In case there’s any doubt, Venezuela is a failing state. In 2019 inflation rates are projected to hit 10 million percent, power outages are recurring, food and medical supplies are dwindling, water access is limited, mass poverty has taken root, and human and civil rights abuses are rampant. According to Freedom House, Venezuela is the only nation in South America designated “not free” with the lowest possible political rights score. And in recent weeks, Nicolàs Maduro’s regime initiated a new round of abuses.
To make matters worse, Venezuela’s crisis is not contained to its own borders. The entire region feels the effects caused by the failures of 20 years of Chavismo. The collateral damage spills over into neighboring countries in the form of fleeing refugees — an estimated 3 million to date with Colombia and Peru receiving the largest number, and with the United States reporting almost 300,000 in recent years. This puts obvious pressure on already strained communities.
On top of the humanitarian crisis, the Center for Strategic and International Studies cites rampant criminal activity sponsored by the Maduro regime as a means to deal with a failed socialist economy with narco-terrorism, money laundering, corruption, bribery and other crimes. According to Amherst political science professor Javier Corrales, Maduro’s government also has actively supported radical leftist groups in the region, which he argues is an important factor contributing to Latin America’s more recent political shift to the right. Thus, Venezuela is not just a domestic problem, it’s also a regional and international one, with tentacles extending in every direction.
That is why, according to Corrales, we are seeing such robust support for the Venezuelan opposition and its president, Juan Guaidó. Guaidó’s claim to the presidency of Venezuela is supported by some 50 nations, including the United States, most of the major countries in Latin America and Europe, including the EU parliament, the Organization of American States and the Lima Group. More importantly, Guaidó also is widely believed to have robust internal support.
While I champion efforts to negotiate — including talks recently held in Norway and those expected to resume in a few weeks — it’s important to remember that such efforts have been attempted before without moving the needle. That’s largely because the very nature of the Maduro regime, much like that of the Castros in Cuba, sees little value in compromise and collaboration. Instead, they are driven by a central desire to hold on to power by whatever means necessary.
And thus far, that includes the use of severe repressive tactics; illegitimate elections; the force of government-paid civilian “collectivos” willing to unleash extreme violence and terror on the Venezuelan population; and the external support of Russia, China and Cuba.
Thus far, Russian assistance largely has been focused on military aid, while China is providing economic support in the form of loans for oil exchange and trade. And both nations share a long-range strategic interest in broadening their influence in America’s backyard, a reality that should be of major concern to the United States. But perhaps most critical to Maduro’s survival has been the deep involvement of Cuba’s political operatives and intelligence services whose own repressive apparatus is of the highest order and effectiveness.
Future negotiations must focus on Venezuela’s military, whose support provides the real lifeline for Maduro. Undoubtedly, talks will be tricky and complex, but offers for amnesty (such as those offered earlier this year) that provide military officers an exit without retribution should remain in play. While amnesty is far from an ideal option and creates a significant moral dilemma given the atrocities committed by Maduro’s government and some members of its military apparatus, the focus must remain on accelerating an end to the current violence.
Under a future government then, Venezuelans might seek to establish a “truth commission” of sorts to deal with past abuses. The military might also be incentivized by alternative means of financial support to replace benefits currently provided by the Maduro regime — and perhaps even an offer to play a role in a future transition. Unfortunately, without such carrots, critical defections will be few and far between.
In the end, it’s hard to imagine a meaningful and enduring solution to Venezuela’s political, criminal and deeply humanitarian crisis that does not include the initiation of free and fair elections and the removal of Nicolàs Maduro via negotiations with the military. I hope all parties return to the negotiating table in Oslo in the near future, and I hope they reach the same obvious conclusions. I also hope Cuba, Russia and China retreat and go home. The future of Venezuela and its people depends on it.