What’s Next for the International Response to Venezuela?

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Panelists at the event on What's Next for the International Response to Venezuela Atlantic Council TV

Amid Venezuela's crisis and the upcoming 2024 presidential elections, a potential opportunity for a democratic transition may emerge. The escalating authoritarianism, human rights abuses, and dire humanitarian situation underscore the critical importance of addressing these challenges while also identifying opportunities for transition to occur. The Inter-American Dialogue, alongside the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center and Chatham House, hosted an event to discuss the consequences of Venezuela's crisis in anticipation of 2024, a pivotal year in which presidential elections are scheduled to take place. 

Geoff Ramsey, a senior fellow at the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, underscored that the combination of poor economic management, deepening authoritarianism, and systematic human rights violations has driven millions of Venezuelans to flee their country in search of better living conditions elsewhere. Ramsey highlighted various political challenges, including the disqualification of prominent opposition figures, concerns about election transparency, and the fact that there are 281 political prisoners, according to Foro Penal. Ramsey stressed the international community’s vital role to ensure credible 2024 elections rather than a rigged process that provides Maduro with a veneer of legitimacy.

In his opening remarks, Francisco “Paco” Palmieri, US chargé d’affaires in Colombia, emphasized that the US is willing to alleviate sanctions against Venezuela if concrete steps are taken by the Maduro government to restore democracy, including setting a date for free and fair elections in 2024. Urgent steps needed include updating the electoral registry, establishing prerequisites for a credible international electoral observation mission, and releasing political prisoners. Palmieri also raised concerns about the escalating repression against civil society and the disqualification of candidates. He underscored the international community’s role addressing Venezuela's persistent issues, such as the humanitarian situation, Venezuelan debt, and the presence of transnational criminal organizations in the country. He commended the Colombian government's efforts in advocating for a clear election timeline, and urged implementation of the EU electoral mission's 2021 report recommendations and expediting a UN-managed humanitarian fund.

Chris Sabatini, senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House and the panel moderator, described the recent deterioration of the situation in Venezuela. He highlighted diminishing prospects for free and fair elections, agreements signed with China, persisting human rights challenges, and the need for the international community to explore creative ways to address Venezuela’s crisis.

Tamara Taraciuk Broner, director of the Rule of Law Program at the Dialogue, began her presentation by asking why a very strong government holding onto power would be willing to allow for fair elections. Venezuelan authorities have historically been reluctant to make concessions voluntarily, making it relevant to explore ways to use accountability to create incentives for a conversation about transition to happen. This goes beyond determining who should be held accountable and for which crimes on the day after a potential transition of power, and also includes considering the level of impunity that can be tolerated for that conversation about transition to happen. She pointed out that there are two types of crimes committed in Venezuela: those involving human rights violations, to which clear red lines that cannot be crossed in terms of impunity for the most serious crimes apply, and those related to corruption, organized crime, and drug trafficking, where it is possible to explore judicial benefits in exchange for cooperation within the boundaries of the rule of law. Finally, she emphasized the need to identify government officials or supporters willing to be remembered as having supported a democratic transition rather than part of a repressive regime, the importance of identifying incentives that adhere to the rule of law for a conversation about transition to happen, and the need for finding mechanisms to uphold agreements and guarantees for a transition to happen.

Beatriz Borges, executive director of Justice and Peace Center (CEPAZ), underscored the pervasive authoritarian government in Venezuela as the root cause of the humanitarian crisis, human rights violations, and the erosion of democratic institutions. Borges drew attention to statistics revealing that, as of August 2023, approximately 19 million Venezuelans are in dire need of humanitarian assistance and 7.7 million had fled the country. She pointed out the absence of an independent and impartial justice system, which has adversely affected the electoral context and increased violence in the country. CEPAZ has documented at least 385 cases of persecution in the first half of 2023. This grim reality, according to Borges, fosters fear and discouragement, making it challenging for the population to actively participate in elections. Finally, Borges emphasized the pivotal role of Venezuelan civil society organizations, which are at the forefront providing support to victims of human rights violations, and stressed the importance of including them in all discussions.

Rodrigo Naranjo, managing partner of VIPCapital, described how Venezuela’s status as an oil exporter has shifted to one where it is exporting its people. Naranjo stressed the essential role of the business sector, encompassing both Venezuelan and multinational companies, in discussions regarding Venezuela's future. He underscored that the private sector holds the key to generating job opportunities for the millions of Venezuelans who have left their country and to increasing production. Multinational oil companies were highlighted as vital contributors due to their technical knowledge, financial resources, and capacity to support civil society. Naranjo mentioned obstacles faced by businesses in Venezuela, including low demand, excessive taxation, overregulation, overcompliance with international sanctions, as well as limited access to financing, electricity, and gasoline.

During the Q&A period, roundtable participants explored the role of other governments in the region in supporting a democratic transition and ensuring accountability in Venezuela. Additionally, the conversation delved into the involvement of international development agencies, beyond providing humanitarian aid, and the role of the private sector in promoting the rule of law and democracy. Furthermore, participants considered the prospects for genuine elections in 2024 and examined the impact that lifting US sanctions would have for Venezuela.

Watch the event recording here

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