As Venezuela’s human rights crisis deepens, the U.S. and other international stakeholders have continued to emphasize a need for credible negotiations that can restore Venezuela’s democratic institutions and the rule of law. While this is an important objective, policymakers should also work to ensure that any revived negotiations include a robust and secure channel for civil society actors to engage the process.
Broadly speaking, the recent international response to Venezuela’s crisis has focused on trying to breathe new life into a negotiations framework that began in Mexico City in August 2021, when representatives of the Maduro government and the political opposition signed a memorandum of understanding outlining a seven-point agenda for talks. In this document, the parties committed to discussing the following:
- Political rights for all;
- Electoral guarantees for all and an electoral schedule for elections with observation;
- Lifting of sanctions and the return of seized assets;
- Respect for the Constitutional rule of law;
- Political and social coexistence, the renunciation of violence, and reparations for victims of violence;
- Protection of the national economy and social protection measures for the Venezuelan people; and
- Guarantees of implementation, follow-up, and verification of what is agreed upon.
The Venezuelan parties met in Mexico three times from August 13 to September 27 and reached two partial agreements on paper (one ratifying Venezuela’s territorial claim against neighboring Guyana, and another creating a joint board to divert frozen funds to address the humanitarian emergency). But Maduro’s representatives withdrew from the talks in October following the extradition of regime fixer Alex Saab—and the process has been stalled ever since.
In the following months, the international community has been trying to find ways to coax the regime back to the table by offering conditional sanctions relief. The U.S.and other governments have issued statements insisting that a return to the Mexico negotiations include judicial reforms, an end to human rights violations, and the release of political prisoners. But there is one aspect of the Mexico City memorandum that receives less public attention: a commitment from the parties to “establish mechanisms of consultation with other political and social actors.” How exactly this mechanism would be structured was left unclear, but in a September joint statement the negotiating teams said they had discussed making these mechanisms “as inclusive as possible.”
The Benefits of Creating a Robust Civil Society Mechanism
There are a number of reasons why international stakeholders should support the creation of a well-designed, broad, and well-structured consultative process. These include:
- In a context in which there is so little reliable information, civil society can provide expertise and data on key issues. In a context in which the rule of law has broken down and the Venezuelan state fails to publish reliable data or statistics, civil society organizations have filled the gap for years—tracking irregularities and abuses in the justice system, mapping the scope of the humanitarian emergency and its differentiated impact on women and girls, documenting human rights violations and corruption networks, and keeping updated records on political prisoners, for example. Making credible progress on any of these issues will require an accurate picture of the problem, and for that civil society will be indispensable.
- Consultation processes can provide a platform for civil society actors to influence the agenda. In many instances, providing civic groups and the public with ways in which they can participate indirectly in negotiations has helped advance issues the negotiating parties might otherwise neglect. This was the case in the 2012-2016 Colombian peace process. While the “official” venues for such input were at first limited to online forms and consultation through formal channels, Colombian civil society actors—in particular Afro-descendant and Indigenous territorial authorities, human rights organizations, grassroots groups, and conflict victims organizations—mobilized within and in parallel to these channels to broaden the issues discussed between the Colombian government and FARC negotiators. This activism pressured the parties to include many of their demands into the final peace agreement. In the context of the Mexico memorandum, for instance, it is difficult to imagine meaningful progress on the fifth point (which mentions reparations for victims) without engagement with victims’ groups, who advocate not only for reparations but also truth, justice, and guarantees of non-repetition.
- Involving civil society, including women’s organizations, strengthens the durability of any potential agreements. An emerging consensus in peacemaking is that, while negotiating parties often prefer to exclude civil society voices in order to streamline talks, creating opportunities for direct or indirect civil society involvement actually increases the chance that any agreement will stick. Analyses of peace negotiations in the 20th and 21st centuries have repeatedly found a link between the durability of agreements and the degree to which talks incorporated civil society actors and their feedback. One of the ways in which this dynamic is believed to work is that civil society involvement helps create stakeholders for an agreement, providing a network of support that can keep parties at the table. Peacemaking experts also point to the importance of involving women in negotiations. According to one study, incorporating civil society groups, including women’s organizations, makes accords 64 percent less likely to fail. Other researchers have found that an agreement is 35 percent more likely to last at least 15 years if women participate in a peace process. This has implications for the negotiations that began in Mexico. While the Maduro government and Unitary Platform committed to “strive to include women” in the memorandum, both nine-member delegations in the Mexico talks were led by and dominated by men. Future negotiations could benefit from a more diverse perspective, in particular from incorporating Afro-Venezuelan, LGBTI and indigenous voices.
- Channels for civil society consultation can create space for airing skepticism. Many in Venezuela are understandably skeptical of negotiations. The last eight years have seen five separate attempts by international actors to broker political agreements between the Maduro government and the opposition. Each one has failed to result in tangible agreements, with Maduro using talks to seek international legitimacy while demoralizing and dividing the opposition. Creating a space for human rights NGOs, faith groups, business leaders, labor unions, as well as victims and victims’ groups to advocate for their demands could generate buy-in—especially if these demands are actually addressed.
Reality Check: Civil Society Under Attack
If implemented well, a mechanism allowing interested civil society actors to participate directly or indirectly could benefit future negotiations between political actors in Venezuela. But it is impossible to discuss civil society involvement in negotiations without recognizing the reality that Venezuela’s government has systematically threatened civil society actors and independent media, silenced dissent, and closed civic space.
The threat of repression looms over Venezuelan civil society. In recent years the government has adopted new regulations which create a legal basis to restrict non-governmental organizations and independent media, and the ruling party has threatened to pass legislation that would effectively criminalize these organizations. Human rights defenders have been attacked and arbitrarily detained—and leading government officials have used the judiciary to attempt to intimidate them into silence. Indeed, the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela has found a reasonable basis to conclude that Venezuelan state actors have carried out crimes against humanity such as systemic extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, and torture, and Maduro government is under investigation for these crimes by the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.
For these reasons, Venezuelan civil society actors will need credible guarantees that they will not face reprisals before attempting to impact future negotiations. Venezuela’s authoritarian reality means victims, their family members, victims’ groups, human rights organizations and representatives from other organizations cannot be expected to freely share their concerns and demands for negotiations in public forums or with local authorities. Rather, any mechanism for collecting civil society input will have to demonstrate independence from the government, and an ability to gather and secure sensitive information. This may require a substantial role for United Nations agencies, or even from independent institutions like private universities or the Catholic Church. Some of these same institutions played important roles in advancing the peace process in neighboring Colombia, and may be well-suited to advance civil society engagement in eventual Venezuelan negotiations.