Venezuela is facing a national crisis like no other. Millions have left the country, fleeing the authoritarian regime of Nicolás Maduro. Millions more are starving and sick, ravaged by deadly surges of Covid-19. One of the few remaining options to bring democracy to the country is through negotiations, but what goes into a successful negotiation? Who needs to be represented in the talks? Who needs to be in the room? Who needs to be at the table to ensure that real and lasting change can be brought to combat an increasingly autocratic state, increasing political censorship, and a pandemic?
To prepare for this crucial future moment, CSIS hosted a series of workshops aimed at identifying lessons learned from Venezuela’s long history of failed negotiations, as well as other examples from the region and beyond. These findings informed a roadmap that Venezuelan political leaders and the international community could follow to circumvent obstacles and improve the prospects of using negotiation as a tool to resolve the crisis.
In January 2019, Juan Guaidó was promptly recognized by the United States and more than 50 other democracies around the world as Venezuela’s legitimate interim president. Guaidó capitalized on this momentum to stimulate domestic protests and encourage international pressure in the form of sanctions, judicial indictments, and human rights investigations.
Two and a half years later, however, the Chavista regime of Nicolás Maduro still remains in power. This would have seemed inconceivable in 2019, when many expected a swift transition, perhaps in the form of a military uprising. Instead, as the international community ratcheted up its maximum pressure campaign, the regime adapted to circumvent sanctions and expanded its revenue through criminal activity, all while using its security forces to repress and intimidate the opposition, activists, and even humanitarian relief organizations.
Now, the interim government has lost much of its momentum. In the two years since Guaidó became interim president, his approval ratings have dropped from around 61 percent to 17 percent. More broadly, the opposition was forced out of the last remaining democratic institution in the country, the National Assembly, which the Maduro regime reclaimed through rigged parliamentary elections.
The situation inside the country has deteriorated after years of economic mismanagement and corruption. By the end of 2021, 7.1 million Venezuelans will have fled, according to a recent estimate by the Organization of American States, making it the second-largest migration crisis in the world and the largest ever in the Western Hemisphere.
An estimated 9.2 million people living in Venezuela are food insecure, and only 25 percent of the population can regularly access clean drinking water. The country’s hospitals, which are ill-equipped, are reporting deadly surges in Covid-19 infections.
Venezuelans are desperate for change and ready for a revamped strategy from both domestic participants and the international community. This strategy will likely require that good-faith actors sit down to negotiate with the regime.
However, though the Venezuelan crisis demands immediate attention, negotiating prematurely under the wrong conditions—with the wrong actors and without a clear strategy and necessary support from the international community—could do more harm than good. Another failed negotiation would buy more time for the regime, divide the opposition, delegitimize key third-party facilitators, and make Venezuelans even more skeptical of negotiations as a viable tool for resolving the crisis.
To explore this challenge, CSIS consulted 100 policy experts, academics, experienced mediators and facilitators, Venezuelan civil society leaders, officials from the international community, and representatives from across the Venezuelan political spectrum.
According to these findings, several high-level recommendations need to be considered:
Lessons Learned from Past Talks
There have been several attempts to find a negotiated solution to the Venezuelan crisis over the past 20 years—all of them have failed. CSIS’s analysis focuses on the five formal negotiation processes which took place between 2002 and 2019.
CSIS identified the following key patterns from those five negotiation processes:
1. Conditions were not ripe and the regime did not negotiate in earnest.
A recurring pattern from past negotiations is that the Chavista regime abandons talks as soon as it deems there is no longer a credible threat of external and domestic pressure. The Chavista delegations have derailed conversations and used the negotiations as an opportunity to exploit points of tension within the opposition. In Barbados, for example, the regime abandoned talks once it sensed that domestic protests had dissipated and that the economy had stabilized enough to prevent further unrest.
The regime’s intransigence is not the only factor. The opposition made strategic mistakes in their approach and timing. They missed opportunities. The opposition also struggled to instrumentalize national protests as a pressure element in tandem with negotiations. In 2017, though civil society and opposition leaders had organized one of the largest protest movements in Latin America, the protests dissipated before talks formally began, and the opposition showed up to the negotiating table already defeated.
2. The opposition sent inexperienced delegations that lacked gender balance and were not representative of Venezuelan society.
In 20 years of failed talks, the opposition has been represented by 25 people, all of them men. This is a major shortcoming that the opposition should rectify, not just because women are disproportionately affected by the crisis and can ensure gender sensitivity in the agenda, but because experiences in other contexts have demonstrated that women make peace processes more likely to succeed. According to one study, when women participate in the negotiation phase, the resulting agreement is 35 percent more likely to last for 15 years
The opposition’s delegations have also not been politically representative. Though the opposition is composed of about 28 political parties, the delegates at Oslo/Barbados and the Dominican Republic negotiations represented only four: Primero Justicia, Voluntad Popular, Acción Democrática, and Un Nuevo Tiempo—known as the G4. This negotiation process largely shut the door to other elements, including smaller parties, Indigenous groups, trade unions, business associations, civil society, and, critically, the growing proportion of the Venezuelan opposition classified as “dissident Chavismo.”
The opposition would also have benefited in past talks if their delegations had been better organized and prepared, specifically in discussing and developing a strategy prior to sitting down with the regime. One observer from the Oslo/Barbados negotiation effort noted that the opposition delegation did not seem to dedicate enough time outside of the negotiating room to brief each other or chart a strategy for the following day. A third-party actor involved in the 2014 effort sensed that the opposition intensified an already uncooperative environment by refusing to set aside or skip the first point in their agenda, which focused on releasing a specific political prisoner.
3. Key international actors—especially the United States—were missing.
In both the Dominican Republic and Oslo/Barbados negotiations, the regime did not see the opposition as a relevant or appropriate counterpart because it knew that the opposition could not deliver on the regime’s most frequently requested concession—sanctions relief. The United States, which holds the keys to most of the sanctions, was noticeably absent from both processes. From the outside, there seemed to be a lack of consensus or coordination between the United States and the opposition, illustrated most clearly by the Trump administration’s decision to expand sanctions in August 2019 while the Norway process was still ongoing.
Other international actors were also missing in previous processes. This shortcoming became more consequential over time as the Venezuelan crisis became more geopolitical. After the Oslo/Barbados process, it became clear that subsequent efforts would need to include international actors, including Russia, China, and Cuba, that have sided with the regime and enabled it to circumvent international sanctions and domestic pressure.
4. Third parties made mistakes and did not have clearly defined roles
The international community became increasingly involved in past negotiation efforts as it became clear that the crisis would require third-party facilitators, mediators, and guarantors. Third parties did not have clearly defined roles, which delegitimized the processes and hampered progress on specific agenda points.
This ambiguity emerged in part because the third parties did not have internal consensus on whether to participate and what role to play.
At times, international facilitators also intervened during moments that were beneficial to the regime. In 2016, for example, the Pope offered to mediate talks days before the opposition-controlled National Assembly was set to pass a recall referendum against Maduro. The talks allowed the regime time to solidify its grip on power and prevent the referendum from happening.
Past processes lacked structure but did become more sophisticated over time. The 2014 process began with a six-hour meeting that devolved into a semi-hostile and unfocused debate in which mediators barely intervened. However, later, in the Dominican Republic, international actors helped create a more robust structure by proposing an initial agreement that was used to guide discussions. The Oslo/Barbados process was by far the most sophisticated and included a pre-agreed agenda with six focuses and 56 sub-points.
Lessons from Other Contexts
Negotiations, like the conflicts they are meant to resolve, are unique, making it difficult to draw parallels and identify transferable lessons learned. With that in mind, case studies from across the globe can and should be used, wherever possible, to identify best practices, illustrate common pitfalls, and challenge decisionmakers to think creatively about the negotiation process.
CSIS gathered the following best practices from Spain, Central America, and Colombia.
A Roadmap for Successful Negotiations
Conversations about potential talks began early in 2021. A delegation from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs traveled to Caracas to assess the current political situation. This delegation reportedly conducted pendular talks among high-level regime and opposition leaders, though no formal process has been established. Separately, in March, the Maduro regime and the Guaidó interim government agreed to use frozen assets in the United States to purchase Covid-19 vaccines through the international COVAX program. In April, the regime finally agreed to allow the World Food Programme into Venezuela, which civil society and the opposition have been requesting for years.
A February 2021 poll revealed that 64 percent of Venezuelans support a negotiated solution, up from 47 percent in July 2020. If a window of opportunity emerges, and the right incentives are in place, the opposition, United States, Canada, European Union, and other international actors, such as the Lima Group, should have a plan for how to move forward. CSIS suggests the following roadmap based on lessons from Venezuela and other examples.
1. Aim for negotiations when conditions are ripe.
There are two major drivers that can change this political calculus for the regime: the degree of internal stability that the regime can maintain and the degree and type of external pressure or assistance the regime receives from key international actors.
The United States, European Union, Canada, and other international allies should coordinate more targeted sanctions and pressure on the networks that currently sustain the regime. This international pressure could also be directed at the regime’s allies. Through a unified regional posture, Latin American countries could leverage their economic relations with China to increase the reputational cost of not contributing to a peaceful negotiated settlement in Venezuela.
The international community, including the International Criminal Court (ICC), should also continue to investigate and monitor violations by the Maduro regime and bring to international justice those who have committed human rights violations.
2. Adjust the objectives, plan ahead, and consider partial agreements.
Negotiations will fail if the opposition’s central objective is to eliminate Chavismo altogether. The opposition should focus on objectives that are specific, realistic, and attainable, and which do not alienate actors within the regime who fear loss of voice and loss of freedom. They will need to both craft a strong and unified narrative that demonstrates a commitment to transitional justice and work together with the international community in establishing incentives for regime actors to negotiate in earnest.
One option could be to take advantage of the constitutionally enabled recall referendum in 2022. A longer alternative would be looking into a step-by-step process, protected and guaranteed by the international community, to host free, fair, and transparent presidential elections in 2024.
Elections would need to be followed by a series of internationally backed actions to:
- address the humanitarian crisis;
- promote the rule of law;
- establish transitional justice and reconciliation efforts;
- rebuild public services;
- professionalize the armed forces;
- recuperate territory back from armed groups; and
- reconcile Venezuela’s deeply polarized civic and political spaces.
Incremental or partial agreements could also serve as a confidence-building measure, establish personal relationships between key interlocutors, bring immediate relief to a suffering population, and legitimize negotiation as a viable tool. This decision is likely to splinter political actors but could help gain trust from civil society, which has become increasingly supportive of partial agreements to bring immediate relief to a suffering population.
It is worth noting that the regime has reneged on partial agreements in the past. The opposition could try to mitigate this risk by loudly announcing the details of the agreement so that the regime can be held accountable publicly.
3. Expand the tent—involve the military and find fresh faces.
International facilitators and accompanying countries could help ensure that the process involves the Venezuelan armed forces, which have been absent from all previous efforts despite being the most decisive institution in the country when it comes to facilitating a peaceful transition of power.
Though the armed forces continue to be primarily aligned with the regime, the opposition should consider how to directly consult with someone that can represent and reflect military interests.
Representation from multiple sectors of Venezuelan society who oppose the regime, such as women and youth, civil society groups, Indigenous groups, dissident Chavistas, and smaller political parties, is also vital. The recent U.S.-backed Nueva Alianza para Elecciones Libres (NELA), which brings together the private sector, civil society, and political parties, is a step toward expanding the tent.
Separately, international facilitators should promote a negotiation structure that allows the opposition to easily consult with a broad set of stakeholders from civil society, including academia, student groups, the church, the private sector, activists, and others, perhaps in a parallel room.
4. Define limits to the international community’s engagement.
The Venezuelan crisis is not likely to be resolved without serious facilitators who have had experience mediating other conflicts. These facilitators should come from a country or body which is perceived as neutral by both parties. Norway stands out as a potential facilitator, as does Sweden. The process could also involve the handful of Latin American countries that have mediated in regional issues before.
The same principle of neutrality should apply for multilateral organizations. The United Nations remains one of the few international organizations that could play a strong role in the implementation process, especially by helping to establish an independent transitional justice process that addresses grievances and human rights abuses.
The Venezuelan crisis is now deeply embedded in broader geopolitical tensions between the United States and the regime’s various allies. Those geopolitical tensions should be reflected in the structure used to negotiate, for example, by establishing a “room next door” made up of delegates from stakeholders such as the United States, Canada, Latin American countries, the Vatican, the European Union, Russia, China, Cuba, and Turkey.
Successful negotiations will be preceded by months of confidence-building, exploratory talks, and agenda-setting. Many of these activities will be kept secret, and some will take place in Venezuela. Eventually, however, the talks will need to move to a more formal and neutral setting where both parties can be guaranteed that their delegations will be safe. This setting should be easily accessible but relatively secluded. For logistical reasons, it should be close to Venezuela; Mexico, Panama, and Costa Rica are promising options.
The Future of Negotiations
Though negotiations have failed before, these failures should not prevent them from being used as a tool to resolve the Venezuelan crisis, which is a destabilizing force in the region and has caused a tremendous amount of human suffering.
The United States, Canada, European Union, Lima Group, and other actors from the international community should act more cohesively to establish the conditions that would allow the opposition to negotiate from a position of strength. As several CSIS workshop participants noted, the opposition needs to reassess its objectives and broaden its representation among civil society, minority groups, and dissident Chavistas. They should strive for consensus and mobilize domestic pressure. When conditions are ripe, the international community should be prepared to play a strong and continuous supporting role, but the Venezuelans themselves should lead.
About the Authors
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Americas Program
Moises Rendon is the founder and former director of the Future of Venezuela Initiative (FVI) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Under Mr. Rendon’s leadership, FVI became a preeminent platform for international policy dialogue on Venezuela through forward-looking research and analysis and strategic convening of experts. Prior to his work at FVI, he was an associate director and fellow with the CSIS Americas Program, where his focus included Latin American states in transition, trade and investment, governance and transparency, and U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America. During his time at CSIS, he was a frequent speaker, moderator, and author on issues ranging from “day after” scenarios in Venezuela; global response priorities toward Venezuela and the region, including humanitarian aid and security assistance; and ways of implementing blockchain applications to circumvent censorship and limit the suffering of repressed societies.
Former Research Associate, The Future of Venezuela Initiative
Claudia Fernandez was the former research associate with the Future of Venezuela Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where she supported research related to the economic, humanitarian, and political crisis in Venezuela. She previously worked as a legal analyst at Kobre & Kim LLP. She holds an M.A. from the University of Chicago's Committee on International Relations and a B.A. with honors in public policy from the University of Chicago.
Special Thanks to:
- Margarita R. Seminario, Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, CSIS Americas Program
- Gerver Torres, Senior Associate (Non-resident), Americas Program
- Arianna Kohan, Program Coordinator, Americas Program
- Juan Cruz, Senior Adviser (Non-resident), Americas Program and Director, Argentina-U.S. Strategic Forum
- William Taylor, Designer, CSIS iDeas Lab
- Laurel Weibezahn, Multimedia Producer, CSIS iDeas Lab
- Jonathan Choi, Web Developer Assistant, CSIS iDeas Lab
- José Romero, Web Development Intern, CSIS iDeas Lab
- Jeeah Jehanne Lee, Senior Publications Manager, External Relations
- Katherine Stark, Publications Coordinator, External Relations
- Ali Corwin, Director, External Relations
- Ben Connors, Director and Andreas C. Dracopoulos Chair in Innovation and Creativity, CSIS iDeas Lab
This project was made possible with support from the German Federal Foreign Office Division on Crisis Prevention, Stabilization, and Peacebuilding. The series of workshops that informed this project were made possible with support from the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives, the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the German Federal Foreign Office. The CSIS Americas Program is very grateful to these donors for their support.
A product of the Andreas C. Dracopoulos iDeas Lab, the in-house digital, multimedia, and design agency at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.