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.
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.
Maduro willing to negotiate with opposition in Venezuela following U.S. sanctions and the cutting off of oil revenues. Guaido is being targeted by Venezuelan Supreme Court. Massive protest expected today. Americans should not travel to Venezuela until further notice.
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.
Abraham F. Lowenthal
Abraham F. Lowenthal, professor emeritus of international relations at the University of Southern California, was founding director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Latin American Program and the Inter-American Dialogue.