Recent, limited talks between the Maduro government and elements of Venezuelan society have renewed debate over negotiations in the country, and whether they can serve to help build momentum towards a larger political accord that includes elements such as freeing political prisoners and a timetable for free and fair presidential elections.
On January 27 Venezuela’s main business association, the Venezuelan Federation of Chambers of Commerce (Fedecamaras), hosted a meeting in its offices in Caracas with Chavista heavyweight Jorge Rodriguez, president of the National Assembly that resulted from the widely-questioned legislative election in December 2020. Fedecamaras described the meeting as an opportunity to discuss issues related to the economy and ways to mitigate the crisis. While the outcome of the meeting is unclear, it was the first time that such a senior government official visited the office in years, and Fedecamaras President Ricardo Cusanno has used the meeting as a way to publicly stress a need for further negotiations on the political and economic crisis.
Then on February 11, government and opposition representatives agreed to cooperate to purchase and distribute COVID-19 vaccines for 6 million people. Both the opposition and government agreed to form a technical team to discuss details of distribution and oversight, creating a joint technical team alongside UN officials. Many details remain in the air, but the agreement is a significant expansion of the Pan-American Health Organization accord brokered last year. As WOLA notes, the success of this initiative will require “robust multilateral oversight,” considering that Maduro has already said he would like to include members of his own political party on the priority list for distributing an initial shipment of 100,000 Sputnik-V doses.
In parallel to these talks, Venezuela has seen a steady articulation of human rights NGOs, academics, faith groups, business leaders, labor unions, and other civil society sectors increasingly call for negotiations to address the crisis. On February 5, many of these actors convened and announced the creation of a new coalition: the National Civic Forum (Foro Cívico Nacional). In the statement, the group makes clear that they do not seek to supplant the role of political parties, but instead to engage them in support of a Democratic National Accord.
- On February 17, Special Assistant to the President and NSC Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere gave an extended interview to Univision journalist Patricia Janiot in which he discussed President Biden’s priorities for the region, with a particular emphasis on Venezuela. The full interview is here and the Venezuela portion begins at minute 14. Notably, Gonzalez says that the U.S. government remains focused on trying to achieve free and fair elections in Venezuela, but suggests there will be more emphasis on getting Maduro to negotiate. In the interview Gonzalez said, “democracy in Venezuela will not arrive tomorrow, it will take time and we have to push the regime to sit with the opposition as equals to negotiate a solution.”
- Efe reports that, during a call on February 16, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Spanish counterpart Arancha González Laya discussed “Russia, China, and Venezuela.” This may be a sign the Biden administration is attempting to make good on its promise to emphasize multilateralism in responding to the Venezuela, and to better coordinate with EU countries.
- Contrary to the spirit of the civil society and business groups, many actors close to Juan Guaidó remain quite critical any type of discussions with Maduro’s government, and view them as a distraction from efforts to pressure Maduro into holding free and fair presidential elections. Other actors, such as ex-presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, have signaled that they favor a more gradual strategy based on electoral participation in local and state elections this year, and perhaps pushing for a recall referendum when the Constitution allows for one to be convened in 2022.
- Both of these factions (opposition actors closer to Guaido and his mentor Leopoldo Lopez, and those aligned with Capriles) have been especially active in international media in recent days. Henrique Capriles published a widely-circulated op-ed in El Pais and has been profiled in BBC Mundo and quoted in The New York Times. Meanwhile, Leopoldo Lopez (a longtime Capriles rival) has been active from exile in Spain, garnering profiles in El Español and in El Pais, and recently publishing an op-ed in Americas Quarterly.
- On February 8 the Colombian government announced that it would grant regular status to all Venezuelan migrants and refugees that were in the country’s territory before January 31. In the latest WOLA Venezuela Briefing Podcast, Lucia Ramirez of Dejusticia and WOLA Colombia Director Gimena Sanchez note that the decree has not yet been published, and that much will depend on implementation. In its current stage the decree would offer access to work authorization, formal employment, and health care services for as many as 1.7 million Venezuelan migrants for a period of 10 years.
- Reactions to Colombia’s announcement have been overwhelmingly positive. Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, called the decision a “historic gesture” that would make the lives of millions better and serves as “an example for the region and the rest of the world.” Similarly, the Vatican and the EU hailed the Colombian government decision as a brave initiative that sets a bold example.
- The Chilean government, by contrast, deported a group of approximately 80 Venezuelans that the country claims entered that country illegally. The Chilean Minister of Defence, in a xenophobic statement that received widespread attention online, claimed that the Venezuelans could have a negative impact on the country’s public services and economy. Civil society groups in Chile and in Venezuela condemned the decision.
- Recent days have seen a flurry of statements from UN Special Rapporteurs regarding the human rights situation in Venezuela. On February 12, the UN Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights Alena Douhan issued a preliminary report on her Feb 1-12 visit to Venezuela. In her report, Douhan criticizes the aggravating impact of sectoral sanctions while noting: “The economy’s decline started in 2014 with the downturn in oil prices. Among other factors reported to affect the economy of Venezuela, mismanagement, corruption and state price controls have been cited.”
- On February 18 the UN Special Rapporteurs on: the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; and the situation of Human Rights Defenders joined other UN human rights experts to issue a statement calling on Maduro to end “a pattern of increasing criminalisation of civil society organisations in Venezuela, which already operate under a repressive set of laws and regulations.” They specifically call for charges against the humanitarian group Azul Positivo to be dropped.
- Maduro has received criticism in recent days from human rights organizations over remarks made in a February 17 press conference. Maduro responded to a question about his attitudes towards marriage equality and abortion decriminalization by saying he believed that those issues are the prerogative of the National Assembly, and for him, “that is not the priority, and not on the agenda.”