Image shared by the Norwegian Foreign Ministry on September 4, 2021.
On Saturday, March 5, a high-level delegation of U.S. officials including presidential advisor Juan Gonzalez, U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela Jimmy Story, and Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens, traveled to Caracas to speak with Venezuela’s de facto ruler Nicolás Maduro as well as chief opposition negotiator Gerardo Blyde and opposition leader Juan Guaidó. While the visit occurred at a time when the U.S. government is exploring ways to isolate Russia and secure alternative sources of energy, Gonzalez has maintained in public interviews that the priority of the trip was to encourage a return to negotiations and to free U.S. citizens detained in the country. The administration has repeatedly said that U.S. sanctions on Venezuela will not be alleviated until concrete advances are made in the context of the negotiation process between the Maduro government and Unitary Platform which began in August 2021 in Mexico City.
Following the administration officials’ visit to Venezuela, there have been a few important developments: First, during a televised address on Monday, Maduro announced that he would return to negotiations, which have been suspended since October. And on Tuesday, the Maduro government released two U.S. citizens who had been detained in the country, Gustavo Cárdenas and Jorge Alberto Fernández, who were accompanied back to the U.S. by Roger Carstens. In a press briefing on March 10, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price welcomed the Maduro government’s stated intention to return to the negotiating table, and said that the U.S. “supports the Unitary Platform’s goal of immediately resuming negotiations with the Maduro regime to restore free and fair elections, democratic institutions, and the rule of law, as well as for respect for human rights in Venezuela.”
In the quickly changing geopolitical context, and amid ongoing diplomatic efforts by the Biden administration to encourage the prompt resumption of negotiations over Venezuela’s crisis, it is important to understand the advances and partial agreements previously made in the first three rounds of the 2021 Mexico City negotiation process between the Maduro government and the Unitary Platform.
In the first round of talks, which began on August 13 in Mexico City under the mediation of the Norwegian government, the government and opposition negotiating teams signed a Memorandum of Understanding which laid out a list of terms and shared priorities for the process. These are:
- The protection of the Venezuelan Constitution established in 1999;
- The need to put the well-being of the Venezuelan people at the center of attention;
- Accordance with the values of Venezuelan law, including the rights to life, liberty, justice, equality, solidarity, democracy, social responsibility, and the preeminence of human rights, ethics, and political pluralism;
- A commitment to the strengthening of inclusive democracy and a culture of political tolerance and coexistence;
- The importance of promoting a culture of respect for human rights and investigating and penalizing their violation;
- Willingness to agree on necessary conditions to carry out the electoral processes established in the Constitution, with all guarantees;
- Understanding of the need to lift sanctions against the Venezuelan state, claiming the Nation’s unalienable right to independence, freedom, sovereignty, immunity, territorial integrity and national self-determination;
- Rejecting any form of political violence against the Venezuelan state and its institutions;
- Committing to the stabilization and defense of a productive, diversified, and solidarity-based economy;
- Acknowledging previous humanitarian initiatives, in particular the establishment of the National Vaccination Roundtable and the World Food Programme;
- Recognizing the need to construct a joint vision for the future of all Venezuelans, and
- Inviting members of the international community to accompany the process.
The 2021 Memorandum of Understanding also outlined a seven-part agenda with priorities for the dialogue process, as follows:
- Political rights for all
- Electoral guarantees for all and an electoral schedule for elections with observation.
- Lifting of sanctions and the restoration of 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
- Guarantees of implementation, follow-up, and verification of what is agreed upon
Notably, the Memorandum of Understanding also determined that the process would establish a “consultation mechanism” with other political and social actors, which leaves an opportunity for civil society actors to provide input to the negotiating table.
The second round of negotiations, which took place from September 3 to 6, was primarily focused on addressing aspects of Venezuela’s humanitarian emergency, and resulted in an agreement to establish a Mesa de Atención Social comprised of three members from each side to address urgent needs in the areas of health and nutrition. The negotiating teams also signed an agreement to commit to Venezuela’s historic claim to the Essequibo territory, which has been the subject of decades-long territorial dispute with Guyana.
The third round of negotiations, held from September 25 to 27, was focused on the restoration of the rule of law and the establishment of an impartial justice system. This discussion did not result in further agreements, but the negotiating parties signed a joint statement on September 27 reiterating a commitment to include political and social actors in the process and emphasizing the need for a gender focus in the dialogue. According to the statement: “It was agreed to immediately hold several consultation sessions with various political and social actors – national and international – so that an efficient consultation and participation mechanism could be set up as soon as possible and in an inclusive manner.”
A fourth round of talks was scheduled to take place from October 17 to 20, but was suspended by the Maduro government in response to the U.S. extradition of close government ally and accused money launderer Alex Saab.
Moving forward, there are questions over how and if these negotiations could restart. The Biden administration has emphasized that sanctions relief will be based on “meaningful progress” in the framework of the Mexico City negotiations. In a recent interview, WOLA Director for Venezuela Geoff Ramsey outlined a few examples of what such “meaningful progress,” or concessions from the Maduro government, could look like, including the implementation of the Mesa de Atención Social established in the September agreement, the release of the over 200 political prisoners arbitrarily detained in Venezuela, or the suspension of Administrative Ruling 002-2021, a regulation which seeks to criminalize civil society and civic space. In a November report, WOLA also assessed previous agreements made between the Maduro government and opposition to address urgent health needs in the country, and how the lessons learned from those processes can be taken into account for future accords to address Venezuela’s humanitarian emergency. A date has yet to be made public for the next round of negotiations following Maduro’s announcement that he would return to the negotiating table on March 8.