04 Dec 2020

A new role for the EU in Venezuela

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Venezuela is a failed state, causing the second-largest humanitarian and migrant crisis in the world. The country’s recent history of disastrous administration and economic mismanagement, which started under former President Hugo Chavez, placed it in such a wretched ranking. Before Chavez, Venezuela was known as the Saudi Arabia of South America, thanks to Its oil boom and subsequent economic growth in the 1970s. Under Chavez, a populist and authoritarian regime was installed in an oil-dependent economy, where no reinvestment was made to diversify the economy or to ensure a sustainable reduction in inequality.

After Chavez’s death in 2013, Nicolas Maduro was elected president, but his election was a pyrrhic victory for a country already wounded by social and political fragmentation, crumbling infrastructure, unsustainable public spending and underperforming industry. Maduro did nothing to heal these wounds. The fall in oil prices caused spiralling hyperinflation and social collapse. Today, 90% of Venezuelans live in poverty and two-thirds of them cannot even eat three times a day. In 2017, each Venezuelan lost on average 11 kilograms in body weight. In an attempt to escape repression or hunger, 5.5 million people have left the country.

Despite two decades of free fall, Venezuela attracted the closer attention of the global community only in 2018, when presidential elections resulted in a wave of political violence and social disruption. The world found itself divided in two factions: the United States and the European Union taking a stance against Maduro, mainly in the form of personal sanctions, an assets freeze and an arms embargo, and its staunch supporters, namely Russia, China and Iran, who offered financial assistance and military supplies. Latin American governments mainly tried to survive the humanitarian crisis by coordinating regional efforts and shouting for international support.

Two years down the road, Venezuela still finds itself in no man’s land, with two governments (one led by Maduro, the Constitutional Assembly and the military forces; the other by the self-declared President Juan Guaidó and the National Assembly of Venezuela) both claiming to be running the same country. Parliamentary elections are now scheduled for 6 December 2020, but irregularities are, according to the United Nations, a fait accompli. The EU sent an exploratory mission in September 2020, aiming to stimulate dialogue between the opposing factions, but ended up proposing that the vote be postponed by at least six months. A proposal that was rejected: parliamentary elections will take place as scheduled, without transparency guarantees. And Maduro will claim it was a propitious victory. Given the context, we argue that the EU can and should play a prominent role in the Venezuelan crisis in the months to come.

From December onwards, the situation in the country can further deteriorate, leading to its definitive collapse. Although the United States has a role to play and can allocate resources to avoid this eventuality, especially as of 20 January, its strained relations with the internal and external actors involved do not position it as an ideal mediator.

For this reason, the European Union is the global power with both the will and the capacity to promote peaceful and sustainable solutions in favour of a population in dire need. So far, EU institutions have reacted by increasing humanitarian aid and promoting dialogue among opposing factions. But overall, the commitment towards Venezuela still pales in comparison to other migration crises of a similar magnitude: note that the Refugee and Migrant Response Plans in 2020 are 4.3 times higher for Syria and the EU contribution is 10.5 times higher for Syria than for Venezuela. As was demonstrated in May 2020 during the International Donors’ Conference organised by the European Union and Spain, the EU does have the capacity to mobilise further assistance. Even if it does not engage with additional financial support, it could call for greater efforts from Canada and the United States.

The EU has also imposed sanctions as a pressure mechanism, but has not sought to create alliances or weaken opponents to deprive Maduro’s regime of the international support it enjoys, which keeps it in power despite an internal approval rating of less than 25%. This is quite alarming, if one considers that one of Maduro’s supporters is China, which has proved to be both friend and foe to the European Union, as increasingly acknowledged by EU officials. Beijing’s aggressive strategy in the country, inspired by the need to access oil, minerals, and agricultural goods, cannot stand in the way of good governance and local development, and as such cannot leave the “geopolitical Commission”, and the EU as champion of human rights, indifferent (Sullivan & Lum, 2020). This call for more forceful action falls in line with the “strategic autonomy” concept being built under Borrell’s term in office: the EU should promote its own narrative of the world, taking advantage of its multilateral know-how. Even if this narrative does not have unanimous support.

First, the EU should strengthen its position as a coordinator of humanitarian actions, through a reallocation of resources coming from the Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Funds, pushing for urgent action from UN agencies, the United States and Canada and allocating resources to countries like Colombia (where the migration of almost two million Venezuelans is now leading to escalating tensions) and Peru. The latter decision demands a regional consensus, which could be obtained through dialogue between the International Contact Group, mostly representing European states, and the Group of Lima, representative of Latin-American countries. The communication channel between these groups already exists, and the EU supports the Quito Process, so there is common ground to pursue this discussion.

Second, the EU should foster enhanced multilateral dialogue on the issue of external financial and military support to the Maduro administration, to avoid the definitive collapse of democracy in Venezuela. The EU has had growing experience of handling and promoting peace mediations (Bergmann, 2017): in this case, a coalition with Latin American governments and Canada, which includes the National Assembly of Venezuela, could identify available negotiation channels, and may also enjoy the support of a more enlightened US administration. This will also require bilateral approaches with Russia and China; countries that have so far backed the regime, and with Iran, a country that publicly states its support for Maduro, exhorting him to withstand US sanctions in the name of an “alliance of pariah states”. EU leadership in this domain may help to mitigate the anti-American rhetoric behind foreign support, which brings no tangible benefit to the people of Venezuela, and condemns them to starve in a failed state, or to add their names to the millions who have already fled the country in recent years.

Jorge Guzmán, Ph.D. in Political Science specialised in Global Politics, former Advisor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Colombia and former Advisor to the Ambassador of Colombia in Venezuela. Mónica Rico Benítez is a Consultant at CEPS’ GRID Unit and a former junior diplomat of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Colombia.

This article is inspired in a webinar organised by CEPS that took place on 5 November 2020. Based on the presentation of panellist Jorge Guzmán, it aims to offer an academic analysis of the topic, collecting some of the main discussion points, and addressing some of the questions from the audience during the conference. The views expressed in this report are nevertheless those of the authors writing in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect those of CEPS or any other institutions with which they are associated.

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