By Glenn Ojeda Vega; Young Professionals in Foreign Policy – A few weeks ago, Venezuela’s government announced that it will initiate the process of withdrawing from the Organization of American States (OAS), one of the most important multilateral cooperation institutions of the western hemisphere. This historic announcement is just the most recent episode of Venezuela’s regional isolation as Latin America has moved towards the right of the political spectrum.
Since the death of Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro’s rise to the presidency in 2013, the country has descended into sociopolitical crisis. For years, the Venezuelan opposition, politicians throughout the region, and experts on Latin American politics have been waiting for the inevitable political transition to occur, yet the Chavista regime currently led by President Maduro has shown extraordinary resilience. The massive protests and increased violent repression that have taken over the country in recent weeks have led to a much harsher tone from figures such as Colombian President Santos, Secretary General of the OAS Almagro, and even US President Trump. At this point, due to structural changes within the Venezuelan state apparatus advanced by the Chavista regime, a negotiated transition will prompt the most effective and peaceful political outcome.
After almost two decades at the head of South America’s most iconic leftist regime in the 21st century, the Chavista government has managed to co-opt key institutions such as the armed forces and the Supreme Court. Propelled into the presidency by a populist discourse of social justice and social democracy, Colonel Hugo Chavez quickly purged the country’s military apparatus of elements that would not support him and secured its loyalty. Similarly, favored by high petroleum prices during the first decade of the century, Chavez nationalized the country’s natural wealth and redistributed it through social programs directed towards poor and marginalized communities. While this economic model temporarily alleviated poverty in Venezuela and gave Chavez a large base of support amongst the country’s popular classes, it has not proved sustainable. For instance, before Chavez came into power in 1998, oil and fossil fuels represented 72 percent of the country’s total exports. Meanwhile, in recent years, fuel has accounted for well over 95 percent of Venezuela’s exports. Ultimately, anti-free market discourse and an unfavorable environment for private industry has led to Venezuela’s deindustrialization.
Nevertheless, during its first decade in power, the Chavista regime had enough popular support and oil revenue that a small amount of repression towards political opponents was enough to ensure its survival. Today, however, the Chavista regime faces a crisis on several fronts. First, President Maduro does not have the level of charisma or popular support, nor the same degree of loyalty with the Venezuelan military that his predecessor enjoyed. Likewise, the collapse of oil prices on the international market has drained the state coffers. Because of these dynamics, President Maduro has been forced to appoint generals and military officers to ministries and other governmental positions in order to ensure their loyalty and dissipate the threat of a coup. Similarly, the regime has lost most of its popular base of support, is mired with corruption, and has become involved in major drug trafficking schemes. Currently, Maduro’s government faces a situation of hyperinflation and a drastic reduction in the import of basic goods due mainly to the extreme devaluation of the Bolivar. Furthermore, the government has been forced to end most of the social programs that maintained its popular base of support as well as mortgage the country’s natural resources to foreign capital,particularly from China and Russia.
To deal with the crisis and ensure its survival, Maduro’s government has increased the amount of force and violent repression employed against civil society, which in turn has further legitimized the calls for political transition by the opposition and the international community. Nevertheless, the prospect of a political transition represents a nightmare for the Chavista regime and the Venezuelan military, both of which are heavily implicated in corruption and drug trafficking. Currently, the main driver behind the government’s hold on power is self-interest and the fear of incarceration or even extradition after an eventual political transition. Prominent figures of the regime such as President Maduro himself, Diosdado Cabello, and key military officers are well aware of the mounting pressure against them and the inevitability of a political transition in the near future. However, they are holding onto power and are willing to do so by authoritarian means, not by conviction, because it is their only guarantee against criminal prosecution and imprisonment.
Right now, in order to pressure Maduro’s government into a negotiated political transition that includes the immediate liberation of political prisoners, the international community must expand its targeted sanctions, such as travel bans, against key government officials as well as freeze the financial assets held by these same individuals. Given the socioeconomic crisis that the country is going through and the government’s blatant disregard for the suffering of the Venezuelan people, there is little else that the international community can do diplomatically to pressure the Chavista regime to negotiate. Yet, negotiations for a political transition in Venezuela must involve both a carrot and a stick.
A political negotiation between Maduro’s government and the opposition under the auspices of an international actor, such as the Vatican, the United Nations, or the OAS, represents the most effective way of achieving a peaceful political transition. Further isolation is not the answer, and Venezuela should reconsider its withdrawal from the OAS and assess the long-term implications. The international community should recruit seasoned and moderate political leaders, such as Colombian President Santos, Chilean President Bachelet, or even Mexican President Peña Nieto, to broker the negotiation. Similarly, the negotiation must involve both Maduro’s government and the political opposition as well as the Venezuelan military, which has become deeply involved in politics throughout the last decade, because it will face the complex task of dismantling the well-armed criminal gangs that currently operate with impunity in the country. Unless the regional and international communities are willing to risk “strategic patience” as well as the prospect of further humanitarian suffering and bloodshed on the streets of Venezuela, sitting down with Maduro’s government and achieving some kind of deal is the best way forward.
ABOUT the AUTHOR:
Glenn Ojeda Vega is a Latin America Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). He is also an emerging markets consultant in Latin America. Glenn earned his BS in Foreign Service from Georgetown University in 2014.
In addition to his YPFP Fellowship, Glenn is also an emerging markets consultant in Latin America — he is currently based in Bogotá, Colombia. Previous examples of his work can be found in Fair Observer, Diplomatic Courier, and The Huffington Post. Glenn earned his BS in Foreign Service from Georgetown University in 2014.