only extend the crisis.
Moderator Geoff Ramsey, assistant director for Venezuela at WOLA, responded by recognizing the deep frustration of all parties with the situation and the increasing acceptance in Washington that the situation is a stalemate. Nevertheless, he insisted that a negotiated or pacted transition is the most realistic outcome. He did concede that it will not be easy and that it would require compromises.
As the discussion moved among the panelists, most agreed with Ramsey that maybe not the easiest solution but really the only solution to Venezuela’s crisis would be a negotiated political settlement. Pedro Nikken, professor at the Central University of Venezuela Law School, expressed “no doubt” that the only way to a solution is political agreement between Maduro and the opposition. He called it the “most democratic” solution and emphasized that it is the only way to achieve free and fair national elections.
Michael Penfold, professor at the Venezuelan Institute of Advanced Studies in Administration and fellow in the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, warned that it will take a lot of effort to get talks started again. He said that previous talks had an “original sin”: they were secret and neither side entered was required to complete confidence building measures. This meant that no one faced a cost for entering the talks, so it was easy for them to see them fail. He advised that successful talks will require international assistance coming from the US, Europe, China, Russia, Cuba, Colombia and the Group of Lima. Nevertheless, he did take note of one positive factor: both the Maduro government and the opposition accepted Norway as the legitimate moderator of the process.
Margarita Lopez Maya, a member of the Technical Advisory Council at the Political Studies Center of Andres Bello Catholic University, expressed skepticism of the ability of the talks to achieve free and fair presidential elections. She stressed the power differential between Maduro and the opposition. While the opposition may insist on elections, Maduro has little incentive to do so while his domestic position is strong. He controls the armed forces, economic production and the media.
Hiram Gaviria, President of the Únion y Entendimiento (Puente) Party, sketched out his party’s vision for what a political transition might look like: respect for private property, autonomous institutions, and the alternation of political parties in power through free and fair elections. He said that both Guaido and Maduro could present themselves as candidates in presidential elections but that both would have to resign as a condition to do so. Until the assumption of the next president, he called for the appointment of an interim president to lead the government through elections.
Orlando Ochoa, an independent economist and consultant based in Caracas, laid out his vision of what the reconstruction of Venezuela might look like. He lamented that Venezuela’s per capita GDP is now approaching that of Haiti and that Venezuela is consuming only one quarter of what it used to in gasoline. Any transition would need access to financing to revert the trends and begin to rebuild the country. An oil recuperation plan would cost $160 billion USD and, adding in other sectors, the economy would need at least $250 billion USD total to get restarted. Venezuela is cut off from the international financial system and multilateral institutions will not lend to them, so Russia and China are the only options left. However, the Russians do not have the resources to finance something like that and the Chinese are reluctant to invest until oil production has recovered and a negotiated political settlement has been reached. Ochoa related talks he has had with members of the Maduro administration who recognize that the country needs a reconstruction plan and are willing to start talking about putting one together. However, he said there are some hardline sectors of Chavismo that believe that they can stay in power if they can maintain oil production at its current 600,000 barrels of oil per day, which would be enough revenue to sustain a police state.
Each panelist remarked in some way or another on the question of sanctions and their effects on the economy and as a tool to bring about a transition. Nikken believes that sanctions imposed on the Maduro regime will not bring down his government but that they can be effective for bring him to the negotiating table. He also lamented that they hurt the people more than the regime and can be used in government media as a rhetorical argument against the opposition and the United States. Penfold pointed to the poor track of record of sanctions as a method of regime change around the world. But like Nikken, he believed they can bring parties to the negotiating table. Penfold wants the international community to be clear that the sanctions will be removed. He said they are having tremendous effects on the economy, particularly the secondary sanctions that were imposed in August. Lopez Maya said that Maduro’s only real gain in negotiating is to have sanctions lifted and for that he is willing to make only some concessions but that he will not leave power. His other motive is to use the negotiating table to divide the opposition. Guevilla insisted that Venezuela is facing a crisis not as a result of sanctions but because of the policies of the so-called 21st century socialism. Ochoa recognized that the sanctions have done damage but he related that the Maduro regime believes it can survive and consolidate the political situation in the country over the next twelve months.
In closing, the panelists shared a dismay over the situation of the country but expressed hope that a negotiated solution might come. Penfold finished by bring the crisis down to the human level: Venezuelan families are being torn apart by the migration crisis and that is very, very sad.