The emergence of a dynamic young leader galvanized the Venezuelan opposition two years ago. Juan Guaido united disparate opposition parties and won recognition as the country’s legitimate president from Donald Trump’s administration and dozens of other governments. His colleagues and the U.S. officials who backed him insisted that a campaign of “maximum pressure”—entailing biting sanctions, international isolation and even veiled threats of military action—would force an end to President Nicolas Maduro’s “usurpation” of power and restore democracy to Venezuela.
That was a miscalculation. Maduro, who cleaned up in elections last December that the opposition called a sham, looks more entrenched than ever. The opposition’s unrealistic appraisal of its own strength led it over a cliff. “Maximum pressure” failed, and Guaido’s strategy is on the rocks. Support for his “interim presidency” was already ebbing last year. Now, the parliamentary majority that was the basis for Guaido’s claim to power as the president of the National Assembly has expired, with 90 percent of seats controlled by Maduro allies after the opposition boycotted December’s polls. Still, opposition legislators, amid some internal dissent, insist that Guaido remains Venezuela’s legitimate president. They have endorsed a rump parliament, known as the Delegate Commission, and invented a “Political Council”—yet to be set up—that would, in theory, rejuvenate the wilting unity and fading promise of the opposition forces.
Those claims have resonated little among the opposition’s international backers. Barely a handful of the nearly 60 governments that previously recognized Guaido as president still do so—though, importantly, President Joe Biden’s new administration remains among them. The European Union, along with the International Contact Group it co-chairs, which is made up of countries that support a negotiated solution to the Venezuelan crisis, has emphasized that it will engage with all genuine opposition forces, as well as with civil society. While Guaido remains a “privileged interlocutor,” according to the Europeans, the so-called G4 group of political parties at the opposition’s core must forge a broader alliance and prepare for “difficult compromises.”
Yet the G4, and Guaido in particular, have still to acknowledge publicly that anything is amiss. They are clinging to a strategy of absolute rejection of the Maduro government that looks outdated and unsustainable.
For a start, divisions in opposition ranks have become more conspicuous than at any stage since Guaido’s campaign to topple Maduro began. Even its top leadership does not always appear to be on the same page. At the end of January, in an interview with a Spanish newspaper, prominent opposition activist Leopoldo Lopez—who is also Guaido’s “presidential commissioner” and the leader of his party, Popular Will—promised “a new unitary platform” bringing together opposition parties and civil society. Just a few days later, though, Guaido said no such new body was required, merely improvements to the existing structures. Some insiders insist there can be no modification to the opposition’s negotiating strategy, which amounts in effect to “all or nothing”—either Maduro or his successor sit down to negotiate fresh and free elections that the government could well lose, or there are no talks. With no prospect of comprehensive negotiations restarting any time soon, that is a lot to ask of a population that is poor, hungry, sick and increasingly despairing of any solution to their woes.
As for the Maduro government, it has combined a renewed crackdown on its adversaries with minor forays toward compromise. It has set up two parliamentary commissions with apparently contradictory goals. One is charged with fostering “dialogue and reconciliation.” The other, however, is investigating alleged corruption on the part of Guaido and his team, explicitly threatening them with imprisonment. The government is selectively harassing independent news organizations and humanitarian NGOs, reducing still further the democratic space in the country.
Opposition politicians face a difficult set of choices. But the sooner they face up to them, the sooner Venezuela can begin to tackle the enormous challenges of a much-needed political transition.
An important segment of Venezuelan civil society believes that it is possible and indeed essential to negotiate partial agreements with the government, with the aim of alleviating Venezuela’s still-nosediving economy—GDP has fallen by around 80 percent since 2013—and with it the humanitarian emergency, while improving conditions for elections. The main business organization, known as Fedecamaras, for example, has held talks with the government and set up a joint commission to develop proposals. The private sector wants the government to take immediate measures to halt the “asphyxiation” of the economy. Separately, on Feb. 11, the government and opposition reached an agreement in principle on how to pay for COVID-19 vaccines. But those who favor such partial accords are also clear that only a comprehensive political settlement that restores the rule of law, independent institutions and free elections will resolve the underlying crisis.
Some opposition leaders are also prepared to engage the government, as the National Assembly presses ahead with the appointment of a new electoral authority. While Guaido refuses to participate in upcoming state and local elections, many in the opposition coalition will undoubtedly take part. It is hard to see how its component parties can reconnect with a disillusioned electorate if they refuse the opportunities that even an undemocratic election affords. Those factions that do refuse to contest the vote risk becoming steadily more marginal on the domestic front, even if some retain a loud voice abroad from bases in the U.S., Colombia and Spain.
The new reality in Venezuela obliges international actors, and in particular the Biden administration, to overhaul their policy. Continued recognition, above all by Washington, of Guaido’s “interim presidency” could impede the necessary reorganization of the opposition and hold back the resumption of full-scale negotiations. Ideally, the Biden administration would shift gently away from that recognition, as Europe has done, though domestic pressure in the U.S. could obstruct such a move. In the meantime, there is plenty Biden can still do.
As the International Crisis Group has argued and as a recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office indicates, Washington should carry out a humanitarian review of existing sanctions to minimize their impact on ordinary Venezuelans. And while domestic political pressures will make it hard for the new administration to withdraw recognition from Guaido’s “interim presidency,” it should at least use its unique influence to persuade the opposition leadership to adopt a more flexible posture, including throwing its weight behind attempts by civil society organizations to achieve agreements on the economy and humanitarian relief. It should respond to any significant concessions by the government with a phased lifting of sanctions.
There is a clear risk that piecemeal negotiations will merely play into the Maduro government’s hands, by granting it a degree of recognition and economic and social stabilization, without corresponding moves toward a genuine political opening. But that risk is much greater if opposition political parties decline to back the talks. And to demand that ordinary Venezuelans simply put on hold their aspirations for improvements in daily life, while the opposition leadership sorts out its internal disputes and finds a way of bringing the government back to the negotiating table, is both unrealistic and insensitive amid a humanitarian emergency.
A full-scale political settlement, which is the sine qua non for significant and lasting improvements on the economic, social and humanitarian fronts, will also require the acquiescence—if not the support—of Maduro’s key international allies, Russia and China, and probably that of Cuba as well. It is imperative to resume diplomatic efforts to identify possible areas of agreement on Venezuela among the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, as well as other relevant stakeholders, such as those who attended the closed-door meetings formerly hosted by the Swedish government. Broad support across Latin America for negotiations, including from those most hostile to Maduro, such as Colombia, as well as others that are far less critical of his government, like Mexico and Bolivia, would also boost the chances of reaching a lasting settlement.
All of this will become more straightforward if the opposition carries out a profound revision of its strategy and its internal organization. Its refusal to take part in elections, and insistence on prolonging the life of a fictional “government,” has left it without a clear and transparent mechanism for renewing its own leadership. It appears increasingly isolated from millions of Venezuelans who fervently want change. Opposition politicians face a difficult set of choices. But the sooner they face up to them, the sooner Venezuela can begin to tackle the enormous challenges of a much-needed political transition and economic reconstruction.
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