Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Are US-Venezuela Relations Headed for a Thaw?

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has urged the Venezuelan government and opposition to find a “peaceful resolution” to their differences ahead of the country’s Dec. 6 parliamentary elections, adding that the United States, which recently sent a high-ranking State Department official to talk with President Nicolás Maduro, hopes to improve ties with the South American country. Meanwhile, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) irked Venezuelan leaders during a visit to Caracas for meetings earlier this month with opposition figures, where he sharply criticized the Maduro administration. Are U.S.-Venezuela ties moving in a more constructive direction? How is the political situation in Venezuela evolving both in light of upcoming elections and continuing international pressure to release imprisoned opposition leaders? What are the worstcase and best-case scenarios for Venezuelan economic and political risk over the next year?

Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue: “In the context of the continuing rapprochement between Washington and Havana, the United States has been exploring ways to improve relations with Venezuela. The bilateral relationship had reached a low point several months ago with the U.S. application of targeted sanctions against seven Venezuelans, accompanied by infelicitous language about the situation posing a national security threat. Some news reports have suggested that Washington has been engaging more lately with Caracas because of common interests in advancing Colombia’s peace process and addressing the complicated situation in Haiti. It is also true that following the controversial meeting in Haiti between senior State Department official Tom Shannon and Diosdado Cabello, president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, the date of the parliamentary elections was finally set and Leopoldo López ended his hunger strike. Still, it is hard to be sanguine about U.S.-Venezuelan relations moving in a very constructive direction as long as López and other political prisoners remain jailed. This is a major concern both for the Obama administration and the U.S. Congress, for Republicans and Democrats alike. Unfortunately, to date there is virtually no indication that the Maduro government is about to accede to pressure—growing both regionally and internationally—and release them. In advance of the elections, the PSUV wants to shore up its dwindling support and exploit some political differences within the opposition. The increasingly unpopular governing party will want to find a way to retain its super majority in the assembly. On economic and security questions, the news is unremittingly negative.”

Julia Buxton, professor of comparative politics at the School of Public Policy of Central European University in Budapest: “The worst case scenario for Venezuela is civil conflict and military engagement in domestic politics resulting from ill-conceived efforts by radical opposition elements to remove Maduro. For this reason, steps toward improved U.S.-Venezuela ties are welcomed. While there is a long way to go in re-establishing bilateral trust, the importance of the Obama administration distancing itself from opposition groups promoting ‘la salida,’ or the immediate exit, of Maduro is crucial for stability and democracy in Venezuela. U.S. initiatives to isolate and send ‘strong signals’ have served only to galvanize regional sympathy for Maduro and enable an ‘anti-imperialist’ narrative, while chronically undermining the moderate opposition, which is focused on defeating the ruling PSUV electorally. In accentuating an environment of polarization, critical statements on, for example human rights, have distracted from Venezuela’s pressing economic situation and the urgency of economic adjustment, while doing little to enhance the judicial process or rule of law in the country. This can only come from constructive dialogue. The best-case scenario is for broad popular engagement in December’s elections and respect for the results domestically and internationally. Whether the PSUV retains control of the National Assembly or not, the administration will be forced to address economic dysfunction and mismanagement once the elections are out of the way—in turn leading to a best-case scenario for the economy—the government actually having an economic strategy.”

Gustavo Roosen, member of the Advisor board and president of IESA in Caracas: “President Obama’s executive order declaring Venezuela as a threat to the security of the United Stated has taken a back seat. Secretary Kerry’s recent statement has given the relationship between the two countries fresh air by adopting a less aggressive stance in order to maintain a viable commercial exchange and a vigilant position on Venezuela’s democratic process. President Maduro’s government has become internationally isolated, with a huge hard currency solvency crisis. Furthermore, there are growing concerns, both nationally and internationally, about human rights violations, corruption and freedom of the press. Recent polls indicate that 83 percent of Venezuelans believe the country is heading the wrong way. Seventy-nine percent think the situation will worsen in the near future. All opposition parties, without financial means and very limited access to the press, have shown remarkable coherence around the only democratic opportunity available, the National Assembly election scheduled for Dec 6. Its result should open a slow path toward the separation of powers, which heretofore have been subordinated to Maduro’s communist presidency and the growing military infl uence in the regime. The huge international pressure calling for the freedom of political prisoners has had, so far, very modest results. Venezuela’s best-case scenario is a clean National Assembly election with qualified international observers, which should result in the election of a majority of the opposition congressional candidates. A worse scenario would be that, using the government’s economic mismanagement as an excuse, Maduro calls off the election.”

Phil Gunson, Venezuela senior analyst at International Crisis Group: “Venezuela is in the throes of a crisis that is simultaneously economic, political and social. On the economic front, the government is in a state of paralysis. While it may be able to meet foreign debt repayments this year, it has shown itself unable to resolve acute shortages of basic goods, soaring inflation and severe economic contraction. The result is a country on the verge of a humanitarian crisis and a government which seems likely to lose the December parliamentary elections. Nothing in the political DNA of Chavismo has prepared it for ‘cohabitation’ with the opposition, and if it loses control of the National Assembly, there will undoubtedly be a major confrontation between legislature and executive. The challenge facing Venezuela’s regional neighbors, who have for too long been excessively complacent, is to hold both sides, but particularly the government, to their obligations with regard to democracy and human rights. Rapprochement with the United States is a step in the right direction but will mean little if the government is allowed to manipulate the election or fl out the will of the voters. Properly effected and monitored, the election would at least leave open a potentially peaceful road to recovery. The alternative is a rapid descent into still deeper social misery, with a strong likelihood of social and political violence.”

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