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Venezuela stalemate calls for third-party mediation, monitored elections

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro speaks to businessmen during the presentation of Venezuela's nation-brand in Caracas on February 11, 2019.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro speaks in Caracas, on Feb. 11, 2019. Photo: Federico Parra/AFP via Getty Images

More than a month after Venezuelan National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó claimed the interim presidency, recognized by the U.S. and dozens of other nations, the country remains in a dangerous stalemate.

The big picture: The opposition and its international backers, notably the U.S., were hoping that the effort to provide humanitarian assistance would prove a turning point. Instead, it did little to shift the dynamics. Without third-party mediation aimed at a mutually acceptable compromise, the country appears set for a protracted crisis.

Background: The Feb. 23 gambit was aimed at exposing Maduro as impotent (if he couldn’t prevent the entry of aid), oblivious to his people’s needs (if he tried to), or hanging by a thread (if the military balked at his orders to stop it). In that regard, it failed.

  • While the government once again used force against civilians, further eroding its credibility, the opposition failed to achieve its goals: Humanitarian aid did not reach the people, and the small number of security force desertions highlighted the government’s resilience more than its frailty.
  • The episode ended in a draw, but, given that Maduro was on the defensive, a draw was a government win.

What’s next: If Maduro refuses to step down and the anti-Maduro camp insists that he does, the crisis will endure.

  • This won’t be optimal for the government, which could well stay in power but find it increasingly difficult to govern for lack of resources.
  • But the pain will be felt chiefly by others: ordinary citizens who will suffer the devastating effects of a crumbling economy and oil sanctions, and Venezuela’s neighbors, who will face a growing influx of refugees.

Two unfavorable scenarios could result: steady aggravation of the country’s misery, with no plan for recovery; or renewed interest in a perilous foreign military intervention that could sow chaos in a country awash with weapons and armed groups.

The bottom line: To avoid either of these outcomes, third-party mediation will be required to appeal to more pragmatic forces among those sympathetic to former president Hugo Chávez and those on the opposition side. The optimal outcome would be an inclusive transitional government comprising Chavistas and the opposition, as well as the military, followed by free and fair elections under a neutral electoral body with international monitoring.

Robert Malley is president and CEO of the International Crisis Group.