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By Amanda Mattingly
Reporting on talks between the administration of the late President Hugo Chávez and the Venezuelan opposition was my job 14 years ago at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas. Venezuela was in crisis then, just as it is now. Talks ultimately led to the recall referendum on Chávez in 2004, which he won, but the fact that it was held at all was seen as a positive step and worth the negotiations. This cannot be said of the most recent Vatican-brokered dialogue between the government of President Nicolás Maduro and the opposition.
These latest talks began last November after the government scuttled any chance of another recall referendum. Not surprisingly, the talks have stalled and, unfortunately, they have sapped the opposition’s momentum against Maduro and his United Socialist Party (PSUV). They have also made clear that the government does not intend to adhere to the constitution or listen to the will of the thousands of people who have called for the release of political prisoners like opposition leader Leopoldo López and who risked political persecution to sign petitions last year calling for a referendum on Maduro’s rule.
The talks have done nothing to move Venezuela out of the current political crisis, which comes as the country is also facing an economic, social, and humanitarian crisis. Stories abound of malnourished children, a lack of medicines and medical supplies in hospitals, and long lines to secure basic goods like diapers, soap, and cornmeal to make the Venezuelan staple, arepas. There is even an Arepa Overvaluation Index to track inflation based on the monthly price of cornmeal. The country is experiencing the worst outbreak of malaria in 75 years. The security situation is so bad that everyone knows someone who has been held up, kidnapped, or killed, and the streets of Caracas are empty by 7 p.m.
Meanwhile, mismanagement, inefficiency, and a lack of capital investments have ruined Venezuela’s oil industry, the lifeline that keeps the Venezuelan government afloat. According to a former employee of Petroleos de Venezeuala SA (PDVSA), Venezuela’s production level by mid-January was 2 million barrels per day (bpd) while the official figure reported by the Venezuelan government was 2.25 million bpd. This marks a steady decline in production for four consecutive years from more than 3 million bpd in 2013. With crude prices also down, the Venezuelan government is generating significantly less revenue, which it needs to service its large debt to countries like China and for imports like agriculture products that were previously produced domestically.
With the Bolivarian economic model in collapse and the Maduro regime in violation of every democratic norm under the Inter-American Democratic Charter, it is hard to see how the ill-fated talks between the government and the opposition could have begun to address all of these issues. Even if Maduro were to submit to a recall referendum, a successful effort to remove him from office at this point in his tenure would not result in a new election but rather his vice president taking over. Incidentally, Vice President Tareck El Aissami was recently sanctioned by the U.S. government for drug trafficking.
So what happens now? A military coup by Venezuelan officers mired in corruption and drug-trafficking operations is unlikely to happen, nor would it take Venezuela in the direction necessary to rebuild its democratic institutions. Hoping that the United States will send in the Marines to fix the situation is not the answer either. Even as some members of U.S. President Donald Trump’s National Security Council are promoting a harder line on Venezuela, invading a Latin American country in pursuit of regime change is unlikely to be on the new “America First” foreign policy agenda.
In the best-case scenario, the failed talks will galvanize the international community to support, unite, and promote the Venezuelan opposition and to put meaningful pressure on the Maduro government to accept a political solution in the form of early general elections. The Organization of American States (OAS) and key regional players like Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico need to take on leadership roles, and they need the support of the U.S. government. Speaking last week at a Council of the Americas-sponsored event in Washington, D.C., OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro appeared ready to lead this effort as he lambasted Venezuelan leadership and said it is time “to return the power to the people.”
Historically, Latin American countries have resisted calling one another out for anti-democratic practices, abuses of power, or corruption. But to save Venezuela from itself, the international community must step up to the plate. Venezuela will not emerge from crisis until there is a real political solution that ushers in a new era of leadership and paves the way for the Venezuelan people to rebuild their country.
Amanda Mattingly is a senior director at The Arkin Group and a Truman National Security Fellow. She previously served as a foreign affairs officer at the State Department. Views expressed are her own.
[Photo courtesy of Guillermo Esteves]