by JOE CLARK, LLOYD AXWORTHY, RICARDO LUNA, KEITH MINES and THOMAS R. PICKERING
Published: The Globe and Mail, 30 April 2020
The crisis in Venezuela has moved from an internal tragedy to a threat to regional peace and security, with increasing political breakdown, growing COVID-19 infection, and disarray in its internal fuel market. Its hungry and battered people are the victims. The country is in line to become the first failed state in the Americas without a functioning economy or government, with warring factions carving up territory.
Negotiations have so far failed. Only a fundamental change in strategy can deal with the crisis – and the United Nations should take the lead in shaping a humanitarian political truce to carry out a massive relief effort, while negotiating the terms of fair elections.
Venezuela is constitutionally required to hold National Assembly elections this year. Presidential balloting must be included to ensure progress. The UN is the one organization that has the neutrality, resources, and capacity to carry out that strategy.
The Secretary-General’s global appeal to warring parties to “put aside mistrust and animosity” and “help create corridors for life-saving aid” while opening “precious windows for diplomacy” applies most acutely to Venezuela. Hunger, economic collapse, political infighting, disease and an onslaught of refugees must be dealt with now.
The heart of the crisis is a stalemate between Juan Guaido, recognized as interim president by 59 countries, and Nicolas Maduro, who retains control of the country’s government and security apparatus. An immediate, UN-brokered humanitarian truce in the political conflict would open a “corridor” for the distribution of food and medicine. Building on such a pact, an electoral process should be forged now that would cross class and political lines and draw in the all-important security forces as the guarantors of order. The UN is uniquely experienced in managing both humanitarian relief and elections. It has done that in Namibia, El Salvador, Cambodia, and Mozambique. Lessons from South Korea’s recent physically distant voting day, along with mail ballots and internet voting, should be considered.
The fundamental impediment to a UN-supervised election is a Security Council veto by Russia or China. Both states gain nothing through continuing conflict; they have an opening to enhance their position in Latin America and elsewhere by supporting the UN in this critical role. The prospect of widespread fatalities from COVID-19 gives China the opportunity to continue to be a world leader in blocking the spread of the disease. Properly engaged, with fair guarantees for their economic and geopolitical interests and those of their allies in Venezuela, both Russia and China could be persuaded to favour elections.
Mr. Maduro and Mr. Guaido are locked in a winner-take-all system and will require strong incentives to compromise and accept such a proposal. Mr. Maduro will need an off-ramp that includes a legacy of protecting the gains of the Bolivarian revolution for ordinary Venezuelans and creating a space for a reformed successor movement to Chavismo. Mr. Guaido’s opposition will require guarantees it is not giving up leverage in a ruse for Mr. Maduro to buy more time.
A strong and well-regarded UN Special Representative leading an international consensus will be required to put this in place. It must begin with a UN resolution that establishes the relief and virus-fighting objectives and program, sets out the electoral parameters and calendar, provides for international UN military observers to assist with security, and integrates international observers and health experts. The resolution could be put forward by any UN member state, but Security Council leadership – by, for example, Germany and the Dominican Republic – would have the greatest chance of success.
A fresh and carefully selected contact group – Friends of the Secretary-General, with partners from each side – would be valuable in managing diplomatically the divisive issues that will surely arise. The recently announced proposal by the United States for a transition government should be part of the design of this framework, opening the door to the U.S. linking sanctions relief to a credible agreement on broad humanitarian support and a full electoral process.
Recent history has shown that situations such as the one Venezuela finds itself in will only become more intractable and deadly when left on their own, and time is not on the side of the Venezuelan people. The Secretary-General and key UN member states are the actors most capable of bringing this complex crisis to an early end and overcoming a trifecta of political dysfunction, hunger and disease, and criminality. They should act soon.