Less Conversation, More Action: Takeaways from the Bogotá Conference on Venezuela

The international conference on Venezuela convened by Colombian president Gustavo Petro on April 25, 2023, was surrounded by controversy from the beginning. From the perspective of the Venezuelan opposition, the conference showed—once again—the lack of a unified vision regarding how to solve the Venezuelan crisis. The Maduro regime created further problems for the conference when it established impossible conditions for the resumption of negotiations, such as suspending the investigation conducted by the Prosecutor Office of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The arrival of former interim president and member of the opposition National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, to participate in the conference only made matters worse for the Colombians.

With all this as background, and after multiple failed international conferences on Venezuela, the expectations for the Bogotá summit were low. Surprisingly, the outcome was favorable, considering the circumstances.

The participants at the conference arrived at three conclusions: (1) that it is necessary to implement electoral reforms along the lines of the European Union’s Electoral Observation Mission report in order to allow free and fair presidential elections in 2024; (2) based on specific progress in terms of creating better electoral and democratic conditions, sanctions could be lifted, and (3) that it is necessary to effectively implement the humanitarian fund that Maduro and the Unitary Platform agreed to create in Mexico, in November 2022.

These conclusions are not new. Similar statements have been made in many conferences and summits before. But like Sherlock Holmes's story about the dog that did not bark, what is relevant is not what the conference said, but what the conference did not say.

Maduro and some critics of sanctions were likely expecting a general condemnation of unilateral coercive measures, as well as a plea to lift them due to their failure. Additionally, Maduro may have hoped for a general repudiation of international intervention in domestic affairs, accompanied by the common assertion that Venezuelan problems should be resolved solely by Venezuelans themselves—and not the ICC, for instance.

Contrary to expectations, the conference actually confirmed that sanctions have not failed. In fact, they are considered the main—if not the only—incentive to negotiate better electoral conditions. Therefore, if sanctions are be reviewed, is not because they failed, but because they worked to create incentives for discussing genuine electoral reforms.

This should be the end of the motto “lift the failed sanctions” that Maduro and his allies have constantly been arguing. Countries with different positions, such as Argentina and Canada, concluded that sanctions work because they are incentives for Maduro to tolerate electoral reforms. This implies that the conference acknowledged that there are currently no acceptable electoral conditions in Venezuela.

There are also, however, several important omissions in the final declaration, particularly regarding the victims of human rights abuses. There can be no transition in Venezuela based on impunity, and the absence of this issue in the final statement demonstrates that despite painful past experiences, there is still too much hypocrisy when it comes to international human rights. But in balance, the conference was successful in clarifying basic premises regarding the Venezuela crisis, which is particularly noteworthy given the complex panorama in the country.

Insisting on the failed sanctions argument will waste time in a country that has little time to waste. So, as Americans say, it is necessary to walk the talk. Here are some suggestions for electoral reforms that could constitute a pragmatic, incremental, and flexible strategy centered on the well-being of the Venezuelan people:

  1. Improve coherence: The countries participating in the conference have a responsibility to follow the recommendations made, with the primary responsibility falling on the U.S. government. If the U.S. government lifts some sanctions without real progress toward genuine electoral reform, it could give Maduro an incentive not to follow through. Maduro's best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA) would be to wait and hope that time, the "failed sanctions" narrative, and the fragmentation of the opposition will do the work for him.
  1. Offer a detailed menu of electoral reforms: Based on the European Union’s Electoral Observation Mission report, a clear and incremental strategy for specific electoral reforms can be designed. It is unreasonable to expect that Venezuela will recover all the lost democratic electoral conditions by 2024. According to the Electoral Integrity Project report, Venezuela ranks low in terms of electoral conditions. The objective for 2024 should be more modest: restore the essential conditions to avoid another contentious election.
  1. Provide rewards for improvements: Each step of the electoral reform menu should be tagged with a “price” in terms of specific, gradual, and reversible sanctions relief. So, if Maduro agrees to accept electoral reform A, the U.S. Government will issue sanction relief A, and so on. The menu should be specific enough to create confidence but with the flexibility that a crisis like Venezuela requires.
  1. Spell out punishments for democratic backsliding: If Maduro decides to adopt regressive measures instead of electoral reforms, there should be clear consequences in terms of punishment, which means more specific and targeted sanctions or revoking any relief granted. As the international conference concluded, sanctions relief is an incentive to advance electoral reforms. Consequently, sanctions should also be incentives to prevent further democratic backsliding. Otherwise, Maduro's BATNA may be to refuse any reforms and, instead, further diminish the fairness of electoral conditions.
  1. Ensure proportionality: Big awards for small steps will create incentives for Maduro to simulate democratic concessions. That is the main lesson of the Chevron license which was a major reward that could represent millions of dollars in oil revenues for the Maduro regime. But the step that justified the license (returning to the negotiating table and providing resources for the humanitarian fund) was only symbolic. While Chevron is exporting thousands of barrels per day, the Venezuelan people are still waiting for the first dollar to be deposited in the humanitarian fund. In the menu, each step should have a proportional award.
  1. Advance accountability and transparency: The contents of the electoral reform menu should be based on a technical assessment, following the lessons proposed by Harvard Kennedy School professor Pippa Norris's book on the conditions of electoral integrity. Venezuelan civil society must also have a voice in defining that menu.
  1. Avoid formalism: The necessary electoral reforms in Venezuela should be substantive, aimed at ensuring equal and effective political rights for all citizens. Merely establishing an electoral calendar is insufficient, as a timely but rigged election is still fraudulent. Empty formalities should not be eligible for rewards.
  1. Develop people-centered policies. The ultimate goal of the electoral menu must be to alleviate the suffering of the Venezuelan people. As one victim expressed to the ICC, it is crucial to “listen directly to the victims.” The menu should adhere to human rights standards per the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and include lifting the bans on candidates, revoking the anti-hate law, and, most importantly, releasing all the political prisoners.
  1. Recognize that free and fair elections are not enough. Free and fair elections alone are not sufficient to resolve the Venezuelan crisis. While electoral reforms are a necessary step toward democracy, they will not solve the problems caused by the collapse of the Venezuelan state, whose weak institutions have been co-opted by informal and criminal organizations. The problems related to state collapse will not disappear with an election alone. International support will be required after free and fair presidential elections to address the ongoing crisis.

If presidential elections do take place in Venezuela in 2024, there is only a short period of less than 20 months to implement gradual and credible electoral reforms. Such reforms would be essential to rebuilding trust in the Venezuelan electoral system, which has been severely damaged in recent years. Considering the tremendous challenge, time is running out.

José Ignacio Hernández is a non-resident senior associate with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic International Studies in Washington, D.C.