Venezuela is experiencing an intractable political conflict marked by increasing repression and the dissolution of the country’s democratic institutions, leading to a grinding humanitarian and economic crisis. This downward spiral has been punctuated by multiple efforts at negotiation with the help of international actors; but they have been unsuccessful to date. Both the Venezuelan government and the opposition are once again signaling an interest in negotiations, with some support from the new U.S. administration, the European Union, and Latin American governments.
With the prospect of new negotiations on the horizon, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) have prepared “Negotiating a Return to Democracy in Venezuela,” a report on lessons learned from the most recent talks: the 2019 negotiations in Barbados and Norway. The goal of this report is to highlight the main lessons learned and subsequent narratives from the 2019 talks, so that policymakers can maximize the potential for success in future efforts.
The paper provides a brief overview of previous negotiations, assesses the history and timeline of the Oslo-Barbados talks in 2019, and presents overlaps and disparities in the narratives of members of the two negotiating teams following the failure of the process. In preparing this report the authors carried out in-depth interviews with multiple members of both the opposition and Chavista negotiating teams who participated in the 2019 talks, as well as senior U.S. officials and other international diplomats familiar with the negotiations. All of the interviews were conducted with the understanding that comments would be shared without direct attribution.
- The negotiating teams made some progress discussing seemingly intractable problems. While government negotiators in Oslo and Barbados refused to entertain a proposal for Nicolás Maduro to step down and cede power to a joint “Council of State” to oversee elections, the two sides did discuss the possibility of new presidential elections at length—focusing more on electoral conditions than who occupied the presidential palace.
- Members of the negotiating teams developed a level of trust and mutual understanding. While both teams stuck hard to their core positions, they developed enough familiarity with the constraints of their counterparts that they could at times envision more pragmatic solutions to difficult issues.
- Both negotiating teams contended with hardline factions. Government sources describe pushback from sectors resistant to concessions. Opposition sources suggested that lack of progress and tepid U.S. support reduced their ability to build buy-in across their coalition.
- Both the Maduro government and the opposition had alternatives to a negotiated solution, and reverted to them once talks stalled. The opposition pointed to the failed talks to affirm that more pressure was needed against the Maduro government, and the very act of holding talks burnished the government’s legitimacy and international standing. Success in the negotiations was not required by either side.
- The Maduro government sought to take advantage of opposition divisions to sideline the faction led by Juan Guaidó and empower a faction that was less confrontational. As talks in Barbados faltered, Maduro entered into parallel dialogue with minority opposition parties, offering only minimal concessions.
- The United States was perceived by both sides as indispensable to the 2019 negotiations, but divisions between the Trump administration’s National Security Council (NSC) and State Department complicated U.S. engagement in the process. Former officials and opposition negotiators point to clear tensions: State Department diplomats were supportive of the talks, but NSC officials saw them only as a way to deepen Chavista divisions.
- U.S. unwillingness to match opposition flexibility with regard to sanctions gave it a veto power that was unhelpfully wielded. The White House’s refusal to entertain the idea of sectoral sanctions relief in exchange for new elections while Maduro was still in office, for example, left opposition negotiators with little leverage. New U.S. sanctions, announced in August 2019, presented an excuse for Maduro to stall talks, and for the opposition to declare an end to the process.
With new talks possibly on the horizon, we offer a series of recommendations based on our interviews and analysis. The full set of recommendations is available on page 45. In brief, they are:
- The negotiating table should be re-structured to incorporate input from a broader set of actors. The next negotiations should have greater gender parity, and include a clear space for consultation with civil society organizations, human rights groups, and victims. Most interviewees were open to civil society participation in an indirect fashion, believing it could serve to broaden both input to and support for the talks.
- The Norwegian Foreign Ministry remains the best-regarded actor to facilitate future negotiations. Moving forward, negotiations may require a more active involvement by facilitators to include proposing creative solutions to roadblocks, and working more freely with participants to encourage paths forward— in concert with other international actors.
- Publishing the basic agenda of any future negotiations, and updating the public on their progress, can help instill trust in the process—but the talks themselves must be confidential. Future negotiations should be informed by the failures of previous processes such as the UNASUR-Vatican talks in 2014, the televising of which created perverse incentives for grandstanding and reduced their effectiveness.
- A roadmap to re-institutionalization, rather than a turning point solution to Venezuela’s crisis, may be more appropriate. Government sources routinely claim that they are interested in a solution that goes beyond elections and includes guarantees for political coexistence. Opposition sources describe a new openness to an arrangement in which the two sides agreed to a long term roadmap based on a political accord for rebuilding institutions and trust—with incentives such as gradual sanctions relief attached to each milestone. Both require a more long-term approach.
- Any solution will ultimately require free and fair elections, but also designing an outcome that allows a secure place for Chavismo in the country’s political landscape. A viable solution will need to secure a future for this movement while allowing it to define its own leaders and internal dynamics, without the imposition of solutions intended to marginalize or eliminate it in the future.
- The United States must commit to a negotiated solution to ensure their success. Both Chavista and opposition sources stressed that to be successful a new round of negotiations would require a U.S. that is not just acceding to talks, or supportive from a respectful distance, but rather materially involved.
- The U.S. should abandon its “all or nothing” approach to pressure, and make clear that progress on agreed-upon benchmarks can lead to phased relief from sectoral sanctions—which can be snapped back in the event of non-compliance. Opposition sources close to the Oslo-Barbados negotiations expressed a clear frustration with the previous U.S. administration’s unwillingness to offer sectoral sanctions relief, a key demand of Chavista negotiators, in exchange for anything other than Maduro’s immediate resignation.
- U.S. policymakers should take care to avoid sending mixed messages. The State Department-National Security Council divisions that held back the 2019 talks underscore the importance of coordination among all U.S. political actors in any future process.
- Supporters of negotiations should offer non-U.S. international actors a chance to play a supportive role in negotiations, as either guarantors or observers. This may lead to greater buy-in to the process; but care should also be taken to ensure that international actors do not impose their interests on negotiations or send mixed messages.
- International stakeholders should work to lower the attractiveness of alternatives to credible negotiation—for the government as well as the opposition. International stakeholders can encourage progress in negotiations by making clear that no alternative to negotiation (normalization of relations with Maduro on one hand, and unconditional and indefinite recognition of Guaidó on the other) is viable.