Can the New ‘Democratic Transition Framework’ Remedy Venezuela’s Ills?

There is no silver bullet to ensure a democratic transition in Venezuela. The Maduro regime is not just a dictatorship. It is involved in and is deliberately complicit in criminal activity, including narcotrafficking. The path Venezuela has taken to becoming a mafia state is the result of two decades of state-led weakening of political institutions. Meanwhile, Juan Guaidó’s internationally recognized government has convinced few of its ability to convene free and fair presidential elections. Within this context, the State Department laid out this week a Democratic Transition Framework for Venezuela that aims to promote inclusive stability, security, and prosperity. The Framework includes multiple elements with unique challenges and opportunities.

First, the Framework states that both Maduro and Guaidó should step aside so that the National Assembly, where both parties are represented, can create a five-member Council of State. This body will serve as the transitional government with the main mandate to hold the long-overdue free and fair presidential elections. Guaidó’s interim presidency, recognized by more than 60 countries, will end once the Council of State is formed. This will eventually free Guaidó up to run as a candidate during the presidential elections. However, the Maduro regime has proven in the past to be deceptive and unreliable. For example, Maduro has engaged in talks with the opposition on five instances, including to discuss a similar transition framework as presented by the State Department—but every effort has fallen short so far.

Second, the United States will start lifting sanctions as the conditions within the Framework are being met. For example, once the Council of State is established and foreign security forces, including Cuban ones, have departed, U.S. sanctions on the government of Venezuela, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), and the oil sector will be suspended. This is critically important to start rebuilding Venezuela. When a new government is elected, it will deal with significant security and economic challenges. The role of the international community will be essential, for instance to help stabilize the country’s territory and reduce organized crime, restructure national and international debt, and increase access to basic services such as water and electricity.

The Framework also calls for support from the Venezuelan military. It states that the military will play a key role in bringing peaceful change and shaping the country’s future. The minister of defense will remain in his position for the duration of the transitional government despite the fact that he was indicted by the Department of Justice (DOJ) last week on charges of narco-terrorism, drug trafficking, and money laundering. This decision is both risky and strategic. Many military officials are involved in narcotics trafficking and other criminal activities. So long as they continue to significantly profit from illicit activities, they will remain loyal to the Maduro regime. That said, last week's indictments and the promise of lifting sanctions just might increase the odds of fracturing the military.

While COVID-19 spreads around the globe, providing humanitarian aid and assistance to Venezuela should be a top priority for the United States and the international community. There are at least 135 coronavirus cases confirmed by the Maduro regime. But the number is likely much higher, in part because there is no free and independent press. The country's health system is not prepared for a pandemic, and, compounded by falling oil prices and an economy undergoing severe hyperinflation, Venezuelans' suffering will only deepen. However, despite the country’s dire humanitarian conditions, international relief efforts will be insufficient if they are not paired with the only viable long-term solution: a path toward a stable and democratic government.

Stiff sanctions and diplomatic isolation have not yet convinced Maduro to negotiate his exit, and his regime has proven to be resilient and adaptable in the face of international restrictions. But after the DOJ indictments last week against Maduro and his cronies, the Venezuelan democratic forces have more leverage. The State Department also announced a reward of $15 million for information leading to Maduro’s capture or conviction. After Al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, this reward is the third-highest in two decades. This could help convince members of the regime to defect sooner rather than later.

Maduro’s foreign minister already rejected this week’s deal, so the ball remains in Maduro’s court. If the Maduro regime cooperates, the international community needs to be more vigilant and active than ever to ensure that the conditions for free and fair presidential elections are actually met. If Maduro does not collaborate, the United States and Venezuelan democratic forces will need to reevaluate their strategy moving forward.

Moises Rendon is director of the Future of Venezuela Initiative and a fellow with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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Moises Rendon
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Americas Program