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Can Colombia help advance a roadmap for a democratic solution in Venezuela?

Gustavo Petro’s proposal is risky, but with the right approach it could be an opportunity to rethink the international response to the Venezuelan crisis

Geoff Ramsey
Gustavo Petro Nicolás Maduro
Colombian President Gustavo Petro (left) and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro at a meeting in Caracas on March 23MIRAFLORES PALACE (via REUTERS)

In the coming weeks the government of Colombian President Gustavo Petro will host an international conference on Venezuela. The plan is risky, but with the right approach this could be an excellent opportunity to rethink the international response to Venezuela’s profound crisis.

In newspapers across the Americas, Venezuela has disappeared from the headlines. Over the course of the last six years since the creation of the Lima Group, the coalition of Latin American governments that came together to promote a democratic solution in Venezuela died a slow and gradual death. With political changes across the hemisphere in recent years, now not even Lima is part of the Lima Group, and the future of the coalition is unclear.

In this context, Petro’s proposal to host a summit in Colombia to identify a “road map” for Venezuela is a very welcome initiative. As a neighboring country and recipient of more than two million migrants and refugees who have fled authoritarianism, human rights violations, and a humanitarian emergency, Colombia is well positioned to convene an international diplomatic initiative to ensure that the crisis in Venezuela is not forgotten.

There are many unanswered questions about the Petro administration’s strategy in Venezuela, but the reality is that its approach presents new opportunities. At the same time that the Colombian government has sought to reopen diplomatic and commercial relations with Venezuela, it has attempted to explore how Venezuela could rejoin the Inter-American Human Rights System.

This two-pronged approach — speaking out on the human rights situation in Venezuela but with a recognition of the importance of communicating with the de facto government in Caracas —may be the basis for an innovative strategy that the international community can follow to advance a more gradual approach to a democratic opening in Venezuela. In fact, this is more or less the position of the United States, which has sent diplomatic officials to Caracas to meet with Nicolás Maduro even as it acknowledges that he does not have a democratic mandate. The truth is that this seems to be the future of the international response to Venezuela. But for this new approach to contribute to a clear roadmap it is important that the Petro administration take into account certain realities inside Venezuela, as well as in the international response to the crisis so far.

Venezuela has changed since 2019. The Venezuelan opposition, aware that the “interim government” of Juan Guaidó lost the support of the majority of the population, has abandoned that experiment and is now actively working to return to a strategy of electoral participation. Today the opposition’s best hope is centered on a negotiation process with the Maduro government, which has yielded a series of partial agreements announced in Mexico City. They know that it will not be easy, but the opposition coalition is convinced that offering conditional sanctions relief could lead the government to promote reforms to allow for more credible elections in 2024.

This recognition is why it is so important that Petro’s plans for a conference on Venezuela reinforce the current negotiation process, as well as the existing agreements and commitments of the parties. In 2021, the government and the opposition of Maduro signed an ambitious plan in Mexico to discuss seven points, which are as follows:

This was the beginning of a process that, at least on paper, seeks to restore democratic constitutional order and address the rights of victims. Within the framework of this process, in November 2022 the parties announced a major humanitarian agreement in Mexico to — with the support of the UN — address the humanitarian emergency in Venezuela using billions of dollars in funds that are currently frozen due to U.S. sanctions.

Although the parties have not returned to Mexico to announce new agreements since November, this does not mean that the process is dead. Instead it appears that Mexico has become a kind of clearing house for finalized agreements, not a host of technical talks. The implementation of the humanitarian agreement as well as the other items on the negotiating agenda are currently under discussion by the parties, which have publicly acknowledged that they are talking in Caracas.

Given the advanced nature of this process, it is completely unnecessary to announce a new parallel dialogue. The Petro administration seems to understand this given recent comments by Foreign Minister Álvaro Leyva clarifying that the objective of the conference is “to convene a meeting with countries from Latin America and Europe to promote dialogue that should continue in Mexico.”

While it is not necessary to announce a new dialogue process, there is a clear role for the international community. In fact, the signed agenda for the current process makes specific mention of a “Group of Friends of the Process,” which has not yet been created. An expression of international support of this type, which fits with the existing negotiating framework, could help build momentum not only in Venezuela but also in the United States.

This may be a reason why the U.S. government was the first to applaud Petro’s idea, even before the announcement of a date for the conference. Ultimately, this summit could help ensure that in Washington, where Venezuela is not always a priority, there is renewed interest in continuing to support ongoing negotiations. All the more reason to ensure that this conference ends with a clear focus on strengthening the current process, rather than restarting from scratch.

Geoff Ramsey is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. His research focuses on U.S. foreign policy toward Colombia and Venezuela.

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