As Guaidó Returns to Venezuela, Priorities Are De-escalation and Elections

Three aid trucks that were set ablaze sit on the Venezuelan side of the Simon Bolivar International Bridge in San Antonio del Tachira, across the border from Cucuta, Colombia. (PABLO COZZAGLIO/AFP/Getty Images)

The crisis in Venezuela risks descending into civil war. The all-out power struggle between President Nicolas Maduro and Juan Guaidó is likely to escalate as Guaidó returned to Venezuela on Monday. President Maduro still has the backing of Cuba, China, Iran, Russia, Turkey, and dozens of states, while Guaidó is recognized by over 60 countries including the United States, major powers within the European Union, and much of Latin America. Decisions made in the coming days and weeks are critical to avoid making a very bad situation much worse.

Venezuela is already crippled by hyperinflation (which rose to 1,300,000 percent last year), chronic food and medicine shortages, and regular power cuts. It is also the world’s most murderous country, registering sky-high homicide rates. Unable to feed or clothe their families, and threatened by government-backed militias, over three million people—around 10 percent of the population—have already fled to Colombia, Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Argentina, and Brazil. The number of refugees and migrants may well swell to over five million this year. Cities and towns in neighboring countries are overwhelmed by the sudden influx, and local tensions are boiling over.

Tensions have also been rising along Venezuela’s international borders. At least five Venezuelans were killed and dozens injured after the country’s national guard and army opened fired close to its southern frontier with Brazil. Hundreds more people were wounded during protests on the Colombian border. A total of at least 40 people have been killed in recent protests, including 26 by pro-government forces, five in house raids, and 11 during looting. President Maduro is intent on keeping relief aid from entering the country insisting his is not a nation of “beggars.” He has consistently described the aid as a Trojan horse, the first stage of a US-led invasion to oust him from power and seize the country’s vast oil reserves. In his latest show of force, Maduro has closed large stretches of the Venezuelan border with Colombia, Brazil and the Caribbean. Reports are also emerging of government-backed militia manning physical barricades and torching aid vehicles.

All of this, of course, followed the decision by the opposition-controlled National Assembly to declare the 2018 presidential elections invalid. While the Assembly had previously rejected the legitimacy of President Maduro’s government, this time its little-known leader, Juan Guaidó, declared himself acting president.

Attempts to deliver relief during the crisis have risked igniting an outright war. For weeks, the US has been massing aid on the Colombian border, reportedly at the request of Guaidó. The billionaire Richard Branson also helped organize the Live Aid-style concert after meeting with Guaidó. In a dramatic break from its longstanding hands-off policy towards its neighbor, Brazil is also stockpiling supplies on its side of the border, though it has not granted permission for US troops to pass through its territory. At the same time, offers of aid to Venezuela have been criticized as political by both the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations. Both organizations refused to participate in US aid plans, which has further exacerbated political divisions in Venezuela and bolstered Maduro’s supporters.

Rather than turning up the temperature, governments should be working to de-escalate the crisis before Venezuela melts down entirely. The Group of Lima, created in 2017 to help resolve the crisis and restore democracy, has vocally disavowed military intervention. Comprised of 13 Latin American and Caribbean countries and Canada, the group has intensified its preventive diplomacy over the past year.

But with the US increasing its pressure, there are signs of division within the group. Colombia’s conservative president, Iván Duque, recently met with President Trump to discuss ways to “put an end to [Venezuela’s] brutal dictatorship.” The Colombians are understandably anxious: a sudden collapse would be disastrous for its own public security and economy, and would trigger even larger fluxes of refugees (4,000 Venezuelans are arriving a day, adding to the 1.3 million already there). Meanwhile, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico has stepped back from the Lima Group, as have Guyana and Saint Lucia, who do not support Guaidó. At the UN, the Security Council has failed to agree on a course of action, with pro-Maduro and pro-Guaidó camps squaring off over opposing resolutions.

What happens next depends in large part on the Venezuelan armed forces. President Maduro still controls the senior echelons of the armed forces, and his hand-picked generals and officers are in charge of key government posts and industry positions. The top military brass are notoriously corrupt, turning a blind eye to organized crime around drug trafficking and illegal mining, and they have a vested interest in preserving the status quo.

But there are signs that not all troops are following Maduro’s orders, with dozens of officers—some of them high-level—defecting to the US, Colombia, and Brazil. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has urged the Venezuelan armed forces to “do the right thing” and allow humanitarian aid. Not surprisingly, Maduro is digging in his heels, particularly when it comes to militarizing the border. Maduro is also reportedly receiving additional military support from China and Russia, claims both countries deny.

The priority must be to avoid civil war and create pathways for a stable transition. The ideal scenario would involve President Maduro exiting the country, say to Cuba, and for Guaidó to lead a transitional government until elections are held. US Vice President Mike Pence has stated that this is the primary objective of the US, and Brazil has also recommended a managed exit in recent days. The Group of Lima has called adamantly for peaceful transition, while Cuba, China, and Russia have been vocally opposed to any action that involves violently deposing President Maduro and imperiling their own sizable interests. Even if Maduro were to leave tomorrow, the question few people are asking is what happens next. There is a risk that without careful forward planning, even the most propitious solutions could give rise to chaotic unintended outcomes.

Scaling-up the provision of humanitarian aid is also essential. While welcomed by many desperate Venezuelans, the aid that has been mobilized to date is still a drop in the bucket given the vast needs on the ground and the catastrophic breakdown in basic service delivery outside the capital, Caracas. The US has been mulling a humanitarian corridor, and Guaidó has recommended a “volunteer force that could operate across the country. There is a legitimate risk that the provision and distribution of this should avoid realizing: aid should do no harm, much less contribute to outright war. Every effort must be made to ensure that humanitarian aid is coordinated and delivered by neutral, impartial parties including the UN and specialized organizations.

Any new interim Venezuelan administration should also consider calling on a balanced consortium of guarantor states to assist with the transition. This approach has worked well in previous Latin American crises, from the Ecuador-Peru war to the Colombian government negotiations with guerrilla groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The fact that Venezuela served as a guarantor state in the Colombian peace process may mean that its leaders are more receptive to this approach.

Furthermore, guarantors can help share risks, responsibilities, and costs involved in developing a lasting political solution. While the Group of Lima has a major role to play in the immediate term, it may be too large and divided to facilitate mediation in the longer run. But countries such as Canada and Norway, and even regional and international organizations, could constructively support this process.

Most important, future presidential and legislative elections must be free and fair, with the international deployment of genuinely impartial observers. Given the current situation, this will be an extremely difficult task. Venezuelan society is polarized, and it is important not to underestimate the scale of support for Maduro, and Chavismo more generally. Outside election observers can offer valuable support in the logistics of any election, but overcoming the complex societal challenges and polarization will not be easy. Ultimately, it must be the Venezuelans themselves who drive the process.

There will also be a need to decide how to mete out justice during the transition, including avoiding actions that could further inflame the divided nation. Swift retribution against Maduro’s inner circle could undermine Venezuela’s transition, while full impunity could lay the seeds for future instability. Whichever path the Venezuelans choose, the restoration and renewal of democracy must be at the top of the agenda.