UNASUR and the Prospects for Dialogue in Venezuela

On March 12, the foreign ministers of UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) agreed to send a delegation to ‘support, accompany, and advise’ the Maduro administration’s peace dialogue in response to ongoing protests and government repression in Venezuela. This outcome is highly favorable to the Venezuelan government, and culminates weeks of diplomatic maneuvers that saw international efforts to press the Venezuelan government to adopt a less repressive approach defeated. Previously, the Organization of American States passed a resolution (over the objections of Canada, Panama and the United States) that was favorable to the Maduro administration. By subsequently shifting the venue to UNASUR, President Maduro and his allies in the hemisphere are attempting to shut out critics from the international diplomatic process that has developed in response to Venezuela’s crisis.

With all the limitations implicit in UNASUR’s mandate, this is the first group of external actors that will formally participate in promoting dialogue to resolve the present crisis in Venezuela. They will face a situation that has only grown worse since March 12th. The Venezuelan government continues to violently repress street protests, and at least 30 Venezuelans have died and over 1500 have been detained at some point during the protests. Foro Penal Venezolano, a local NGO that has been providing legal services to detained protestors, has claimed that at least 59 persons have been tortured while in detention. In the past week, the Venezuelan government has detained two opposition mayors and begun the process of stripping an opposition legislator, Maria Corina Machado, of her parliamentary immunity so that she can also be arrested. The Venezuelan government has formed a truth commission to investigate the ongoing violence, but its membership is solely composed of members of the governing party. The Maduro administration has also begun a peace dialogue, but again does not include any significant representation from the political opposition.

This then raises the question of whether UNASUR’s delegation of foreign ministers, which may arrive in Venezuela by the end of March, can play a positive role? Given its limited mandate, which seems to allow the foreign ministers little discretion beyond what the Maduro administration allows, the answer may very well be nothing.

However, there are at least two concrete outcomes that the UNASUR delegation should seek to accomplish.

  1. Convene the government and the opposition for face-to-face negotiations, either by widening the existing dialogue or by creating a new forum in which such conversations can take place.
  2. Focus the dialogue on what can be done within the existing constitutional mechanisms to resolve the crisis.

Venezuela’s highest court and its electoral authorities are currently required to renew part of their membership. The terms of 10 of 32 high court judges and three of five members of the national electoral council had expired as of 2013. The terms of the Attorney General (Fiscal General) and national Ombudsman (Defensor del Pueblo) expire in 2014. Appointing new authorities requires a two-thirds majority in the national assembly, which the government currently does not possess. Appointing these new authorities will therefore require cooperation between government and opposition legislators. If serious, mutually agreed upon, impartial appointments are made to these posts, it will contribute to measurably leveling the electoral and political playing field. It will also focus national debate in Venezuela on legitimate constitutional mechanisms for the exercise of power by both elected members of the government and the opposition. This will encourage those in Venezuela’s opposition that seek a solution to the present crisis through an electoral strategy, namely through the improvement of conditions under which the next elections will be held.

There are undoubtedly many obstacles to the success of UNASUR’s delegation, or indeed any other outside mediators that have been proposed to help resolve Venezuela’s present crisis. The UNASUR delegation is already starting out at a disadvantage in that its mandate from the March 12th meeting in Santiago is seen as one-sided and biased against the opposition. Even if it overcomes that deficit, it still faces the obstacle of the Venezuelan government’s efforts to repress protests, limit freedom of assembly and the media, and arrest political opponents. Dialogue cannot take place under such conditions. Furthermore, the national assembly in Venezuela is dysfunctional, with opposition legislators currently facing great difficulty in participating in parliamentary activities under present rules and procedures. These are both areas where the delegation can use their mandate to ‘support, accompany and advise’ the Maduro administration to bring about a change in policy.

However, the critical situation of the Venezuelan economy will continue to fuel the crisis. Not only is Venezuela experiencing the highest inflation in the world, but at least 25 percent of basic consumer goods are not available on store shelves. Government efforts to facilitate imports through a series of devaluations and administrative measures are so far not working. Solving the political dimension of the present crisis will undoubtedly open up space to begin sorely needed discussions on how to address the severe distortions afflicting Venezuela’s economy.

The decision to send a delegation of foreign ministers to Venezuela places the ball firmly in UNASUR’s court when it comes to multilateral approaches. However, other states in the Americas can and will take their own measures to address violence in Venezuela. For example, the U.S. legislators have proposed targeted sanctions against Venezuelan government officials who participate in or order human rights violations.  Panama’s government attempted to make its seat at the OAS available to Venezuelan opposition legislator Maria Corina Machado on March 21st so she could present arguments on the present crisis in Venezuela, although this was blocked by other member states. Addressing the Venezuelan crisis in UNASUR creates an incentive for non-member states to pursue their own unilateral approaches, and the pressure on that front is only likely to intensify the longer the violence continues.

UNASUR’s delegates traveling to Venezuela would be wise to interpret its mandate broadly and with the aim of achieving concrete results. While the Maduro administration and its allies pushed for the Venezuelan crisis to be addressed by UNASUR precisely so they could avoid pressure from outside South America, for UNASUR to be seen as failing to end the violence in Venezuela would now undermine its credibility and weaken its ability to address future crises.