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How the Biden administration can encourage Venezuela negotiations

The Administration will retain significant leverage that can be used to incentivize future agreements in this process

Venezuela delegation arrives in Mexico for talks with opposition.
Venezuela delegation arrives in Mexico for talks with opposition.EFE

The Venezuelan government and the opposition Unitary Platform coalition are poised to sign a major humanitarian agreement in Mexico City as the US eases financial sanctions, marking the formal restart of political talks after a fourteen-month suspension. As the negotiations process enters a new phase, the US and international stakeholders should provide their full support and encourage the parties to engage civil society voices in order to maximize the potential for success.

Press reports suggest representatives of the government of Nicolás Maduro and the opposition Unitary Platform coalition are slated to announce an agreement to unfreeze and direct nearly $3 billion in Venezuelan funds for humanitarian assistance. The UN will directly oversee this aid and will prioritize access to health care and essential medicine, addressing child malnutrition, and restoring electricity and other critical infrastructure.

This agreement could make a significant impact on the country’s long-suffering population. The UN has estimated that seven million people, roughly 25% of Venezuelans, are in need of humanitarian assistance. Venezuelan humanitarian organizations suggest the population in need is even greater, with surveys claiming that as many as 19 million are in need of assistance. Across the country, patients are desperate for lifesaving care, and are forced to turn to a public health system in ruins. Children in poor neighborhoods are showing signs of stunted growth due to malnutrition. Access to electricity and running water remains irregular, especially in low-income areas in Venezuela’s interior.

In order to support this humanitarian deal – and to jumpstart broader negotiations – the Biden administration has agreed to recalibrate its sanctions policy. While broad oil and financial sanctions will remain in place, the Department of Treasury will provide a license for US oil company Chevron to import Venezuelan oil to the United States.

The Biden administration will retain significant leverage that can be used to incentivize future agreements in this process. This exception will not allow an increase in drilling activities, nor will it allow cash payments directly to state oil company PDVSA; instead oil shipments would service outstanding government debt to Chevron.

This restart is the result of months of backchanneling. This year has seen steady communication between the Maduro government and opposition, with Norwegian facilitation and US support. The talks have been kept largely confidential until now, under the premise that they are complicated, delicate and could fall apart at any moment.

However, negotiations behind closed doors have a cost, and that has played out in public opinion. When the heads of the government and opposition negotiating teams appeared in public together in Caracas, Oslo and Paris in the last eight months, widespread skepticism and a lack of public communication fueled speculation and rumors.

Perhaps the most common misperception is that this negotiation has actually been between the Biden administration and the Maduro government, with the opposition cut out of the discussion. But this is misinformed – the Biden administration has engaged with the opposition throughout the negotiation process. Indeed over the past six months opposition negotiators have sat across the table from Maduro’s representatives, hashing out the details.

Another misperception is that the humanitarian agreement and expanded license are the end goals of the negotiation: In reality, these agreements are considered confidence-building measures – low-hanging fruit to jumpstart the process. Indeed the parties frame this agreement as part of the seven-point agenda laid out when this process began in August 2021, which includes addressing the humanitarian crisis as well as conditions for free and fair elections, the restoration of the rule of law, and reparation for victims.

The skepticism and misperceptions are understandable. This is the fifth internationally-backed negotiations process in Venezuela in the last eight years, with each one failing to reach significant agreements. This time around as well, there are no guarantees that a deal can be reached which can restore Venezuelans’ fundamental right to choose their government in free and fair elections, or address victims’ rights to truth, justice, and guarantees of non-repetition.

But there are ways to maximize the chances of success. One way to make it more costly for both sides to get up from the table is to ensure that the Venezuelan public has a reason to care about this process in the first place. As they enter a new phase, it is essential that the negotiations appeal to broader Venezuelan society, with participants and international supporters better informing the Venezuelan public on how these talks may shape the future of their country.

Another way to ensure greater buy-in is to create channels for direct or indirect participation, just as the peace process in Colombia incorporated victims and victims’ groups. Conflict resolution experts have consistently found a correlation between the success of agreements and the degree to which talks incorporated civil society. While the negotiating teams have agreed in theory to create “consultation mechanisms,” it remains unclear how they will engage with other interested parties such as victims or human rights organizations, much less whether those perspectives will be taken into account in any future accords. As the US and other international governments continue to support progress in negotiations, it is fundamental that they urge the parties to broaden their engagement of Venezuelan society.

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