Small Wars Journal

Venezuela: Could the Coronavirus Threat Be an Opportunity?

Sat, 04/11/2020 - 11:04am

Venezuela: Could the Coronavirus Threat Be an Opportunity?

A truce in the decade-long power struggle is urgent to fight COVID—and could open a path to the nation’s revival.

Keith Mines and Steve Hege

Helping Venezuela resolve its political crisis will be vital to containing the potentially catastrophic COVID-19 pandemic there. A truce in the country’s power struggle is urgent, and last week’s U.S. proposal for a transitional government offers useful ideas, even for a naturally skeptical governing regime. Advancing them would benefit from mediation, perhaps by the Vatican or the United Nations, and will require cooperation among the major powers—the United States, Russia and China—involved in the crisis. If Venezuelans and outsiders can join against the common human threat of coronavirus, that could lay foundations for an eventual political solution to the decade of turmoil that has brewed the hemisphere’s worst humanitarian disaster.

Venezuela’s state of collapse will prevent many of its 32 million people from observing basic precautions such as social distancing and frequent hand-washing, making the country a special risk for COVID transmission. Most Venezuelans survive hand-to-mouth through daily hustles such as selling produce or contraband in crowded street markets and a third are malnourished, leaving their immune systems already depleted. Forty percent of households suffer daily interruptions in water supply and electricity. Even in the capital, Caracas, hospitals report they lack running water, sinks and soap, much less functional intensive care units or ventilators.

Remittances totaling $4 billion a year are now drying up as daily incomes evaporate for the nearly 5 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees who have fled the pre-existing crisis. With the tailspin in the global price of oil—and domestic refineries not functioning—massive fuel shortages are likely to impede access to basic staples in the near future. Widespread social upheaval could become uncontainable and serve to dramatically empower brutal criminal and armed actors.

A holistic response to the pandemic will require broad-reaching cooperation across Venezuela’s political chasm. Unilateral humanitarian assistance by either side will fall woefully short. The U.S. proposal calls for both leaders with claims to the presidency, Nicolás Maduro and Juan Guaidó, to yield to a power-sharing government elected by the National Assembly—this following steps to return members from exile or detention and restore elements of the legislature’s constitutional role that have been eroded during the long power struggle. The assembly would elect four members of a transitional council of state, two from the ruling party and two from the opposition. Those councilors would select as president a fifth member and would make decisions by majority vote. The body would oversee the crucial organization of parliamentary and presidential elections. The armed forces would be represented by a military advisor who would presumably be in a position to protect their interests throughout any transition.

These are essentially unprecedented parameters that have been put publicly on the table, although a similar proposal was floated privately by Guaidó’s opposition interim government in negotiations last year. The proposal demonstrates clearly a U.S. endorsement for welcoming supporters of the Maduro regime—and its ideological base of Chavismo, built by former President Hugo Chavez—as meaningful participants in a revived democratic process. That notion of inclusiveness had remained ambiguous amid the conflict’s deep polarization and zero-sum political rhetoric. The U.S. plan also is the first to offer sanctions relief incrementally as progress is achieved; prior policy had structured sanctions as leverage for the opposition until a full transition was achieved. The proposal likewise unlocks economic and humanitarian relief early in the process, with the condition that it be made “equally accessible to all Venezuelans,” without political or ideological considerations.

It is so far unclear whether the U.S. proposal can reinvigorate efforts to facilitate the urgently needed truce between Venezuelan political forces. Maduro immediately rejected the proposal, which his party’s intransigent hard-liners initially seem to have interpreted as an invitation for their surrender. This perception probably was not helped by the U.S. proposal having been sandwiched between indictments of Maduro and his inner circle the week prior and the arrival of a counter-narcotics flotilla off the coast of Venezuela days after. The lack of trust and simple communications between the United States and the Maduro regime will need to be bridged for the proposal to serve its purposes as a key reference point in hashing out desperately needed agreements among Venezuelans themselves.

In light of those challenges, there is a crucial need for a legitimate facilitator that can manage a complex process of negotiations that includes all the essential domestic parties with the clear endorsement of their foreign allies. Many players, such as the Organization of American States, have been compromised during the last year, but others, such as the Vatican or European Union, could re-engage. Both Maduro and members of the opposition had previously agreed that the Catholic Church could provide its auspices and moral authority in helping to usher in a short-term humanitarian agreement. And given the centrality of Russian and Chinese support for Maduro, a more robust role for the United Nations would be a true game-changer, particularly if it came with a Security Council resolution with the explicit support of all five permanent council members.

A key force in any scenario of renewed dialogue, both in the short and long term, will be the battered but still deeply motivated Venezuelan civil society. The groups that have been running soup kitchens in response to the economic crisis are now quickly switching to work against COVID, providing face masks and supporting medical facilities. Courageous and dedicated Venezuelans are showing the side of the country that will one day facilitate reconstruction—a selfless patriotism that shows a compelling love of their fellow citizens regardless of political affiliations. The country’s most prominent civil society organizations—including many led by women, who have been long marginalized in politics—are also demanding that the regime and the opposition reach a humanitarian agreement to provide the country the immediate relief and future vision it desperately deserves.

Backers of both sides of Venezuela’s political divide should listen to these inspiring voices and seek to reinforce domestic dialogue on an urgent truce to face the public health crisis as an initial step toward building a political way forward. If the U.S. proposal is inadequate, it should stimulate alternatives, based on its same inclusive spirit, to emerge quickly. The ticking time bomb of the pandemic simply does not allow the country to wait for the perfect conditions. COVID-19’s conditions of force majeure can transform incentives to encourage immediate humanitarian cooperation and lay cornerstones for more comprehensive, long-term political solutions.

This article is cross-posted here with permission (on agreement) from the United States Institute of Peace.

About the Author(s)

Steve Hege has nearly two decades of professional experience working on issues related to peace processes, human rights, security sector reform, local governance, and natural resource-related organized crime. He currently leads USIP’s efforts in Colombia in support of the implementation of the peace accord with the FARC rebels, the dialogues with the ELN, as well as local peacebuilding and security transformations in municipalities previously under rebel control or influence. Additionally, Steve serves as an advisor in the peace process in Myanmar providing technical assistance to ethnic armed groups and political parties on security structure design and the merging of non-state actors with government institutions. Over the last four years, he has also supported or managed USIP security and justice reform programs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Tanzania, Central African Republic, Myanmar and Colombia.

Keith Mines is a senior advisor for Colombia and Venezuela in USIP’s Applied Conflict Transformation Center. Mr. Mines joined USIP after a career at the State Department, where he was most recently director for Andean and Venezuelan affairs. In 32 years of diplomatic and military service, he has worked on governance and institution building in Central America; Middle East peace in Israel and the West Bank; post-conflict stabilization in Haiti, Iraq, and Afghanistan; global financial stability and the environment in Brazil; NATO expansion in Hungary; famine relief and tribal reconciliation in Darfur and Somali; and creating a culture of lawfulness as the first director of the Merida Initiative in Mexico City.