Achieving unity among the 27 Member States of the European Union is always a challenge. However, this is hardly an excuse for the extent of disappointment shown by EU foreign ministers last week with their joint statement on Venezuela.
Of course there are many good lines in it. The EU reiterates its clear condemnation of the false parliamentary elections on December 6th in Venezuela. They “failed to meet international standards for a democratic process,” wrote the ministers. “As a result, the EU cannot recognize this electoral process as credible, inclusive or transparent, and therefore its result cannot be seen as representative of the democratic will of the Venezuelan people.” The EU also blames the right place: the measures taken by President Nicolás Maduro’s regime have “persistently prevented the solution of the deep political crisis in Venezuela”. So far, so good.
But then the trouble begins. The EU proposes that the only way out of the crisis is to “resume political negotiations immediately” and “put in place a Venezuela-led dialogue and transition process leading to credible, inclusive and transparent local, legislative and presidential elections “.
Unfortunately, the EU tried to do that last year. EU foreign affairs politician Josep Borrell spent months negotiating with the Venezuelan regime and trying to obtain minimally acceptable conditions for the elections. It failed because the regime wouldn’t move an inch. So what’s the point of calling for new negotiations and new elections, unless there are new ingredients that could lead to success the second time around?
The EU suggests that it could take coercive measures: “Given the deteriorating human rights, rule of law and democracy situation in Venezuela, the EU stands ready to take additional targeted restrictive measures against those who undermine democracy or the rule of law, and against them responsible for serious human rights violations. “But if you were Maduro, how afraid would you be of this threat? In its slow sanctions process, the EU has only sanctioned 36 regime officials – compare this to Canada’s 113. The EU declaration can only be considered limp if the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has reported almost 7,000 political executions by the regime and a UN intelligence mission have written about “crimes against humanity”. Why is it impossible for the EU to tighten its sanctions?
Meanwhile, parts of Europe – not least Spain – remain safe havens for bigwigs of the Maduro regime, whose bank accounts, families, lovers and villas stay there. In most cases, regime numbers travel freely to Europe. What is the EU waiting for before imposing wider sanctions to pressure the regime into serious negotiations?
The EU rightly draws attention to the dire humanitarian situation in Venezuela and calls for “unrestricted and unhindered access” to humanitarian personnel and supplies. In the long term, these needs can only be addressed through a political solution, the ministers add.
Fair enough. However, the EU is not open about the role of the regime in creating the humanitarian crisis. Incredibly, despite the widespread hunger in Venezuela, the United Nations World Food Program still cannot function. Why not? Because the organization has rules and standards and the regime refuses to do its job.
A few months ago it was agreed to provide 35 antigen machines for virus testing to support Venezuela’s efforts to fight COVID-19 through the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). They were paid for by Juan Guaidó, who was recognized by the United States and Great Britain as the legitimate Venezuelan President, through an official Venezuelan government account with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The Maduro regime agreed to allow PAHO to determine which hospitals and clinics the machines would go to. As soon as they arrived in Venezuela, the machines were confiscated by the regime – and have never been seen since.
This should be another reason for the EU to go well beyond mere concern about the humanitarian crisis. Europe must finally condemn the Maduro regime because it prevents international aid organizations from working there for the health of the Venezuelan people.
And what about negotiations? Like the EU, I am in favor of negotiating a transition to democracy. But if Maduro is on one side of the table, who is on the other? It can only be a team from the legitimate Venezuelan National Assembly elected in 2015 and from the truly democratic parties that have since been largely united behind Guaidó. Unfortunately, the EU bypassed most of the country’s opposition last year when Borrell tried to collaborate with former Venezuelan presidential candidate Henrique Capriles in his own negotiations with the regime. These efforts failed and will fail again when Capriles and Borrell attempt the same move. Instead, the EU should stick to its own declaration, in which Guaidó and the opposition MPs elected in 2015 are named as “privileged interlocutors”.
Finally, consider how much more effective a declaration would have been if it had been spoken for both the EU and the new Biden government. Unfortunately, the EU did not hold back a few weeks to check whether a joint statement – possibly by Borrell and Foreign Minister Antony Blinken – would have been possible.
After all, it is Washington that exercises control over the regime through economic and financial sanctions. If the United States and the EU speak as one, the impact in Venezuela will be significant. Despite widespread claims that diplomacy was never practiced during the Trump administration, the U.S. State Department had close working relationships with Venezuela, many Latin American and European governments, as well as Canada. The Biden administration can and should build on this basis.
In order to get diplomacy going again, the new government should soon appoint an Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere and, in my view, someone who served in that capacity, a Special Representative for Venezuela. A serious negotiation can be unlikely if Maduro doesn’t want to think about ever leaving power. But it is certainly impossible if the EU, the United States, the Latin American democracies and Canada do not coordinate their actions closely and increase the pressure.