How to Avoid Civil War in Venezuela

On July 16, more than seven million Venezuelans voted in a plebiscite that emphatically rejected President Nicolás Maduro’s plans to convene a Constituent Assembly to rewrite the Constitution. It was a remarkable showing for a D.I.Y. electoral event and included robust, if nervous, turnout in the working-class districts that were once strongholds for Mr. Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez.

Since the plebiscite, Venezuela’s opposition has taken steps toward establishing a parallel government. This might remain a symbolic initiative. But if the opposition continues down this road, itwill soon be looking for international recognition and funding, and will at least implicitly be asserting the parallel government’s claim to the legitimate monopoly on the use of force. After that itwill seek what every government wants: weapons to defend itself. If it succeeds, Venezuela could plunge into a civil war that will make the current conflict seem like high school fisticuffs.

It is hard to blame the opposition for considering the path of parallel government. Almost four months of street protests against Mr. Maduro’s dictatorship have resulted in 100 deaths. Hopes that the Organization of American States could enforce its Democratic Charter have been repeatedly dashed. And the Maduro government, with a Leninist tenacity that sees struggle as the opportunity to consolidate its project, refuses to withdraw its plans.

The response of the Trump administration has been to suggest that it is looking to add names to the existing program of United States sanctions, and is considering broader economic sanctions. But such unilateral sanctions will almost certainly make Venezuela’s already dire situation worse.

Extending the list of Venezuelan officials who are under United States sanctions will only help the Venezuelan government solidify its inner circle. The seven people put on the sanctions list in 2015 have become indispensable players at the highest levels in the regime, as has Vice President Tareck El Aissami, placed on the list in February. The one high-level official who has broken with the Maduro government, Attorney General Luisa Ortega, has had her actions completely neutralized by a Supreme Court whose core members were added to the list in May.

One of the people apparently next to be added is Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López. He has long been considered a potential weak link within the regime and has been treated with some suspicion by Mr. Maduro. If Mr. Padrino is put on the list, the president will be able to count on his loyalty to the very end.

Punishing Venezuela’s oil industry would be much worse. It would impose significant suffering on Venezuelan citizens, many of whom are now hanging on only by a thread, and potentially cause a refugee crisis. Mr. Maduro and his inner circle will continue to eat well and will use United States sanctions to fortify the main trope they use to explain their governance disaster: The United States and other imperial powers are engaging in an economic war against Venezuela. Such a measure would also encourage its neighbors to rally around Venezuela in solidarity and could potentially make the country into a Russian client state. United States economic sanctions would likely bolster Chavismo in Venezuela for the next 55 years, just as they did for the Castros in Cuba.

So what can be done? The Organization of American States discussion helped focus attention on Venezuela but has run its course. At this point, any proposals that the O.A.S. puts forward will simply be rejected by the Maduro government. What must happen is much simpler than an O.A.S. vote. A group of friends needs to emerge from an initiative by four to six Latin American countries.

There are no perfect partners; all relevant countries are either too close to the Maduro government or too close to the opposition.

But nations such as Uruguay, Ecuador, Colombia, Chile, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador could work together on a package that appeals to both sides. Perhaps a European country with a known trajectory for mediation and conflict resolution could provide some external input. Special representatives from the Vatican, the United Nations or the European Union could also be important participants in a negotiation, especially in monitoring fulfillment of any agreements that are reached.

Negotiations should take place outside Venezuela, perhaps through shuttle diplomacy. They have to include an exit plan for Chavista leaders and assurances that the still considerable support for Chavismo in Venezuela will receive representation.

The United States must stay at the margins. The Trump administration can certainly do a lot to facilitate logistics and diplomacy around the negotiations. However, it must refrain from trying to lead and must resist adopting distracting unilateral actions.

Such an effort should be backed by a threat of consequences. Countries in the region need to coordinate and speak with one voice, saying they will not recognize as legitimate Mr. Maduro’s Constituent Assembly, the Constitution it writes, nor the government it creates. This will make it difficult for Venezuela to get financing and make clear to the Maduro government’s leaders that they are better off negotiating. Any sanctions to be considered must be collective, if not from within a multilateral agency then from a significant group of countries in the region.

In the end, this problem has to be resolved by Venezuelans themselves. But if major players in the region can make clear that Mr. Maduro’s crass power grab is unacceptable at the same time that they are proposing a way forward, it could lead to a breakthrough.

David Smilde is professor of sociology at Tulane University and a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America.

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