As the crisis in Venezuela enters its third week, many well-intentioned observers are seeking a middle way. To prevent civil war, they say, the opposition and dictator should compromise.
Mexico and Uruguay have offered to mediate the conflict between strongman Nicolas Maduro and Juan Guaido, whom most of the Western Hemisphere regards as Venezuela’s president. Greece has also said it supports negotiations.
Two well-respected economists identified as “experts in Latin America” are recommending an interim government that includes the loyalists and opposition. Even Maduro himself has said he would sit down with Guaido and accept new elections for the National Assembly.
A good example of this be-willing-to-compromise argument can be found in a recent op-ed from Sen. Chris Murphy and Ben Rhodes, who was deputy national security adviser under President Barack Obama. They worry President Donald Trump’s “chest thumping” declaration that recognized Guaido as interim president will erode US credibility if Maduro does not soon leave power. A better approach, they say, would be to continue to sanction Maduro and his inner circle, while “working with international partners” to support negotiations for an interim government and new elections. Included in these negotiations, Murphy and Rhodes write, should be Cuba and China, which can influence Maduro.
Granted, this approach is distinct from the more pernicious pledges of solidarity to Maduro from Russia, Cuba and various other stooges in the West. Those calling for dialogue in Venezuela today recognize, indirectly if not explicitly, Maduro’s illegitimacy. They are not making any excuses for his misrule.
Nonetheless, this chorus of compromisers is undermining Venezuelan democracy and risks prolonging the very conflict they seek to resolve. It’s worth explaining how and why.
Internationalizing Venezuela’s internal conflict ignores the strong constitutional reasons why Maduro is illegitimate. The country’s Supreme Court in exile has guided Guaido since Jan. 9, when Maduro’s first term as president expired and left the presidency vacant. Guaido invoked the clause in Venezuela’s constitution that spells out the role the legislature should play when the presidency is vacated.
The key point is that Maduro’s sham election -- which barred most of the opposition and was widely deplored as illegitimate by most of the hemisphere -- did not make him president. On this point there can be no negotiation.
Beyond that, any “national dialogue” would only play into Maduro’s hands. This is not the first time he has pretended to be willing to compromise when faced with widespread protest. That’s what happened in the spring of 2017, after Maduro’s hand-picked Supreme Court effectively dissolved the National Assembly and assumed its powers. Maduro got the court to review its ruling, and it was revised, but he retained the power to overrule the National Assembly.
“Dialogue is a way for Maduro to quiet the streets,” says Vanessa Neumann, a Venezuelan-born writer and the founder of Asymmetrica, a risk consultancy firm. In the past Maduro has promised to release political prisoners and to allow international observers to monitor elections -- only to later renege on his promise.
Finally, an international peace process for Venezuela right now would undermine the momentum building against Maduro. On Monday several European countries joined America, Canada and most of Latin America in recognizing Guaido as interim president. This was after Maduro failed to agree to new elections by Sunday, a deadline the European Union gave him last month.
The cascade of Western democracies recognizing Guaido sends a strong message to the Venezuelan military, too. It’s telling that Maduro did not give the order this past weekend to disperse crowds of protesters with violence. It suggests that he knows that most of his army would not follow it.
“The transition in Venezuela has begun,” says David Smolansky, a member of Guaido’s opposition party and former mayor of El Hatillo. He told me he expects more military defections in the coming days. Members of the armed forces, he notes, are facing the same problems as other Venezuelans.
This is why Trump’s approach, to follow the lead of Guaido and the National Assembly, is for the best. At this point, the only issue to discuss with Maduro is how and when he will leave office.
By Eli Lake
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. -- Ed.