Latin America Advisor

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What Do Changing Political Dynamics Mean for Maduro?

Photo of Nicolás Maduro Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is becoming less isolated in the Western Hemisphere. Maduro is pictured Wednesday aboard his plane, returning to Venezuela from the COP27 climate conference in Egypt. // Photo: @NicolasMaduro via Twitter.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro faced a toughening of sanctions and rhetoric in recent years, particularly as right-wing governments were in power in Colombia, the United States and Brazil. But leftist governments are now in control in Bogotá and Washington, and soon will be in Brasília. Among the signs of closer ties, Gustavo Petro on Nov. 1 became the first Colombian president to meet with Maduro in six years. What do the changing political dynamics in the Western Hemisphere mean for Maduro, and what factors will be most consequential? How likely are other leftist governments in the hemisphere to be able to encourage Maduro to take steps toward democracy? What incentives would Maduro have for such steps?

Michael Shifter, senior fellow and former president of the Inter-American Dialogue: “As if any further proof were needed, Maduro’s debut on the global stage at the COP27 conference, and his greetings of French President Emmanuel Macron and U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry, signaled the international community’s move toward greater accommodation of Venezuela’s authoritarian regime. The rapprochement between Petro and Maduro and the shift from the hard-right Bolsonaro government to the incoming Lula administration is particularly significant. That left-leaning governments dominate South America’s political landscape risks further reducing regional pressure on Maduro to address the country’s profound human rights and humanitarian crises. But Latin America’s changing politics is at best a partial explanation of closer ties with Venezuela. The strategy of ‘maximum pressure’ and isolation that began in 2019 with tough economic sanctions was fruitless. The humanitarian crisis deepened, Maduro became stronger and the opposition fractured, with interim President Juan Guaidó losing support both inside and outside of Venezuela. New political realities–most importantly, the end of Trump’s presidency–combined with severe economic needs aggravated by the Ukraine war, affecting the international oil market. The Biden administration’s approach is to calibrate the economic sanctions to press Maduro to return to political negotiations with the opposition in Mexico City. The main incentive for Maduro is easing sanctions, which only the United States can deliver. Most Venezuelans support negotiations with the regime to help relieve misery and suffering and chart a course to restore democratic rule. To succeed, this approach will demand skillful diplomacy and sustained engagement and pressure by the United States.”

Diego Arria, member of the Advisor board and former Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations: “Political changes in the region are basically irrelevant for Maduro’s hold on power, as no country was, nor is, willing to go to the mat in defense of democracy and human rights in Venezuela. Even less so after the recent, about face of the U.S. policy regarding its regime, that went from Trump’s strong sanctions, followed by a $15 million reward for information leading to the arrest or conviction of Nicolás Maduro, and 14 Venezuelan officials charged with narco-terrorism, corruption, drug trafficking and other criminal activities. The change under the Biden administration emerged when senior members were sent to Caracas to engage in direct negotiations with the regime to exchange Maduro’s nephews who were serving prison terms for drug trafficking for illegally detained American businessmen. It is also considering allowing the regime to export oil to the United States. To open negotiations with a regime it had considered a usurper while recognizing Juan Guaidó as interim president was a fatal blow to the interim regime and a message to the international community of shifting policy. In view of these developments, it is evident that there is no need for Maduro to take steps toward democracy. And on top of these realities, the diminished political parties are providing avenues to legitimize a narco-regime accepting primary elections conducted by the Maduro-controlled electoral arbiter. Meanwhile, seven million Venezuelans have left the country.”

John Price, managing director of Americas Market intelligence: “Washington, Bogotá and Brasília do not see eye to eye on Venezuela, and none of them are keen to spend any political capital trying to nudge Venezuela toward democracy. For the last 15 years, Washington has criticized the Chávez and Maduro autocracies. The list of Venezuelan companies and individuals who are sanctioned by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and other American regulators continues to grow under Biden. Washington would welcome a democratic Venezuela but quietly doubts that Guaidó can deliver. Many in Washington believe that a collapse of the Maduro administration would lead to fractionalized chaos, not a functioning democracy. With bigger issues at home (inflation) and abroad (Russia-Ukraine), Washington prefers to benignly neglect the Venezuela file. In Colombia, Petro promised to try a different approach via rapprochement with Venezuela. Thousands of Venezuelans are returning home from Colombia thanks to a booming economy in Caracas at present, such that rapprochement can be spun quite positively, for now. Petro needs Maduro’s support to achieve ‘Total Peace,’ which will oblige a change in behavior of bad actors operating in the Venezuela-Colombia border region. A proposal to build a pipeline connecting costal Colombia with Venezuelan gas is rumored. Cheap energy would bolster a populous region where Petro lacks political support. There seems little reason for Petro to oppose Maduro’s hold on power. A long time has passed since Lula was a leftist ideologue. Instead, he heads an economic-political movement that is as corporatist as any found in Latin America today. His interests in Venezuela have always been economic–to open opportunities for Brazil’s energy and construction sectors in exchange for their support back home. Once reinstalled in Brasília, Lula will try to re-engage Venezuela, in part to placate Brazilian industrialists who supported Bolsonaro and whose loyalties Lula requires to govern effectively.” 

Rafael E. Álvarez-Loscher, international managing partner at Iuriscorp: “Sanctions by themselves do not constitute an effective mechanism to obtain concrete results toward democracy. They must be accompanied by multilateralism, a cohesive and solid opposition, and the possibility of generating sufficient incentives for these changes to take place. None of these elements—at least at this moment—are present. The government of Nicolás Maduro has understood–albeit with his hands tied–that a policy of openness allows him to consolidate bridges with national and international businesspeople, and with other countries in the region. In this sense, the countries of the region are seeing business opportunities in Venezuela. Europe is also considering it in large part due to its energy crisis, and the United States should also consider to what extent the sanctions will be maintained. That is the question: whether these economic changes and close relations with other countries can effectively achieve a change in the political dynamics. I think it is logical that it will happen, and the type of government will change to try to generate confidence and trust and bet on diplomacy. No wonder that Venezuela is now talking about coming back to the integration mechanism of South America such as the Union of South American Nations (CAN) and Mercosur. Nonetheless, I don’t think it will happen soon. Maduro finds himself in a situation in which he has many incentives to negotiate partial agreements that do not involve him risking his political capital, and at the same time mean investment for the country; it is a pragmatic model. This is going to give him a certain stability, at least until the presidential election. All things considered, it seems very likely that the governments of the region could have interests that align with what is happening economically in Venezuela. However, at the same time they do not want to get dirty with ‘bad publicity,’ so I think the spaces for regional integration, as well as the return to the inter-American human rights system may be sufficient incentives to take solid steps toward a mutation in the political typology of the Maduro government.”

Carlos Delgado Flores, journalist and university professor at Universidad Católica Andrés Bello/ Universidad Central de Venezuela: “The changing political dynamics in the Western Hemisphere mean a reformulation of the Bolivarian project, not in terms of doctrine, but rather in the relationship with the multipolar world. They can reduce hegemony based on a governability pact that harmonizes the existence of minorities (Chavismo is the largest) and leave the closed formation with Eurasia, realigning itself with the Latin American left in the search for alternatives to an eventual export of the Russia-NATO conflict. Some leftist governments, more than others, are likely to be able to encourage Maduro to take steps toward democracy, given that there are relevant differences between them. Some regimes, currently, are left-wing populists or military-based develpmentalists, others take place at the end of a long undeclared civil war, others are a way to open space for leftist radicals to build the political center and others have affiliations with international progressivism. The Maduro regime is the closest to bureaucratic socialism and even so, the dictatorship of the proletariat has been replaced by a hegemony as described by Gramsci. Realpolitik imposes the reconstruction of the political center, retaking the route of modernization and reactivating the economy and in this, the Latin American left can contribute to the reinstitutionalization. Foreign direct investment, eliminating sanctions, cooperation for development and recognition of a new status quo as was done in the past with the regime of Juan Vicente Gómez, could incentivize Maduro to take steps toward democracy.”

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