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Biden's Venezuela policy needs a better comms strategy

The restarted negotiation process aimed at alleviating humanitarian and human rights crises needs more buy in from the Venezuelan people.

Analysis | Latin America

As negotiations between Venezuela’s government and opposition resume, the Biden administration has an opportunity to support substantial agreements that can address the country’s human rights and humanitarian crises. Doing so, however, will require a greater degree of multilateral coordination and ensuring that the process engages Venezuelan society — not just its political class.

On November 26, delegates of the government of Nicolás Maduro and the opposition Unitary Platform coalition met in Mexico City to restart a long-stalled process of formal negotiations. While the talks first began when the parties signed a seven-point agenda late last year, the Maduro government had boycotted this process for eleven months in response to the extradition to the United States of alleged Colombian money launderer and regime moneyman Alex Saab.

Two developments helped break the impasse. First, the Biden administration began to communicate directly to the Venezuelan government that sanctions relief is available in exchange for meaningful agreements with the opposition.

Second, the Biden administration engaged in a prisoner swap with the Venezuelan government in October. While Saab remains in U.S. custody, the Department of Justice released two nephews of First Lady Cilia Flores who had been arrested in 2015 and sentenced on drug trafficking charges in exchange for which the Venezuelan government released seven U.S. citizens, including five American executives of the Houston-based oil company CITGO.

These developments created a set of incentives that brought Maduro back to the negotiating table. In Mexico City last month, government and opposition representatives signed an agreement to address Venezuela’s humanitarian emergency. They created a “Social Roundtable,” with three representatives from both sides, that would jointly be able to access as much as $3 billion in Venezuelan state funds that have been frozen by U.S. financial sanctions.

The funds will be overseen by the United Nations and used to address shared priorities which so far include health care, child nutrition, and restoring the country’s basic infrastructure. In exchange, the Treasury Department has authorized Chevron, the only major U.S. oil company still operating in Venezuela, to import oil for the first time since the imposition of U.S. oil sanctions in January 2019. This license does not allow Chevron to pay royalties or taxes to the regime.

This humanitarian agreement has significant potential. The United Nations estimates that some 7 million Venezuelans are in need of humanitarian assistance inside the country, and the crisis has led another 7 million to flee the country in recent years. Venezuela’s poor depend on a dysfunctional and corrupt health system, lack regular access to water and electricity, as well as  to food or essential medicines. If the UN can guarantee transparency and oversight in the implementation of the agreement itself, these funds could benefit the most needy.

It is also notable that the parties have expressed a renewed commitment to the initial agenda that was created in August 2021. In their joint statement from Mexico, the parties agreed to continue negotiations in the coming weeks on the remaining points of the agenda — which includes political rights, the rule of law, reparation for victims, the lifting of economic sanctions, and credible electoral conditions ahead of presidential elections in 2024. These talks will likely continue in Caracas, with Mexico serving more as a platform to announce finalized accords.

But while the international community has applauded the parties’ decision to restart the process, the development has met notable skepticism at home. Polls have for years shown that a majority of Venezuelans support the idea of a negotiated solution to the crisis, but there does not appear to be much enthusiasm for this process in particular. Following the signing of the agreement in Mexico City, several victims’ organizations have openly criticized the process for not taking into account their voices. Many Venezuelan human rights groups are wary and have warned against any deal that results in impunity for perpetrators of human rights violations and crimes against humanity.

The skepticism is understandable. This is the fifth instance of internationally-mediated dialogue in Venezuela in the last eight years, and each of these previous efforts failed. Neither the participants in talks nor their main international allies have succeeded in communicating how this time is different. Even on the international stage, there is a lack of clear messaging regarding the future of Venezuela policy. Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry awkwardly shook hands with Maduro at the November climate summit in Egypt, and Colombian president Gustavo Petro, who recently resumed normal diplomatic relations with Caracas, raised eyebrows by suggesting a “general amnesty” for human rights crimes in Venezuela — which would violate international law.

Inside Venezuela, Maduro is taking full advantage of this communication gap. The Venezuelan government is explicitly framing these negotiations as the “defeat” of their political rivals, and officials in the ruling party have accused the opposition delegation of lying about the nature of the talks to the public. While opposition negotiators have attempted to highlight the political, electoral, and judicial items on the table, official statements and state media are laser-focused on sanctions relief — with little to no mention of the other agenda items. Rather than mentioning specific electoral guarantees, Maduro said only that all sanctions must be lifted as a precondition for free elections.

Navigating these waters will not be easy. In order to successfully advance the negotiations, the Biden administration will have to maintain a view of sanctions as a tool — not as an end in themselves. Since the possibility of sanctions relief is one of the main incentives keeping Maduro at the table, it should be accompanied by clear benchmarks leading towards free and fair elections and the restoration of democratic institutions. These negotiations should incorporate the recommendations of the 2021 EU Election Observation Mission Venezuela to improve future electoral processes, and the recommendations that the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela has made regarding the need for judicial and security reform and advancing impartial investigations. Any further sanctions relief will need to be carefully coordinated with the negotiations process, and with an eye to monitoring compliance with any future agreements.

The U.S. government should also work with Venezuelan and international stakeholders to ensure a more robust communications strategy around negotiations. Instead of ceding space for the talks to be mischaracterized to an already skeptical population, proponents of this process should clearly communicate its potential to improve the lives of everyday Venezuelans. Public agreements should be widely disseminated and explained in accessible terms, not simply posted online with no context. Questions regarding transparency in the use of unfrozen funds should be addressed head on, not left to speculation. Above all, Venezuelans need to see that this dialogue is driven by more than U.S. oil interests.

Just as importantly, the Biden administration should urge the parties to make good on their promise to seek input from civil society actors. While the initial agenda for talks includes a commitment to create “consultation mechanisms,” to date there has been no formal process through which victims, human rights groups, and other sectors of Venezuelan society can actually present their proposals, concerns, or petitions of the negotiating process. This is more than a cosmetic concern. Studies of political talks and peace negotiations in the last century have repeatedly shown a correlation between civil society participation and engagement and the long-term durability of agreements. Any consultation mechanism will need to ensure that civil society actors are not only given space to provide input to the talks, but also that this input will be taken into account by the parties. Given Venezuela’s authoritarian reality, participants in any consultation will have to be given credible guarantees that they will be shielded from any reprisals.

Ultimately, it is encouraging that the Biden administration has embraced a strategy of negotiations, after a year of an ineffective policy. Now that this process is up and running again, however, it is also time to ensure that it appeals to the broader Venezuelan society. Venezuelans should be given a clear reason to care about these negotiations, to believe that the process can succeed where past talks have failed. Without a population that is engaged and actively demanding political agreements that can restore their fundamental human rights, it is difficult to imagine a decisive break from the status quo.

Editorial credit: Ruben Alfonzo / Shutterstock.com
Analysis | Latin America
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