Published On: Mon, Jul 17th, 2017

A Venezuela settlement will require pressure from outside

Venezuela-MaduroCARACAS - Venezuela is stuck between a rock and a very hard place. The government has vowed, in less than 30 days, to elect a “constituent assembly” that will further divide a country in dire straits.

President Nicolás Maduro wants a super-body without democratic controls to redraft the constitution and consolidate a fully fledged authoritarian regime. The opposition is boycotting a process it claims is unconstitutional, and moderates warn of the risk of violence if the government does not withdraw its plans.

Political economists who run the numbers about the expected duration and cost of a violent conflict in Venezuela paint a bleak picture. The economic and social indicators of the past four years are already equivalent to those of a country in civil war.

What is needed is a creative, urgent and credible pathway towards a negotiated solution — that is the only way Venezuela can stabilise. Every side will require assurances, and none can emerge the winner. Conditions for a negotiated solution are foul. The country is experiencing high triple-digit inflation, human rights violations against street protesters are rampant and the population suffers unprecedented scarcity of both food and medicine. Poverty rates have already dropped to levels below those that helped the “Bolivarian” revolution ascend to power in the late 1990s.

Meanwhile, government and opposition are caught in an impasse that appears to have no exit. The executive branch has an iron grip on most state institutions, including the military, and has all but dissolved the National Assembly; the opposition has growing popular support and can win but not offer elections.

The result is a dysfunctional, polarised country, where institutions are unable to serve as independent arbiters and government leaders are unwilling to expose their socialist revolution to the risk of electoral defeat. A bold reassessment of interests will need to be made by the government’s and opposition’s most powerful allies abroad.

Having played a key role in helping end the Colombian civil war, Cuba — with China and Russia, and allies on the opposition side such as the US, EU and Colombia — could play a pivotal role in preventing violent conflict in Venezuela from escalating. But at least four conditions must be met.

First, the cumulative pressure of economic implosion, street protests, and internal breakaway groups within the government must rise until it becomes clear that there are only two potential fates for Venezuela: a negotiated solution in which some of their interests and values can be preserved, or a total collapse in which none can.

Second, because of the absolute distrust between government and opposition leaders, a negotiated solution will require diplomatic strong-arming from outside — nearly all of the forces at work in Venezuela are already centrifugal.

Third, a credible structure for the negotiation will need to be created, going far beyond the one used last year, which was led by three former foreign presidents and the Vatican. The structure will need to be endorsed by as many influential states and multilateral organisations as possible. None of these need play a formal role in the negotiation — that would be better handled by others, possibly the Vatican, Canada or both — as long as they display total political commitment.

Fourth, like the peace process in Colombia, any durable negotiation will require strict rules and record-keeping in order to ensure the implementation of any agreements.

The biggest enemy is time, given the risk of violence in the run-up to the constituent assembly. Only a negotiated outcome can help avoid the triumph of extremists on each side, who believe against all evidence that defeat of the other is a pathway to restoring governability and democracy in Venezuela.

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