How to break Venezuela’s stalemate

The international community should offer Maduro recognition of his current term in office in exchange for a constitutional amendment barring him from seeking a third term in the 2024 presidential elections.

Venezuela is going through one of the worst economic crises ever seen outside of wartime. While there is plenty of blame to go around in this purely man-made catastrophe (women, marginalized on both sides of the country’s political divide, have been for the most part bystanders in its genesis), the international community has little to show in terms of success for its involvement.  The country is trapped in a catastrophic stalemate, with neither side able to gain full control over the levers of government. The consequences for millions of Venezuelans, whose livelihoods continue to be tragically held hostage to the conflict, are nothing short of staggering.

Recent reports that a new round of talks between the Maduro and Guaidó camps may be about to get under way next month has rekindled interest in understanding what a negotiated ageeement could look like.  Optimists see a glimmer of hope in the recent overtures made by Chavismo, while skeptics  will be quick to point out that there is nothing new in what the regime  is willing to offer – and that what is transparent is its unwillingness to consider any deal that will threaten its hold on power.  Even if meaningful concessions can be extracted from Maduro in a negotiation, what is to constrain him from reneging on any agreement once he has gained the upper hand?  How do you enforce any commitment made by a regime that fully exerts the monopoly of the use of force and is understandably obsessed with its self-preservation? 

To unlock Venezuela’s stalemate, we will need to shift negotiations away from their current obsessive fixation on achieving an immediate change of government and center them instead on institutional reforms that reduce the stakes of power and set the basis for co-existence between the country’s dueling political factions.  One way to do this is by striking a deal in which Maduro accepts a constitutional amendment barring him from seeking re-election in 2024 in exchange for international recognition of his current presidency.

Political scientists agree that a hyper-presidentialist regime that turns its politics into a winner-take-all contest lies at the root of Venezuela’s conflict. To build the basis for a negotiated transition from an authoritarian regime to a sustainable democracy, the country needs first and foremost to lower its stakes of power. The institution of indefinite re-election is one of the most blatant ways in which chief executives abuse the powers of the presidency to stay in office. The imposition of term limits would reduce the power of the presidency, kick off a leadership succession within Chavismo, and open space for the political realignments necessary to forge a negotiated transition.   

We need to shift negotiations away from their current obsessive fixation on an immediate change of government and center them instead on reforms that make coexistence possible

Amendments to Venezuela’s 1999 Constitution must be approved by a majority of voters in a constitutional referendum.  An agreement on the reimposition of term limits (which would return Venezuela’s constitution to its state before a 2009 amendment) would therefore count with what comes closest in the country’s institutional framework to a guarantee of irreversibility: the approval by millions of Venezuelan voters of a reform of the nation’s charter through a credible, internationally monitored electoral process.  Reneging on that commitment in the future, while not impossible, would be extremely costly for Maduro.  The overseeing of such a referendum (in which Chavismo would retain the right to campaign for a “No” vote) would also provide for a real test of the credibility of the country’s recently appointed electoral authorities.

In exchange for accepting a referendum on term limits, the U.S. and Europe should be willing to offer Maduro formal international recognition of his current term in the presidency, as well as the easing of some economic sanctions.  Recognizing Maduro as president of Venezuela would simply imply a return to conventional practice, in which the decision to deal with a government entails recognition of its de facto control over the territory and not an assertion regarding its legitimacy of origin.  Nevertheless, such a decision would allow the government to regain control over assets and access to financing needed to begin to chart a way out of the country’s crippling economic crisis.  Other polarizing figures in the government and opposition could potentially also commit to abstaining from running in 2024, possibly in the form of a restriction on former presidents of the National Assembly from aspiring to the presidency.

Most importantly, such a deal would separate the issue of the continuation of Maduro in the presidency from that of the political survival of Chavismo. Opinion surveys continue to show that a large number of Venezuelans hold a positive view of Chávez’s achievements while he was in office, suggesting that many voters will continue to seek to be represented by politicians who espouse the late socialist leader’s ideas.  Even with term limits in place, Chavismo will likely continue to be a formidable political force.  It may even prove more resilient and enduring than if it is saddled with a third-term Maduro candidacy, a reality that aspiring leaders within Chavismo will be quick to recognize once the proposal is put forward. 

By helping spark a discussion on leadership succession within Chavismo, this proposal would open up possibilities for a meaningful political realignment within both sides of the country’s political spectrum.  An extensive literature shows that negotiated transitions become possible when reformists in government are able to reach across the political divide to find common spaces of understanding with opposition moderates. The international community should send all the signals to political actors on both sides of the spectrum that it is willing to fully support Venezuela’s economic recovery and reinsertion into the global community of nations if they can forge common ground for institutional reforms that ensure the consolidation of a sustainable democracy.

The international community should signal its willingness to support moderates on both sides willing to forge common ground on institutional reforms

Successful negotiations on the reimposition of term limits could also open space for a fuller discussion of the institutional reforms necessary to build a sustainable and equitable democracy.  These could include limits on the subordination of existing branches of government to the all-powerful constitutional convention, amendments to rules allowing the packing of the judiciary by legislative majorities, and restraints on the discretionary control by the presidency over off-budget funds without legislative oversight.  Importantly, the country’s electoral system for apportioning legislative seats needs to be reformed to ensure adequate representation of the country’s political minorities and to place a high hurdle on the achievement of powerful supermajorities by any political force.

If there is a lesson to be gained from the Venezuelan crisis, it is that the international community needs to avoid the temptation of taking sides in a country’s political conflict – no matter how unpalatable it finds one of the sides or how sympathetic it is to the cause of another.  Externally-imposed changes in government are rarely stable and often simply fall flat on their faces.  What international and domestic political actors can and should do is help Venezuelans find a way to solve their own governance problems by supporting domestic negotiated solutions that reduce conflict and protect the most vulnerable. Let’s hope it is not too late to start.

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