Venezuela’s ongoing leadership dispute is doing nothing to solve the country's economic woes or stem the outward flood of its impoverished citizens. Unless there is a return to democracy and a halt in corruption, little will change, says Eric Farnsworth of the Council of the Americas and Americas Society.

Eric Farnsworth

Eric Farnsworth

After the dramatic events of 2019 and the beginning of 2020, during which time both the ruling regime of Nicolás Maduro and the interim government headed by Juan Guaidó attempted but failed to land a knockout blow on each other, an uneasy status quo has settled on Venezuela. 

Despite more than 50 countries recognising Mr Guaidó as Venezuela's legitimate leader, and intensive sanctions placed on the Maduro regime by the US, Canada and others in Latin America and Europe, the latter administration is consolidating control, and prospects for a peaceful transition appear increasingly bleak.

The support of Cuba, Russia, China, Turkey and other authoritarian states has allowed the Maduro regime to work around the global sanctions system. Through the utilisation of corrupt measures and other means of control, the military, police and non-traditional security forces have remained loyal to Mr Maduro and his officials.  

Decisive year

This calendar year may prove decisive, as the interim government recognises that its window for effective action is shrinking, and the Maduro regime seeks to capture the last remaining democratic institution it does not currently control, the National Assembly.

Of course, with 2020 being an election year in the US, Washington will arguably have less time to prioritise international crises, including that in Venezuela, though the level of attention it focuses on the Latin American country remains to be seen. For their part, other countries – particularly in Europe but also in Latin America and the Caribbean – have a significant opportunity to contribute to a peaceful, lasting solution, particularly if they contribute more actively to the sanctions effort, thus helping to create conditions on the ground for effective negotiations leading to a peaceful political transition.

Negotiations, in fact, have been tried on several recent occasions and have failed. The Maduro regime has used them effectively to buy time, exploit divisions within the opposition and keep the international community at bay. As a result, so long as circumstances within Venezuela have not appreciably shifted, the idea of new negotiations between Mr Maduro and Mr Guaidó lacks credibility as a means to peaceful resolution of the crisis, no matter the convening authority.

A renewed negotiations process could presumably establish conditions that would lead to free and fair elections under effective international observation, but only to the extent that the Maduro regime feels compelled to negotiate such an outcome in good faith. And it will not do so until current avenues for continued corruption, self-enrichment and confidence in the support of the security forces through various means are choked off.  

Humanitarian crisis

Meanwhile, Venezuela has spawned the largest humanitarian crisis in the modern history of Latin America. Additionally, important independent reports from the UN, the Organization of American States and other international bodies have highlighted Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis, while also pointing to gross human rights violations perpetrated by the regime against its own citizens.

Estimates vary, but it is widely accepted that several million Venezuelans, between 10% and 15% of Venezuela’s entire 33 million population, now reside outside the country, with more outflowing by the day. As Venezuela empties, additional strains are placed on receiving countries that lack the capacity to integrate current, much less future, refugee flows.

The Maduro regime also appears to have inserted a number of its own agents into the refugee community, in order both to report on refugees themselves while also providing cover for potential agitation against other regional governments. This scenario is unsustainable.

Sea change needed

It is difficult under current circumstances to be optimistic about Venezuela’s future. Once Latin America’s wealthiest country with the world’s largest proven reserves of oil, a strong if imperfect democracy with a pro-Western bent, Venezuela is now an economic dystopia, run only for its corrupt, authoritarian elites who also offer succour and advantage to regimes and non-state actors worldwide that are opposed to global democratic values and norms.

If the country is to have any kind of productive, vibrant future, Venezuelans themselves will have to find a way, with adequate and effective international support, to change conditions on the ground, forcing the Maduro regime to take seriously the idea of free and fair elections that offer a return to economic sanity in addition to the democratic path.

Until such time, the regime will continue to rule only for its own narrow interests, plundering Venezuela’s riches, wrecking its fragile environment, exporting both citizens and regional instability including drugs, and destroying the last vestiges of democracy that the country once enjoyed.    

Eric Farnsworth is vice-president of the Council of the Americas and Americas Society and heads the organisation’s Washington, DC office.


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