November 26, 2018

Looking for an Off Ramp for Venezuela

Pro-government supporters hold a Venezuela’s flag at a rally in Caracas, Venezuela, in August 2017. Marcelino/Reuters

Mexico’s Andres Lopez Obrador may be able to play a decisive role in bringing this agonizing chapter of Venezuelan history to an end.

By Patrick Duddy / 11.14.2018
Former United States Ambassador to Venezuela
Director, Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies
Duke University

The United States and most of the rest of the Western Hemisphere are increasingly of one mind on Venezuela, if on nothing else. The Nicolas Maduro regime in Caracas has lost legitimacy, devolved into dictatorship and has to go. There is no consensus on how to make that happen, but nearly all of the region’s major players are alarmed at the prospect of the oil-rich country’s implosion. So far, neither U.S. sanctions nor Latin America’s public excoriation of the Venezuelan government has had the desired effect. Maduro and company remain in place and defiant.

There seems to be tacit agreement that a military solution is not what the situation calls for but, at the same time, widespread concern that the situation could ulcerate into something much worse before more longer-term strategies have time to play out. The Venezuelan crisis requires fresh thinking and someone to provide the discredited regime in Caracas with an off ramp. A solution to the current impasse will take more than coercion. Choreography and—as distasteful as it may be to some—compromise will also be necessary.

As things stand, life in the proximate future is going to get more difficult for the regime in Caracas as well as for the Venezuelan people. Speaking in Miami on November 1, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton said the Donald J. Trump administration plans to get tougher with the three countries he called the “troika of tyranny”: Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Independently, several Latin American countries launched an effort to bring charges against President Maduro in the International Criminal Court.

In the meantime, the Venezuelan economy continues to decline. The country with the world’s largest oil reserves has seen oil production fall from a high of at least 3.2 million barrels per day when Hugo Chavez was elected in 1998 to under 1.2 million barrels per day at present, and has now begun experiencing gasoline shortages. Venezuela’s history tells us this is a very dangerous development. An abortive effort to raise gas prices even fractionally in 1989 caused violent rioting nationwide.

To hold on to power, the Maduro regime has had to act ever more ruthlessly in dismantling the country’s democratic institutions and repressing dissent. Conditions inside Venezuela have precipitated a tidal wave of refugees, with over a million now in Colombia, hundreds of thousands in Ecuador and Peru, and tens of thousands elsewhere. The masses of refugees are straining support services throughout South America. This appears to have finally awakened the region to the necessity of doing something more to relieve the crisis—if only to protect their own equities.

For its part, the Maduro regime seems to have decided to ignore its critics, foreign and domestic. This situation is not indefinitely sustainable and brings us inevitably to the same question General David Petraeus once reportedly asked about the war in Iraq: how does this end?

Do the United States and its partners believe they can force the Maduro government to restore democracy? It is doubtful that policymakers in Washington, the Organization of American States, Brasilia, Buenos Aires, Bogota, or Santiago would actually be prepared to endorse any effort in that direction if overseen by the Maduro regime itself. Neither does the United States nor anyone else want to see a military coup or, worse yet, a civil war, and the United States certainly does not expect Maduro and his henchmen to surrender.

Lastly, there do not appear to be a set of circumstances under which the United States and the rest of Latin America would simply accept the status quo. Bolton, speaking for the Trump administration, has made clear that the United States, for its part, is far from ready to throw in the towel.

So where are we? Most observers believe that the Maduro government has to go but, with the memory of the intervention in Libya as their model, also acknowledge that any sort of military intervention to remove the government is likely to make matters worse—maybe much worse.

That leaves few options for a nonviolent denouement. No available option, moreover, would be easy to manage and none is likely to please everyone. Any acceptable option would require the creation of some sort of an “off ramp” for the current government. Yet an off ramp that permits the regime’s leadership to evade responsibility for their crimes and incompetence would be difficult for Venezuela’s long-suffering opposition to accept. Requiring the outgoing regime to submit entirely to a judicial process would be unacceptable to the Maduro government; they know where trials by a genuinely impartial judiciary would be likely to lead. It is a maddeningly complicated dilemma.

Who could manage the process? None of the usual suspects. But, on December 1, 2018, Andres Lopez Obrador will be inaugurated as the new president of Mexico. AMLO, as Lopez Obrador is widely known, has signaled his intention to inviteMaduro to his inauguration.

While some ex-presidents from around the region have expressed their alarm over what they see as AMLO breaking ranks with those countries advocating for the restoration of democracy, it is possible AMLO’s independent streak may position him to play a decisive part in bringing this agonizing chapter of Venezuelan history to an end. Because he has played no role in recent regional efforts to force change in Venezuela, he may be the one leader acceptable to both the opposition and the Venezuelan government, and thus able to convince the Maduro administration to leave office.

Of course, this assumes that AMLO understands and accepts the view that the Maduro regime has become an obstacle to the country’s recovery and that the Bolivarian project must end in order to permit the restoration of democracy, the adoption of sensible economic policies, and the delivery of humanitarian relief. Ending the crisis in Venezuela is a tall order to be sure, but the longer the Maduro government remains in power, the more difficult the future will be.

Originally published by the Council on Foreign Relations under the terms a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.