Over the past two weeks, the United States, with the support of several countries in Latin America, has recognized the government of Juan Guaidó, the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, and given it control over the country’s oil revenues. By doing so, it has entered a dangerous game of chicken with the Venezuelan military: Abandon President Nicolás Maduro or face the devastation of the Venezuelan economy. The message is stark: Change regime or starve.
The United States is acting with typical bravado, assuming that all will be over soon: Mr. Maduro will leave, sanctions will be lifted and Venezuela and the United States will benefit. Mr. Maduro is widely despised inside and outside Venezuela, so many countries are falling in line with the Trump administration’s gambit.
The risks of this approach, however, are extraordinary. The United States government is making several assumptions: that the military is on the verge of changing sides; that it will do so in a disciplined manner; that Mr. Maduro lacks popular support; that Venezuela’s foreign allies, notably China, Cuba and Russia, lack the interest, will and means to support their ally; and that bygones will be bygones after a quick regime change.
These assumptions might prove to be correct, but could easily be incorrect. The Venezuelan military might prove to be hardened supporters of Mr. Maduro or splinter into pro-Maduro and anti-Maduro forces. Chavista popular forces might rally behind Chavismo’s leadership, despite pervasive starvation and hyperinflation. Civil violence could erupt. Mr. Maduro’s foreign allies might find the means to defend their own interests — for example, their claims on Venezuela’s oil — by supporting him or delaying regime change.
The United States’ track record of fomenting regime change is very poor. In Afghanistan, incredibly, it is negotiating a peace agreement with the Taliban after 18 years of a United States-led war to defeat the Taliban. Interventions in Iraq, Syria and Libya have also led to continuous strife. There is no guarantee that Venezuela would be any different.
The spiral of violence and chaos could start imminently. By commandeering Venezuela’s only lifeline to food supplies and oil field equipment, the United States has lit the fuse. By the Trump administration’s own estimates, sanctions will cost Venezuela’s economy $11 billion in lost oil revenue in the next year, which is equal to 94 percent of what the country spent last year in goods imports. The result is likely to be an economic and humanitarian catastrophe of a dimension never seen in our hemisphere.
We strongly urge an alternative approach, based on seeking a peaceful and negotiated transition of power rather than a winner-take-all game of chicken. We start from the proposition that the people of Venezuela should not be the victims of a power struggle between Mr. Maduro and the opposition, nor between the external backers of the two sides.
As much as Mr. Maduro’s foes hate to admit, and indeed find repellent, Chavismo still carries some political weight in the society and among the military. We therefore recommend a compromise solution rather than a fight to the finish. One of us recently wrote about a key historical case — Poland in 1989 — where two bitter foes, the existing Communist regime and the opposition Solidarity movement, agreed to cohabit in the government for a two-year transition period until future presidential elections. Leaders in both the government and opposition in Venezuela have expressed interest in negotiations, yet each side is also being encouraged by outside allies to ride out the struggle without compromise.
None of the foregoing is meant to excuse or deny the atrocious mismanagement of the country by the government of Nicolás Maduro, nor the serious evidence of multiple and systematic human rights violations by his forces. Yet we do not need to let the justifiable outrage at these abuses lead us blindly into a protracted conflict that could only increase the suffering of Venezuelans. What we need is an understanding that negotiation and compromise are key to a peaceful solution.
We urge all sides of the political battle to find common ground to prevent bloodshed, starvation, millions more refugees or political solutions dictated by outside forces. We believe that the world, and especially the country’s neighbors, should listen to Venezuelans themselves. The United States could eventually get its way in a winner-take-all struggle, but at the grave risk of the extreme suffering of millions of Venezuelans — beyond the great suffering to date.
As a first step, we recommend that Chavismo and opposition forces join to insist that the state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela’s earnings be put to the immediate disposal of the Venezuelan people for two urgent uses: food and medicine, and oil field equipment and maintenance to keep the Venezuelan economy from collapsing. The use of these funds should be guided by a joint committee of the government and the National Assembly, with United Nations support. Mr. Guaidó, who has been handed Venezuela’s oil earnings by United States decisions, should immediately suggest such a solution in the interest of the nation’s survival and peace.
Second, both sides should agree to an interim government of experts to help bring Venezuela’s hyperinflation and economic collapse to an end. This interim government should have a limited mandate for economic stabilization and recovery, to carry the nation to new elections within one to two years. Leaders of the current government, possibly including Mr. Maduro, would play a limited and predetermined role in the interim government — for example retaining control of national defense — but their powers would be circumscribed and would not include the economy and reform of the electoral system.
The agreement should also include the appointment of new independent electoral authorities, which would be tasked with rebuilding the country’s electoral institutions in order to make a free and fair election possible. The international community, backed by the United Nations Security Council, should support such stabilization efforts and accept that elections would take place only after the end of the hyperinflation and the reform of electoral institutions, when social and political conditions are suitable.
Third, the transition government and the framework for future elections should be based on respect for the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary, and the protection of human rights. Venezuela’s neighbors, above all, should champion negotiation and compromise rather than winner-take-all politics. Venezuela’s recovery, healing and peace are the nation’s, and the region’s, most urgent needs.
Francisco Rodríguez is chief economist at Torino Economics. Jeffrey D. Sachs is University Professor at Columbia University.