Diplomacy Could Help Revive Democracy in Venezuela

By Roberto Patiño* (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – The upcoming presidential election in Venezuela, scheduled for July 28, is a critical moment for the country. If President Nicolás Maduro stays in power, and the political and economic situation remains unchanged, Venezuela’s migrant crisis – the world’s largest, with more than 7.7 million people displaced – will deepen, with significant repercussions for neighboring Latin American countries and the United States, where illegal border crossings have hit a record high.

But for the first time in many years, the Venezuelan opposition, which recently unified in an extraordinary display of strategic and organizational strength, has a good chance of defeating Maduro, after persevering in the face of government repression and interference. María Corina Machado, who decisively won the opposition-run primary in October, was banned from holding office based on accusations that she “supported US sanctions, had been involved in corruption, and had lost money for Venezuela’s foreign assets.” When her replacement was blocked from registering for the race, the opposition successfully coalesced around another candidate, former diplomat Edmundo González. Recent polls show González with a huge lead over Maduro.

The opposition’s determination to challenge an authoritarian regime at the ballot box serves as a powerful symbol of hope and sends a message of change and reconciliation. It also underscores the need for foreign support to help ensure a fair election and to guarantee a peaceful transfer of power if Maduro loses. The window for effective diplomatic action is closing rapidly, making concerted international action more urgent than ever.

At this pivotal moment, diplomacy could play a decisive role. Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has called on Maduro, his longtime ally, to hold a fair election, signaling his commitment to democracy in the region. Lula’s intervention is even more significant in view of Brazil’s role as a leader in Latin America, a founding member of the BRICS+ alliance, and the current president of the G20.

Venezuela has applied for BRICS+ membership, which some of its founding members, including Brazil, South Africa, and India, could leverage to insist that electoral conditions do not further deteriorate and that the results of the election are respected. This could establish meaningful negotiation between the opposition and the regime as a precondition for joining the bloc. Such a move could facilitate a peaceful political transition by providing security assurances to Maduro’s regime while aligning with broader diplomatic goals.

But global efforts to pressure the Venezuelan government to allow free elections and to heed the will of its people should not stop there. The European Union and the US could offer sanctions relief and normalization of diplomatic relations if the election results are deemed credible. Other countries, meanwhile, bring different strengths to the table: Colombia has geographic proximity and shared history; India, the largest buyer of Venezuelan crude in recent months, has oil ties; South Africa has the example of its remarkably peaceful transition to democracy; and Spain has a uniquely close relationship with Venezuela.

These countries must push for the presence of reputable international election observers to protect the integrity of July’s vote and prevent large-scale fraud, especially now that Venezuela has withdrawn an invitation to EU election monitors. And in the event of an opposition victory, they should support negotiations for a peaceful transition in the six months between the election and the inauguration, scheduled for January 2025.

Maduro’s government has come under significant pressure in recent years. The US has indicted Maduro, placed a $15 million bounty on his head, and issued personal sanctions against him and his allies, while the International Criminal Court is investigating possible crimes against humanity in the country. But Maduro still possesses considerable leverage – including control of Venezuela’s courts, congress, and military.

The need for a negotiated and inclusive transition process is obvious, particularly because Maduro’s precarious position – characterized by dwindling domestic support and mounting external pressures – increases the likelihood that he would resort to drastic measures to cling to power. In one scenario, Maduro could escalate a territorial conflict with Guyana to cancel or postpone the election, highlighting the risks of diplomatic inaction. Such a desperate attempt to inflame nationalist sentiment would destabilize the region and dash Venezuelans’ democratic aspirations.

The many peaceful transitions to democracy in Latin America – often achieved through a combination of elections, negotiations, and international support – can serve as a source of inspiration. Chile’s internationally-supported 1988 plebiscite, in which voters rejected the proposal to extend General Augusto Pinochet’s presidency for another eight years, led to the end of his military dictatorship. After opposition candidate Violeta Barrios de Chamorro unexpectedly won Nicaragua’s internationally-monitored presidential election in 1990, there was a smooth transition of power. And Brazil, with popular and international support, abandoned military rule in the mid-1980s, which led to the adoption of a democratic constitution in 1988.

Perhaps most importantly, Venezuelans demonstrated their ability to achieve a peaceful change from dictatorship to democracy during the country’s initial transition in 1958, although it proved to be temporary. That same spirit and resolve is fueling the current fight, but it must be bolstered by the international community. Even if Maduro is defeated, returning to the path of democratization will not be easy.

Brazil, the US, the EU, and other democracies cannot remain mere spectators to Venezuela’s presidential election. The upcoming vote is a test of their commitment to democratic principles. They should instead seize this opportunity to use diplomacy, rather than hostility, to encourage dialogue, steer the country toward peaceful reform, and promote regional stability and optimism at a time when both are sorely needed.


*Published originally by Project Syndicate.

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