On May 1 opponents of the Venezuelan government once again filled the streets of Caracas, following a month of demonstrations against President Nicolas Maduro in which 29 people were killed and hundreds detained.
In a new gambit to delay elections and defuse the protests, Maduro on Monday proposed a 500-person assembly chosen by groups of workers, students and others to rewrite the country’s constitution. The opposition denounced this move as unconstitutional, and called Venezuelans to the streets to protest.
But protests alone won’t lead to peace for this divided and suffering country. Other countries need to pressure moderates from the government and the opposition to negotiate a solution to the crisis that has left millions of Venezuelans with too little food and medicine, and a power struggle between the legislature and the Supreme Court.
Venezuela is facing the legacy of 18 years of revolutionary change introduced by Hugo Chávez. In the 2000s, the Chávez government distributed the profits from record-high oil prices to the poor, but failed to invest in the national petroleum company and, after confiscating many private businesses, resorted to importing most of the country’s food.
In the years following Chávez’s 2013 death, oil prices slid, dropping to as low as $25 per barrel in early 2016. The Maduro government refused to loosen its control of foreign currency and open up the economy, leading to shortages of food and medicine, a severe recession, and hyper-inflation currently estimated at 700 percent.
It responded to its falling popularity by postponing governors’ elections, jailing opposition leaders, and arming pro-government gangs to intimidate protestors. The largest protests erupted in April, after the Supreme Court dissolved the authority of the opposition-controlled legislature and the government disqualified a leading opposition candidate from running in next year’s presidential election.
The current crisis could end in three ways. First, the protesters now in the streets may grow tired and return home, international attention may fade, and the government could continue to lead while waiting for oil prices to rise, allowing it to make its next bond payments in November. During that time the government would likely continue to delay elections and suppress dissent. This has happened twice before in the last three years.
Second, the sporadic violence that now occurs between government-armed gangs and the youths who oppose them could spiral out of control, producing more bloodshed and chaos.
Third, and ideally, moderates on both sides could negotiate to restore constitutional rule and checks and balances, end the food and medicine shortage, and start the long path to national recovery through elections and compromise.
For this third scenario to be possible, however, Venezuela must overcome two traps.
The “exit cost trap” exists because some elected government officials are reluctant to hold elections because if they lose, they and their collaborators could be indicted for criminal activity, including drug trafficking, corruption or human rights abuses. Those already on the U.S. sanctions list for such offenses and many others are likely to keep a tight grip on power unless they know that they won’t be prosecuted in Venezuela or extradited for trial to the United States.
The “polarization trap” comes from the division between supporters and opponents of the government, a schism that has existed since 2001. The two groups distrust each other and so far have been unwilling to engage in any kind of conversation about resolving Venezuela’s problems. Moderates in the middle who attempt to compromise or negotiate a solution to the crisis are considered sell-outs or traitors by the extremes. And many in the opposition feel burned by previous internationally-led talks between opposition parties and the government that seemed to buy time for the government without producing results.
Venezuela can escape the “exit cost trap” with a form of transitional justice usually applied after civil wars or during transitions from authoritarian to democratic governments. It involves measures like those in the recent Colombian peace agreement, where the government offered reduced sentences to the guerrillas in exchange for them providing financial compensation, turning over their weapons, taking responsibility for their crimes and committing to not resume the war.
Venezuela could escape the “polarization trap” with the help of the international community.
Neighboring countries in South America could help Venezuelans overcome their skepticism of negotiation by setting time limits for the government to accept medical and food aid, fix dates for internationally-monitored local and national elections, release political prisoners, restore the legislature’s power and stop arming civilian militias and repressing peaceful protestors. International development banks could suspend multilateral loans until the Organization of American States determines the Maduro administration is putting democracy back on track.
To be sure, bringing the two sides together to negotiate a way out of the crisis will not be easy. The Maduro government controls the media, judiciary, electoral council, state oil company, security forces and armed civilian militias. It has received financial support from China and Russia, and diplomatic support from countries like Bolivia and Nicaragua, which have benefitted from its oil diplomacy. It may believe it can continue to intimidate protestors and hold out until the situation improves enough for it to win elections.
Its opposition has in the past been weak and divided, racked with internal rivalries and ambitions that have prevented it from agreeing on conditions for negotiations. But moderate voices are now beginning to call for compromise rather than all-out victory over the government.
The Maduro administration can’t afford to wait. It faces severe international debt obligations, a loss of popular confidence and the risk that members of its own inner circle could defect.
Negotiations are the key to Venezuela’s future. The alternatives are far worse.