EU foreign affairs chief: ‘Maduro cannot choose his opposition’

Josep Borrell, who was in Colombia for a summit on the Venezuela crisis, considers that a window of opportunity has opened to hold fair elections in the country

Josep Borrell
Josep Borrell, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, in Bogotá, Colombia on April 25.Juan Pablo Pino
Juan Diego Quesada

Josep Borrell is astonished to discover that the cup of coffee he is holding in his hands is called tinto in Colombia. In Spain, his home country, it means red wine. The High Representative for Foreign Affairs of the European Union (EU) has come to Bogotá to participate in a foreign diplomats’ summit on the Venezuelan crisis. The meeting was organized by the President of Colombia, Gustavo Petro, and concluded with three points that sound like nothing new. Borrell, on the other hand, is optimistic. He says the time to make progress in Venezuela is now, that there is no time to lose. Nor for the European Union: he reveals that it is working on a project to extract Venezuelan gas, liquefy it in Trinidad and Tobago and send it to European countries. Sitting on a Versailles-style sofa, Borrell looks energetic, emphatic, kindly even.

Question: Did the summit have more expectations than results?

Answer: It is very difficult to get 20 countries, including Bolivia, the United States, the Europeans and the Caribbean countries, to agree. The conference was valuable in the sense that the issue of Venezuela was dealt with from within the region. We had the contact group in Brussels between Europe and Latin America, but it was a European initiative. This is a Latin American initiative and, moreover, [it has come] from Colombia, the country most affected by Venezuelan migration. And it has marked a very big change of position with respect to that of [former] President Duque. They are now seeking a constructive relationship and the reintegration of Venezuela into Latin American institutions, into the Latin American human rights council as President Petro has requested. I said: gentlemen, there is a window of opportunity to get Venezuela back on the road to elections that can be considered free, inclusive and in line with democratic standards. We will have that opportunity between now and the fall.

Q. Is this the right time?

A. If the elections are next year, the time is now. From the electoral observation mission we have asked that the Venezuelan electoral system undergo a series of reforms (we have highlighted 21 points), in negotiations between the opposition and the government that are, it seems, about to culminate. Venezuela needs resources to address a serious social situation. All of this must go hand in hand: we must have a balanced process of political openness and providing financial resources to Venezuela. That, the American representative said — and it is no secret — involves a gradual lifting of sanctions as the road to elections progresses.

Q. Do you think the Chavista government is ready to set a date soon?

A. No. The elections are next year...

Q. I mean that they should mark a date on the calendar and everything else should be structured around that.

A. It is time we set a timetable for action. This is a do ut des, and all those involved have to make a contribution. Each party cannot expect the other to do everything without doing anything itself. The first thing is to get an agreement between the Venezuelans, but it has to be put into practice. This requires that the other actors, the United States and Europe, which are the ones that have imposed sanctions — we only imposed personal sanctions on political leaders, not economic sanctions — contribute to this process of opening up.

Q. The other day Petro met with Joe Biden. When he was leaving, the Colombian president said that first there must be elections and then a reduction of sanctions. Just the opposite of what the Chavistas said.

A. That is why it is necessary to make a schedule for the two sides. No one can say: you go first and I will follow. That does not work. One and the other must be done in a coordinated manner that is temporarily acceptable to all. The Celac-EU summit is coming up soon. It is important to arrive at this summit having advanced Venezuela’s democratic prospects. And it is important that there are economic projects that benefit both Europe and Venezuela. Right now Venezuela is burning gas that it cannot use, when gas is officially not subject to sanctions, only oil. It is one of the countries that produces the most methane for nobody’s benefit, while in the EU we need gas. We are thinking of a project to extract this gas, take it to Trinidad and Tobago for liquefaction, and send it to Europe.

Q. This requires permission from the United States.

A. Undoubtedly, no company is going to want to get into this without the guarantee that it will not be subject to sanctions. Let’s clear that up and look for a win-win situation. This project would provide more resources to Venezuelan society and increase our energy security.

Josep Borrell, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, in an interview after the summit on Venezuela organized by Colombian President Gustavo Petro at San Carlos Palace in Bogotá.
Josep Borrell, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, in an interview after the summit on Venezuela organized by Colombian President Gustavo Petro at San Carlos Palace in Bogotá.

Q. Is there any progress on this project?

A. We are working on it. Companies that might participate in something like this will want to have guarantees.

Q. Do you think it is feasible to hold an election in which the opposition has a real chance of winning?

A. What is clear is that Maduro cannot choose his opposition. You cannot say: this one can run for office and this one cannot. There must be inclusiveness.

Q. For the disqualifications to be lifted.

A. And return the political parties to their members. That is what inclusive, free and fair elections are.

Q. So, do you think they can be held?

A. We are working toward that. There has to be an agreement among the Venezuelans and we have to support them politically. And be willing to review our sanctions.

Q. What do you think of President Petro’s proposal that there should be a kind of general amnesty in Venezuela, so that no one can be prosecuted?

A. It is something that only the Venezuelans can deal with. We can help, but not replace. We need each party to take a step and for each step to be synchronized with the other.

Q. Is the United States willing to release frozen Venezuelan funds from abroad?

A. The agreement that was reached is one that has to be completed by the parties.

Q. What did you make of the way Colombia dealt with Guaidó [the Venezuelan opposition leader who was expelled from Colombian territory]?

A. I found out about everything from the media and from the press release. The Colombians argue that he entered the country irregularly, that he was not invited. I cannot tell a country how to maintain its borders.

Q. What is your position regarding Pedro Castillo’s situation in Peru?

A. Our position was clearly defined. We support the Peruvian institutions. It is clear that we support the legality of the change and the incoming president. And we support new elections.

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