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By Abraham F. Lowenthal, founding director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Latin American Program

Venezuela has been governed for years by a decreasingly effective and increasingly authoritarian government, culminating in the chaos currently engulfing the nation. Retired Army Colonel Hugo Chávez, who was elected in a multi-candidate contest in 1998, was followed in 2013 (after Chávez‘s death) by his personally designated successor, Nicolás Maduro. Maduro lacks the charisma of his predecessor but exudes loyalty to Chávez and his Cuban mentors. He has been sustained in power by the country’s armed forces but also by a continuing though declining degree of popular support from the economically poorest sectors that had long been ignored by previous Venezuelan governments.

The steady deterioration of Venezuela’s economy, governance, citizen security and basic public services has taken a huge toll, however. Slowly but surely, Maduro’s government has lost viability and legitimacy; his highly manipulated reelection in May 2018 was rejected as fraudulent by most Venezuelans, most Latin American governments, many European governments and the United States and Canada. Maduro has been severely weakened by internal opposition and international pressures from new, more conservative governments in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and a more hostile United States. Telltale cracks in Maduro’s military support have also begun to appear.

Observing these cracks, secret international consultations spearheaded by the U.S. in December produced a plan for regime change: the National Assembly, the last freely elected branch of government would convene, reject what they regarded as the illegitimate swearing-in of Maduro, and name the president of the Assembly, Juán Guaidó, as the country’s new president.

Guaidó was sworn in on January 23, a move followed up quickly by major street demonstrations, diplomatic recognition of Guaidó by many countries, and U.S.-orchestrated sanctions designed to deprive the de facto Maduro government of needed resources and redirect them to Guaidó. Guaidó does not have actual control of the levers of state or the crucial support of Venezuela’s armed forces, however. A dual government impasse has emerged.

Those who have from the start opposed Venezuela’s turn toward “21st-century socialism” and those who have soured on the chavista government’s incompetence, corruption and expanding repression have cheered recent developments, hoping that Venezuela’s long decline is ending. In fact, however, the current standoff is fraught with risk, facing multiple possible negative scenarios, some of them catastrophic.

These range from a repressive crackdown and consolidation of authoritarian rule —  undergirded by national resistance to external intervention and by the desire of the armed forces to protect their corporate interests —  to civil war and/or anarchical violence and a further breakdown of civic and financial order. There is no clear and simple path toward a peaceful, prosperous and democratic outcome. Until and unless the the Venezuelan armed forces abandon Maduro, international pressures could well backfire.

Venezuelan opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim president Juán Guaidó takes part in a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela on Jan. 30, 2019.Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters

The best path forward, by no means a sure or straight shot, would be one both Maduro and the democratic opposition have mostly resisted thus far: To undertake serious negotiations aimed at reestablishing effective democratic governance, reversing economic disaster, and achieving national reconciliation over time. Such negotiation would need to be based on genuine understanding by both sides that tough compromises will be necessary. Pacted transitions almost always seem out of reach in polarized situations, but when circumstances convince key actors on both sides that there is no better achievable alternative, effective leadership can sometimes forge agreements that work; this occurred in Chile, Brazil, Poland, South Africa and other countries.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to such negotiations, but a few principles are evident:

  • Concentrate on identifying and pursuing the interests all parties have in common before concentrating on what divides them;
  • Respect and protect the legitimate interests of the professional armed forces, police and security agencies, while assuring effective civilian oversight;
  • Be creative about fashioning modes of power-sharing and providing guarantees that revenge will be resisted;
  • Develop means of advancing mutual tolerance and acceptance, even if full justice is elusive;
  • Fashion inclusionary procedures for conflict resolution that can engage all important parties rather than insist on specific rules up front;
  • As necessary, adopt procedures to protect the lives and physical integrity of key leaders who are most controversial and may require such guarantees.

It is up to Venezuelans to bring their country out of its tragic situation. The international community can play a part, however: by helping the parties find space for negotiation, by giving assurances that international assistance will be provided for reconstructing Venezuela’s economy, by facilitating and monitoring negotiations, and by providing technical assistance and monitoring for elections.

International actors, even the most powerful, should not try to determine who will govern Venezuela and how, nor expect to impose their preferences without prolonged military occupation. Those internationally who want to help Venezuela escape its deterioration must apply skillful diplomacy and strategic patience. For historical and current reasons, the United States is not well-placed to take center stage, but could and should support regional and international efforts to help Venezuelans achieve a peaceful transition.