When the June 23rd Organization of American States (OAS) Permanent Council meeting on Venezuela adjourned, giving an implicit “you-go-girl” mandate to the Union of South American Republic’s (UNASUR) sponsored former presidents’ mediation effort, few but the most multilaterally delusional actually thought it would work. Sure, the June 23rd OAS discussion was welcome and represented an important break from past years of bewildering silence. Also welcome were the blunt reports of government malfeasance and political polarization by the former presidents that spoke the day before the meeting.
But a multilateral mediation effort without the threat of sanctions has all the power and effectiveness of a high school model United Nations. In fact, while former presidents José Luis Zapatero, Leonel Fernández and Ernesto Samper have been attempting to bring the parties together, the government of President Nicolás Maduro has been quietly, and not-so-quietly, consolidating power and gaming the system so that there is no constitutional referendum of the sort envisioned by the OAS. Such a vote would provide a safety valve to avert the democratic collapse and humanitarian disaster in Venezuela by giving the opposition a chance to put Maduro’s hapless leadership and tragicomic economic plan to an up-or-down vote, with the chance of a political transition to a more democratic, competent government.
At the same time, I understand some sectors in the State Department have a grand, realpolitik plan to let things play out so that a divided, at-times-rabid, and personality-driven opposition doesn’t inherit a politically impossible situation. Those Foggy Bottom hopes hinge on some form of a coalition, transition government that could lay the groundwork for a smoother, saner process. Problem is: Maduro and the hardliners are having nothing to do with it, and in the meantime the country and its citizens are left twisting in the wind.
Despite the OAS’s endorsement, the mediation efforts have failed to produce any concrete results: political prisoners remain, humanitarian assistance is blocked, drugs continue to flow across Venezuelan airspace, and there’s no end in sight to the government’s belligerence and intolerance, which only seem to grow as Maduro feels more insecure.
In fact, we seem to be going in the opposite direction from the supposed intentions of the OAS declarations in support of mediation. Here’s what’s happening:
- Foot dragging from a partisan Election Commission: When, on May 2, the opposition brought to the chavista Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE) the required 1 percent of registered voters’ signatures constitutionally necessary to trigger a recall referendum, the CNE conveniently dragged its heels. While it approved 10.4 million signatures in one and a half days following government organization to pass an anti-U.S. resolution in 2015, it took them three months to finally give a green light to the recall referendum on August 1, giving the opposition barely enough time to organize a petition drive to collect the necessary 20 percent of registered voter signatures in time to trigger the recall vote before January 10. Because here’s the catch: if the recall referendum is held after January 10, the current vice president will just slide into the presidency should Maduro receive the likely popular vote of no confidence. That means that, despite having the worst economy in the world and still without an economist in its cabinet, the government would continue in power until 2019.
- Threats, threats and more threats: Even before the OAS vote, on May 16, 2016, Vice President Aristobulo Isturiz had declared that Maduro would never be removed from office via referendum. Despite former U.S. ambassador John Maisto’s risible assertion (not just now but also then) early in the Bolivarian revolution that observers should just pay attention to what the Chavez government does and not what it says (not just an amoral assertion but bizarrely unaware of the warning signs that many social scientists noted at the time), this government follows through on its threats. And indeed, since Aristobulo Isturiz’s claim, the lackey CNE has done everything it can to comply, and President Maduro has repeatedly denounced the effort. More recently, Maduro demanded that all government ministers remove government employees found to have signed the petition to exercise a constitutional right of recall—from high level officials to doctors and nurses working in the country’s decaying public hospitals, to form stampers to garbage collectors, demonstrating that the politicization of the chavista state is complete. (This already occurred indirectly in 2004 when government plants leaked the names of recall signatories and posted them on-line. But in a clear conflict of interests, the Carter Center and the OAS—there to both mediate a compromise to respect the recall referendum and observe the referendum’s balloting—remained mostly silent over the clear violation of voter secrecy and the growing politicization of supposedly independent institutions such as the CNE.)
- Basic rules of mediation: Picture this: a referee is called to officiate a game of soccer (or as you Europeans and Latinos call it, futbol) but one side gets to choose the opposing team. (Hey, pick the guy with the pocket protector wearing black socks with shorts). Would the referee accept that as a fair game? Would he or she don the striped shirt (of American football, dammit!) as if the game were going to be fair? Of course not. In the world of modern mediation, most mediators and multilateral organizations would also refuse to officiate. But that’s what has occurred in Venezuela; the government has repeatedly refused to acknowledge or accept the opposition’s leaders as legitimate mediators—despite the fact that the opposition won a majority of the vote in the 2015 congressional elections. I’ll refrain here from waxing academic about what this says about the government’s Rousseau-ian notion of the popular will. Instead, I’ll point out the obvious: this isn’t the way mediation works, not in Serbia, not in Northern Ireland, not in Rwanda, heck not even in marriage counseling.
All of this is to say, the UNASUR mission was doomed from the start. Mediation requires holding parties accountable. It requires carrots and sticks—but most of all sticks—to get the parties to the table and to follow through on their commitments. For this there has to be a credible threat of sanctions.
Leaving aside the personalities and commitment of the individual former presidents engaged in this shuttle diplomacy, the modern idea of holding governments accountable to their citizens runs counter to be very foundational idea of UNASUR, which by its charter favors states over popular sovereignty. (I’m reminded of a former USAID Clinton official who, when I questioned his NGO’s report advocating the need for UNASUR to seriously monitor the 2015 national assembly elections turned to me on the panel and gravely intoned, “Chris, it has to.” It didn’t. When Venezuela’s court system refused to seat deputies from Amazonas state because of trumped up allegations of pre-electoral violations, UNASUR was silent. Assertions based on what people hope will happen—no matter how seriously and deeply delivered—rather than a serious analysis of the likelihood or the steps to make it happen are no way to make recommendations or conduct foreign policy.)
OK, so we’ve given UNASUR and its—inevitably doomed—mediation efforts a chance. What’s next? The first step is the OAS reconvening its Permanent Council to both hear the report by the former presidents and then discuss what it will do next.
The second is that those realpolitik-er, Kennan-like State Department diplomats need to recognize that this is not a tit-for-tat Venezuelan government. This government is more like a wounded animal or the honey badger that “don’t give a sh**” without real costs. Senior U.S. foreign service officials may shudder at the thought of an up-or-down vote in the OAS on Venezuela’s “democratic-ness” and the risk of shutting off diplomatic channels to the increasingly isolated Maduro government. But efforts to quietly negotiate the release of political prisoners, prod the government to accept humanitarian assistance, and pray for a referendum on a more stabilizing timetable have yielded nothing and are not likely to produce miraculous results.
It’s time to get the regional community to put some real teeth into the negotiations and define an ideal path for the future: in short, to brandish the threat of punishment to a Maduro government that has consistently refused to accept a stabilizing (let alone constitutional) step forward. What would those points of leverage be? Well, as a few examples, governments publicly recognizing the Maduro government’s refusal to abide by the most basic mediation rules, cutting back on diplomatic relations, raising the threat of yanking diplomatic recognition of select officials, and placing on watch lists those government officials (including the CNE and high-level military officials) who have proven to be directly involved in undermining constitutional processes, violating human and constitutional rights, or corruption. The U.S. has already done this in certain cases, but other governments in the region need to step up and threaten the same. In addition, as a carrot, the regional community must be willing to put forward a humanitarian package of food assistance and medicine to be delivered in-country—and here comes a twist—by non-partisan NGOs, domestic and international.
Will this work? It has a better chance than just trying to cajole the government to the table with no real leverage while the president and his followers actively seek to foul the waters to prevent mediation.