On 30th March US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a new plan, the Democratic Transition Framework, to bring political change to Venezuela by tying humanitarian assistance to concrete steps toward a political transition. More than a year after the Venezuelan National Assembly elected opposition leader Juan Guiadó as the interim president the horrific potential of a COVID-19 epidemic ripping through a country in which 80% of the hospitals lack regular electricity and medicines offered a new humanitarian opportunity to finally push aside the ineffective, corrupt government of President Nicolas Maduro.
But despite the US’s invocation of Europe in the plan, the European and Latin American governments that originally supported Guiadó in 2019 have remained curiously silent over the new US policy. EU’s High Representative Joseph Borrel only released a short statement after the announcement acknowledging that the US plan would be ‘in the EU line of proposing a peaceful way out of the crisis through a negotiated path to a democratic government.’
While the plan mentions that European governments would also lift their sanctions on Venezuela if certain steps are taken towards liberalization, the plan has a uniquely US flavour, echoing the 1996 Libertad Act that codified the US-Cuba embargo. The silence of the European and Latin American heads of state raises questions about true international support in the new twist in a 14 month saga.
Since the National Assembly’s 2019 23 January election of Guiadó, the US White House has tightened restrictions on the Maduro government, first imposing a controversial embargo on Venezuelan oil and US exports to the beleaguered country, including the sale of diluents to process Venezuela’s heavy crude. US sanctions on the Russian oil company Rosneft that continued to trade Venezuelan crude followed, and then just five days before the announcement of the new transition plan the US Department of Justice handed down indictments on President Maduro and eight others, including members and former members of Maduro’s government for narco-terrorism. According to US officials the transition plan had been developed before the DOJ announced the indictments by the two policies seemed contradictory. By placing a bounty on Maduro’s head, the DOJ indictments have dampened the incentive for Maduro to step aside and thereby place himself at risk of arrest and trial in the US.
Through the past year plus, the EU has attempted to assert its own policy in the crisis, trying to differentiate its efforts from the US. The EU has refused to impose further economic sanctions against Venezuela, despite pressure from the US administration. It also unsuccessfully promoted the Uruguay-led International Contact Group (ICG) with five Latin American countries and a negotiation effort led by the government of Norway, the Oslo Dialogue. The aim of these initiatives was to provide the democratic opposition and Maduro’s autocratic government with a neutral negotiating table to guide the country towards fair and free elections. Washington however refused to support the ICG and the Oslo Dialogue, labelling the efforts as a ‘way (for Maduro) to play for time’ While past similar schemes, such as a mediation effort led by the now defunct Union of South American Republicans and another led by the former prime minister of Spain, Jose Luis Zapatero, lacked the necessary commitment to human rights and diplomatic muscle, the ICG and Oslo Dialogue offered a potential exit in the stalemate between Guidó and a discredited, weak government.
More recently, the EU has also called for a suspension of US economic sanctions to allow humanitarian support to Venezuelans. Similarly, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has called for suspending or easing sanctions which could undermine the allocation of resources to prevent and fight the spread of the COVID-19. Even though the US administration has pointed out humanitarian goods are already exempted from sanctions, countries and foreign private companies fear US retaliation, instead avoiding trade relations with Venezuela. At the same time, US policy has also discouraged the broad multilateral effort that would be required to address the country’s massive needs.
The State Department asserts that many of the demands of its Framework for a Democratic Transition reflect compromises that were almost struck between the two sides in the Oslo Dialogues. Nevertheless, directly tying the removal of sanctions and delivery of humanitarian assistance to the release of the government’s political prisoners, the reconstitution of an independent electoral commission for new elections, and free and fair elections sounds strikingly similar to the 1996 Libertad Act that re-codified the US-Cuba embargo. That law established a set of ‘conditions under which a government in Cuba will be considered transitional or democratically-elected [sic],’ including the release of political prisoners and credible steps toward free and fair elections, and thereby eligible to be free of US embargo sanctions.
To be sure, it would be foolhardy to trust Maduro’s bankrupt, corrupt government with billions of dollars in humanitarian assistance to save its citizens sickened by COVID-19. The government and its armed forces’ track record in effectively and objectively delivering food aid – which often ended up on the black market or in partisan, pro-government programmes – have demonstrated that Maduro’s venal officials are more interested in lining their own pockets or shoring up a failed ideological project than relieving the suffering of their fellow citizens.
On the other hand, the effort to tie humanitarian assistance to a long-standing policy to ensure political transition reduces the likelihood that the sitting government will cooperate, while holding citizens (and potentially neighbouring countries) hostage to a looming epidemic. By stridently linking humanitarian assistance to the willingness of a notoriously unaccountable government to cede power or to a palace coup by its corrupt inner circle, does the US plan condemn lifesaving assistance to an unrealistic policy objective? If Maduro and his indicted cronies refuse to buckle, does that leave humanitarian aid at the country’s doorstep and its citizens doomed to suffer? Should a COVID-19 epidemic sweep through the country would the US continue to deny assistance because the conditions of the Framework for a Democratic Transition hadn’t been met?
Given these choices, it’s no wonder that the EU’s response has been lukewarm. Ultimatums in the face of human disaster never make for good diplomacy or humanitarian policy.