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How to Avoid a Venezuelan Civil War

Latin American Solutions for a Latin American Problem
By Adriana Erthal Abdenur and Robert Muggah
Venezuela is careening toward civil war. Political and criminal violence is spreading
like wildfire and the capital city, Caracas, has become one of the world’s most
violent. At least 130 people were killed and another 3,500 injured in anti-
government protests over the past four months. Tens of thousands
of Venezuelans have fled to neighboring countries, Brazil and Colombia, in search
of refuge. Meanwhile, most countries in the region are quietly preparing
contingency plans to deal with the blowback. That won’t be enough: if full-on
armed conflict is to be averted, a far more robust response is needed.
Venezuela’s democratic institutions are under assault. Since President Nicolas
Maduro was elected in 2013, thousands of his opponents have been arrested. Over
430 of them were jailed, many of them after trials in military courts. This month
has seen the imprisonment of two top opposition leaders, prompting widespread
condemnation in Venezuela and abroad. Even judges are feeling vulnerable: a
number of them recently sought asylum in the Chilean embassy. Meanwhile,
government-supported vigilante groups are patrolling the streets and harassing
citizens, and anti-government opposition groups are manning barricades across the
Maduro is consolidating his authoritarian hold. Earlier this year, the Supreme
Court, which is stacked with government loyalists, attempted to strip the
opposition-controlled National Assembly of its powers: the decision was reversed,
with opponents accused Maduro of staging a coup. In July, bands of plain-clothes
government supporters, with the tacit support of the military, stormed the National
Assembly, physically attacking lawmakers and journalists. Maduro subsequently
announced the formation of a new Constituent Assembly, tasked with rewriting the
constitution. The opposition instantly denounced the move, and then boycotted a
government-sponsored referendum on the assembly in July.
The referendum on the Constituent Assembly vote was marred by violence. At least
100 voting booths were destroyed across the county and a police motorcycle convoy
in Caracas was hit by an explosion. The minister of defense, Vladimir Padrino
Lopez, deployed a 130,000 person security force to “actively contain” flare-ups
across the country. Meanwhile, the chief executive of Smartmatic, the company
responsible for providing the platform for Venezuela’s voting system, said the vote
was manipulated. Maduro stands accused of inflating the votes by at least one
million ballots. Venezuela’s chief prosecutor, Luis Ortega Diaz, opened an
investigation into the vote but was ousted and detained days later.
It is unclear how far Maduro can go, since domestic and international support for
his government is crumbling. According to a recent poll by Dalia Research, Maduro
has an 86 percent disapproval rating, and 65 percent of Venezuelans say that they
intend to support ongoing protests. Political polarization is increasing, with daily

and free all political prisoners.S. former Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez. The political climate in Latin America has changed considerably since left-leaning regimesdominated the scene a decade ago: the political pendulum has shifted towards the right. In late June. Venezuelan troops claimed to have quashed a mutiny at a military base in the Carabobo state. Almost exactly a month later. or if vigilante groups armed by the government begin openly clashing with opposition groups. Some governments on the left have either remained silent or have publicly supported the Maduro regime. composed of 11 countries including Bolivia. such as Brazilian deputy Jean Wyllys. few are offering concrete solutions. When the OAS voted to hold a high-level meeting to discuss the emergency. Argentina. Back in April. Many of the world’s most intractable armed conflicts were triggered by far less dramatic circumstances than the current crisis in Venezuela. have broken rank. Brazil. This did not deter the Constituent Assembly from meeting in August and selecting its head. which suspended Venezuela last year. Elsewhere in Latin America. The next order of business is to strip opposition lawmakers of their constitutional immunity from prosecution. uniformed personnel posted videos on social media claiming to stage an insurgency Maduro regime. Cuba. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos denounced the Constituent Assembly and described the removal of Luisa Ortega as the “first dictatorial act” of an “illegitimate” institution. and the Common Market of the South (MERCOSUR). warning that Maduro is out of control. A handful of left-leaning politicians. recognize the National Assembly. such as the Organization of American States (OAS). Others registered their objections through regional organizations.” whereas Maduro described it as a “terrorist attack. and Peru. Maduro ignored them. there is considerably less sympathy for Maduro and his brand of Chavismo than in the past. TROUBLE IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD The international response to the crisis has been tepid. more than 40 governments— from Argentina to Canada—have rejected the results of the recent referendum. Brazil. There are ominous signs of dissident military and police rebelling against the government. Meanwhile. The mutineers said that they intended on “restoring constitutional order. interference. Open conflict could flare if a mutiny gathers critical mass within security forces.” In both cases. and Nicaragua. Although most governments in the region have appealed for a peaceful resolution to the political impasse. the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). Some Latin American governments have publicly condemned Maduro and his crackdown on the opposition. especially in Argentina. Mexico. Maduro threatened that Venezuela would leave . a rogue police officer commandeered a government helicopter and attacked the Supreme Court with gunfire and grenades. and at least ten other governments demanded that Maduro set a timetable for elections.violent confrontations on the streets. issued an open statement blaming Venezuela’s descent into chaos on U.

many of Latin America’s flare ups have been eased through even more localized efforts. For now. is not ready to manage a massive outflow that would follow an implosion in Venezuela. Honduras and Nicaragua. Likewise. bilaterally through a series of mutual confidence-building measures. all created Truth and Reconciliation commissions to deal with past traumas and promote positive peace. In a recent example. the organization is opting for strategic patience. accused OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro of “staging a coup d’etat" and stirring-up civil unrest in Venezuela. Instead. and Peru. the OAS has also played a role in mediating territorial disputes between Belize and Guatemala. in 2010. whom it labels a dictator. the UN cannot afford to take on another large-scale mission. provide expertise. in response. albeit very quietly and usually only on request. They are distinct from mediators. The United Nations’ approach has been even less active. Venezuela remains a member. The reality is that the UN is focused heavily on armed conflicts elsewhere. BRING IN THE GUARANTORS Latin America has a long history of conflict prevention and resolution. is guarantor states. And. in 2014. among others. They are often unencumbered by the rigid protocols and divisive politics of regional organizations. Washington. Mexico. and Guyana and Surinam. the Middle East. Maduro accused Colombia. given substantial budget cuts implemented after the US reduced its contributions. and more generally. especially in Africa. to ramp up pressure on the regime. in the 1980s. has slapped sanctions on Maduro. Since the 1980s. Arguably the single most potent conflict prevention innovation. and Central Asia. but its Foreign Minister. Brazil. guarantor states (in partnership with multilateral organizations) have played a central. There is no shortage of creative and effective tools in the region to help de-escalate tensions and avoid descent into war. build confidence among parties. Although it has no explicit mandate for preventing conflict. Guatemala. which included a nuclear arms race. UNASUR also mediated a dispute between Colombia and Venezuela. The organization has stated that solutions to the Venezuelan crisis cannot be imposed from the outside. Argentina and Brazil resolved their geopolitical rivalry. The process culminated in the formation of new verification mechanisms and led to the voluntary dismantlement of both nuclear arms programs. So far. Its refugee agency. lend momentum and credibility to peace talks. Occasionally. More recently. guarantors ensure that the terms of the negotiations and a final agreement are met. role in shaping peace processes. which act as third parties to actively assist negotiations to end a conflict. As important as these international and regional mechanisms are. and the United States of conspiring to oust him from power. Samuel Moncada. the UNHCR. if discreet. For example. guarantors help jumpstart negotiations. Chile and Peru settled a longstanding maritime dispute through the International Court of Justice. manage logistics and resources. .the organization. they also provide solutions to impasses. coming out of Latin America in the past few decades. Argentina. Far from being passive bystanders.

Whatever states and entities come to the table. build bridges. whether by hosting dialogues or by continuing to reform its refugee and immigration capabilities. In 1998. of course. have accumulated considerable experience in facilitating dialogue through guarantors. It is also worth recalling that Venezuela served as a guarantor state for Colombia’s complex peace process. Brazil could also play a constructive role. four countries—Cuba and Norway as guarantors. Many of the world’s most intractable armed conflicts were triggered by far less dramatic circumstances than the current crisis in Venezuela. and for Venezuela to consider accepting. Norway. Chile. Meanwhile. the process will be challenging. Guarantors could help catalyze and advance dialogues between the Maduro regime and the opposition. VENEZUELAN SOLUTION Venezuela is dangerously close to slipping over the precipice. And. and Venezuela) have served as witnesses and sounding boards.Latin American guarantors have a decent record of facilitating negotiations in both inter-state and internal conflicts. there is still a window of opportunity for preventive diplomacy. As hard as it is to imagine. host talks. Even so. gently pushing talks with Bogotá along. Chile. in Colombia. in spite of political and economic turmoil at home. It is time for Latin American solutions to Latin American problems. While the path ahead is uncertain. including Cuba. they can bear witness. It may involve high-level closed talks facilitated by Cuba and a collection of other countries in the region. after repeated failures to broker a peace deal with the FARC. and Venezuela and Chile as facilitators—adopted a new approach. Ecuador. The point is that Latin America is a region rich with experience in resolving its own tensions. The mobilization of guarantor states would be especially palatable for Venezuela. Cuba. an exit is still possible. some countries. catalyze new thinking. as Ecuador has suggested. It is time for Latin American solutions to Latin American problems. Brazil. the treaty ending a century-old dispute between Ecuador and Peru had the support of four guarantors. . As for Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) in Colombia. Guarantors are no panacea. and accompany the process. The consequences of a full-blown civil war would be dramatic for the region. with potentially dramatic spillover effects. six guarantor states (Brazil. as in the case of Colombia. since any negotiations would be nationally-led. It may be time for Colombia to consider reciprocating. Given testy relations between Venezuela and its neighbors. Maduro. could play a support role. such as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) or UNASUR. in spite of extreme political differences between former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. and the United States. Argentina. and the government of Colombian President Manuel Santos. Perhaps a trusted regional entity. especially if parties are staunchly opposed to any form of dialogue.