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What future, Venezuela?

The President of Colombia, Gustavo Petro, hosted a Conference on Venezuela in his nation’s capital, Bogota, on April 25. The European Union (EU) and 19 countries from the Americas, including the Caribbean, attended, but it is doubtful that they all had the same goals in mind.

For several years, under Colombia’s former President Iván Duque, relations between the governments of Colombia and Venezuela were openly hostile. Immediately after his inauguration as President, Petro began to engage with Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro. Since then, relations between the two countries have significantly improved.

Despite thawing the earlier icy relations between the governments of Colombia and Venezuela, Petro remains concerned about democracy and respect for human, political and civil rights in Venezuela and other Latin American countries.

Addressing a meeting of the Permanent Council of the Organisation of American States (OAS) on April 19, just 6 days before hosting the Conference on Venezuela, Petro said that now could be “Latin America’s time in the world”, but not “through authoritarianism [or] through dictatorships.” And he restated his interest “in seeing Venezuela re-join the Inter-American Human Rights system”.

In a meeting with US President, Joe Biden, on April 20, the day after his OAS address, Petro pressed an argument for removing US sanctions against the Maduro government in exchange for a return to democracy in Venezuela.

It was with that unofficial theme that Petro appeared to approach his bold initiative to gather representatives of the EU and 19 nations with diverse and – in some cases – divergent interests to discuss Venezuela. At the end of the conference, there appeared to be consensus – though no unanimity – on trying to promote two objectives.

According to statements by Colombia’s Foreign Minister, Álvaro Leyva, the first aim is to persuade Venezuela’s governing and opposition political parties to set an electoral calendar for free and fair elections, which, presumably, would include the release of political prisoners, so that they could fully participate in the process.

The second is that there should be gradual lifting of sanctions directly linked to progress of negotiations between the Venezuelan political parties to reach an agreement on elections and the restoration of democratic processes.

Leyva is reported to have said, after the Conference, that countries, which attended the meeting, “will inform President Maduro and opposition parties and civil society of the results of the summit”.

The only official response from the Maduro government was a statement from Foreign Minister, Yvan Gill, on Twitter in which he assured that “note” had been taken “of the deliberations carried out” at the Conference and reiterated “the prevailing need to lift sanctions”.

Representatives of some of the Latin American and Caribbean countries, which were invited to attend the Colombia Conference, unrealistically focussed only on lifting the sanctions and ignored the issue of free and fair elections and the restoration of democracy through a negotiated agreement on these goals by all the Venezuelan parties. That position was obviously untenable.

There is clear need for compromise, concessions and flexibility in any negotiations between the political parties in Venezuela. There must also be agreement on absolute tolerance for political dissent; the development of constitutional guarantees for the independence of the judiciary and the media; and provision for power-sharing in the National Assembly.

Importantly, at the Colombia Conference, the US representatives said that the Biden Administration has “no desire to maintain US sanctions in perpetuity”. They argued that sanctions “are only a tool” to urge the government to take the steps necessary for free and fair elections and the restoration of democracy.

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Furthermore, they undertook to the Conference that “if, and as, Venezuelan leaders take these steps, we are more than ready to reduce and ultimately end our sanctions pressure”.

Therefore, the Colombia Conference can take credit for a frank exchange of views leading to consensus on the two symbiotic paths that have emerged: the Venezuelan parties must get back to the negotiating table to agree on a process for free and fair elections, and a gradual but progressive lifting of sanctions as steps are implemented.

Significantly, the US representatives told the other nations at the Conference that all of them should encourage that “any agreement include some guarantees that the loser will not face persecution”. They said that the Biden administration “does not support regime change” and if and when there are free and fair elections, “the US will accept the outcome and work with the government they produce”.

Against this background, there is cause for cautious optimism that there could be renewed efforts by the Venezuelan parties to achieve an agreement at revived negotiations, which, so far, have failed. However, there were some key players – at least on the Maduro side – that were not at the Colombia Conference. They include Russia, Iran, China and Turkey which have helped the Maduro government to weather the storm of sanctions. Another is Cuba which has played a key advisory role to Maduro.

It is more than likely that, for other geopolitical considerations, particularly the conflict over Ukraine embodied by Russia and the US, at least Russia and Iran might continue to embolden the Maduro government to continue the same hardline that it has taken so far in the negotiations with the opposition parties.

If that happens, the political impasse in Venezuela could persist with all its unfortunate consequences, including an increase in the 7.2 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees of which 2.5 million are in Colombia alone; and a growth beyond the 2.3 million people who are “severely food insecure and in need of immediate humanitarian assistance”, according to the UN World Food Programme.

Countries, such as the US, Canada and the members of the EU, should also make it clear to the Venezuelan opposition parties that they do not enjoy unqualified support, and they, too, are expected to work diligently toward a resolution of the political deadlock.

The countries of CARICOM have a vested interest in a politically stable region where economic progress can thrive. Consequently, CARICOM governments should urge all Venezuelan parties to negotiate their future between them and present the world with a plan, free of retribution, which would rebuild Venezuela in a democratic mould with guaranteed constitutional freedoms, based on free and fair elections.

Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the Organization of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are entirely his own. Responses and previous commentaries