‘Very difficult’: Challenges abound after summit on Venezuela

Conference in Colombian capital marks positive step, analysts say, but quick fix to Venezuelan crisis unlikely.

Participants in the conference sit next to each other with flags in the background
Participants in this week's conference in Bogota, Colombia, on the political crisis in neighbouring Venezuela said that further talks are needed to make progress on issues such as election transparency and sanctions [Christina Noriega/Al Jazeera]

Bogota, Colombia – The conference on Venezuela’s political crisis, convened this week by Colombian President Gustavo Petro, had an ambitious goal: to relaunch stalled talks between the Venezuelan government and the opposition ahead of presidential elections next year.

But after the five-hour meeting in Bogota on Tuesday, diplomats from 19 countries and the European Union had difficulty coming up with a concrete plan on how to get both sides back to the table, political analysts said, raising questions about what comes next.

“The points of agreement represent more or less where the international community was before the conference,” Carolina Jimenez, president of the Washington Office on Latin America think tank, told Al Jazeera about the outcome of the talks.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government, which oversaw 2018 presidential elections that were widely considered illegitimate, has been accused of suppressing opposition voices – a campaign that some fear could ramp up before the elections in 2024.

Meanwhile, the international community and the Venezuelan opposition have agreed that a free and fair vote could help resolve the crisis in the country, which has seen a mass exodus amid political instability and socioeconomic hardships.

But this week’s summit failed to outline a clear way to reactivate talks in Mexico that have been stalled since late last year. Instead, points that had already been agreed to were reiterated: the need to hold free elections and to resume negotiations, and the easing of sanctions on Venezuela.

“It was obviously very difficult that in five hours something as complex as the Venezuelan crisis would have been solved,” Jimenez said.

Maduro gov’t demands

The global energy crisis caused by the war in Ukraine, the massive exodus of more than seven million migrants and refugees from Venezuela, and a political shift towards the left in Latin America have put pressure on the international community to support the talks held in Mexico since 2021.

Analysts said the conference in Colombia’s capital, which neither the Venezuelan government nor the opposition were invited to attend, helped firm up that support, but it also showed that any quick fixes to the Venezuelan crisis are unlikely.

“None of this isn’t going to be resolved quickly,” said Ligia Bolivar, an analyst at the human rights group, AlertaVenezuela. “It’s a process.”

While observers lauded the United States’s decision to send a high-level delegation, as well as President Petro’s new role in helping to promote dialogue, Maduro’s response to the conference deflated any expectations of a prompt return to negotiations.

In a statement released by the Venezuelan Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Tuesday, the Maduro government outlined its conditions for restarting talks, including the release of Venezuelan diplomat Alex Saab, who is jailed in the US on money laundering charges, and the creation of a multibillion-dollar humanitarian fund that was agreed to in the last round of political discussions.

Both sides had agreed in November to unfreeze $3bn held in foreign banks to create a United Nations-administered fund that would provide humanitarian relief to impoverished Venezuelans and repair the country’s crumbling energy grid.

Colombian President Gustavo Petro addresses the conference
Colombian President Gustavo Petro, third from right, speaks at the conference in Bogota on April 25, 2023 [Christina Noriega/Al Jazeera]

It is still unclear, however, when the funds would be available, and analysts have said that unfreezing the assets could take time.

Meanwhile, the foreign ministry statement omitted any mention of upcoming elections, which experts said appeared to show the Maduro government’s reluctance to negotiate fair voting terms.

“The space for negotiation is still limited,” Bolivar told Al Jazeera. “They [the government] ask and ask, but have not accepted the possibility of talking about concessions.”

Fragmented opposition

Luis Salamanca, a political science professor at the Central University of Venezuela in the capital of Caracas, attributed that reluctance to the possibility of Maduro losing in the event of fair elections.

“They don’t want to negotiate because they don’t want to risk the possibility of having power taken away from them,” Salamanca told Al Jazeera.

In 2018, Maduro won the presidency after barring opposition figures from participating. When the legislature determined the elections to be illegitimate, Juan Guiado, then a prominent lawmaker, declared himself interim president.

The international community widely backed Guiado, recognising the opposition leader as the rightful head of state, cutting relations with Maduro, and applying new sanctions.

But as Maduro held on to power, the opposition fragmented. In December, the opposition voted to dissolve the interim government led by Guiado as some countries in the region, such as Colombia and Peru, restored diplomatic relations with Maduro.

In a sign of his dwindling power, Guiado crossed into Colombia on Monday to protest the summit in Bogota and the lifting of sanctions, but was quickly escorted by Colombian officials to the airport, where the opposition figure boarded a plane to Florida.

That change in the international approach to Venezuela has given Maduro a second wind and leverage when negotiating in Mexico, said Ronal Rodriguez, a researcher at Rosario University’s Venezuela Observatory in Bogota.

“Maduro has defeated the ‘maximum pressure’ strategy led by the United States, Colombia [under former right-wing President Ivan Duque], and Brazil, and feels that he has favourable conditions to help him negotiate,” Rodriguez told Al Jazeera.

Guiado’s act of protest also demonstrated significant differences in opinion within the opposition.

One side believed that talks and lifting sanctions on Venezuela will only help to empower Maduro, while the another, supported by the international community, considered lifting sanctions – in return for fair elections – as part of a solution to the political crisis.

‘An opportunity’

Meanwhile, amid the continuing split on the prospect of returning to negotiations, the opposition has moved to unite in the lead-up to next year’s election, scheduling a primary in October that would determine Maduro’s main challenger.

Some contenders, such as Henrique Capriles and Guiado, have decided to compete in the primaries despite being disqualified from participating in elections. If elected, they would be barred by the National Electoral Council from registering as a presidential candidate.

According to Jimenez at the Washington Office on Latin America, moving forward with the presidential elections without the rightful winner of the primaries, as well as a series of other guarantees, could further destabilise the country.

While the exact terms for a level playing field are yet to be determined by negotiators, the European Union suggested 23 reforms after observing Venezuela’s 2021 regional elections.

These recommendations (PDF), which were mentioned at the Bogota conference, include greater independence for Venezuela’s highest court and balance in state-owned media coverage of electoral campaigns.

“If the elections are not held with the guarantees that we would like to see, we could be talking about another six-year term mired in a deep political conflict,” Jimenez said. “We have to fight to turn these elections into an opportunity and not a continuation of the crisis.”

Source: Al Jazeera