“The new Spanish government is going to put more emphasis, if possible, on the need to find political solutions to the situation in Venezuela, which won’t get resolved with only sanctions,” declared Spain’s Foreign Minister, Josep Borrell.

He made these declarations back in June. But, ahead of what was qualified as an “informal lunch” of Europe’s 28 Foreign Ministers at Luxemburg this week, Venezuela’s media followed the headlines of a Spanish counterpart –and republished the quote above –in  claiming that Borrell is pushing for more dialogue and less sanctions against Venezuelan officials. According those same media reports, this is a stand which would clash with the EU’s trajectory in adopting sanctions.

As explained in our previous post about this issue, Spain has been trying to carve its own position in the face of the Venezuelan crisis and has been explicitly calling for dialogue in Venezuela. This is indeed a shift in Spain’s position towards Venezuela that engages more with the Maduro government, rejects interventionism, and bets on a negotiated solution to the crisis.

The new Spanish government’s position is deeply enmeshed in Spain’s internal politics. Newly appointed president of the Spanish Government, socialist party leader Pedro Sánchez, is trying to make a foreign policy stand vis-à-vis his conservative predecessor, Mariano Rajoy. During his August visit to Latin America, Sánchez avoided Rajoy’s confrontational rhetoric and barely mentioned Venezuela in his press conferences.

A main point for Sanchez’s critics is his links to ex-president Rodríguez Zapatero, who also belongs to the ruling party. The Venezuelan opposition  and Spain’s conservative opposition regard past mediation efforts in 2016-2018 as failures and are suspicious of his motivations. Furthermore, Zapatero recently echoed the Maduro government’s explanation for the country’s crisis saying “the increase in recent times of the migration [of Venezuelans] to other countries has a lot to do with the economic sanctions imposed by the United States and have been backed by other countries.” For critics, this confirmed that Zapatero is too close to Maduro to be an effective future mediator.

Also a matter of concern for the opposition is that Sánchez’ left-of-center minority government needs the parliamentary support of PODEMOS, a leftist party that was a strong ally during the Chávez’ government’s turn towards socialism and is considered pro-Chavista.

Borrell’s position as Spain’s Foreign Minister has fueled these opposition fears.

Borrell indeed said that the Spanish government is still betting on dialogue, but he did not call for an end to the current sanctions and stressed the need to “remain firm in the face of Maduro’s regime” Borrell himself was one of the first European foreign ministers to summon the Venezuelan ambassador in Madrid to ask for explanations in the wake of the scandal of the alleged suicide of opposition leader Fernando Albán while in custody. Local Spanish press however, stressed that this was only the first time Sanchez’ government has called on the Venezuelan ambassador, contrasting it with the “more than ten times” the previous conservative government of Mariano Rajoy had summoned the Venezuelan ambassador –without mentioning that Rajoy presided the Spanish government for 7 years and that the current government took office only a few months ago.

Given the media reaction to his declarations, Borrell repeated after the meeting of foreign ministers that “nobody has said that we should abandon sanctions,” and then said, on behalf of Europe’s foreign ministers block, that what they are all interested in is in “facilitating dialogue,” without necessarily acting as mediators. He also said that European ministers had discussed that “there can be no solution that includes a military intervention.”

Apparently backing Borrell’s assessment of the meeting, Federica Mogherini, EU’s Foreign Affairs High Representative, also said that the EU would not seek to mediate in a possible dialogue in Venezuela, but would “explore possibilities of stablishing contacts and conditions to facilitate a political process for a democratic solution.” She also stressed there would be “no softening of the [EU’s] position on Venezuela.”

After that meeting in Luxemburg, local Spanish media was again critical of Borrell’s position. Spain’s main conservative newspaper, ABC, ran the headline “Spain puts pressure on the EU to explore ‘dialogue’ with Maduro.” According to ABC, Spain’s current government has been “unwilling to defend the idea that the only solution [to the Venezuelan crisis] is for the dictator Nicolás Maduro to abandon power.”

Venezuelan hardline opposition leaders were also alarmed by Borrell’s position. Quoted prominently by ABC, Maria Corina Machado said that those how support Borrell’s call for dialogue are part of a “blatant maneuver to give time and oxygen to Maduro and his criminal regime.” Also quoted by ABC, opposition leader exiled in Madrid, Antonio Ledezma, said that to insist on dialogue “is an affront to all the dead, tortured, imprisoned and persecuted inside and outside Venezuela.”

Borrell further clarified his position in an interview published today. He again denied he rejected sanctions, but said that Spain’s position is that “sanctions are good, and they have to be enacted, but we are afraid they might increase tensions.” He also added that the Spanish government believes Maduro has a legitimate mandate until January 10 next year, but that after that date, his presidency would be based on an electoral process Spain did not recognize. Asked if that meant that Spain would not recognize Maduro as Venezuela’s president after January 10, he answered that Spain recognized States, not governments, “but yes, there is a political problem because after January 10 that person is not a political representative. But, what’s the solution? Wait until the government falls?” he added.

The recent release of opposition activist Lorent Saleh, and his immediate exile to Spain, shows that Spain’s Foreign Service is indeed playing an active role in Venezuela and that it has held contacts with the Maduro government. Spain’s Secretary of State for Latin America and the Caribbean, Juan Pablo de Laiglesia, visited Caracas on October 9 and, according to local press, during the following two days met “members of the [Venezuelan] government, representatives of the opposition, civil society organizations, Spanish citizens and Spanish business.” On October 13 Laiglesia flew back to Madrid, accompanying Lorent Saleh.