Tuesday, October 3, 2023

The EU’s role in restoring democracy in Venezuela

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The question that remains unanswered after Juan Guiado’s recent visit to Brussels is what should be the EU’s role in resolving the crisis in Venezuela.

Venezuela, once the most prosperous and stable democracy in Latin America, has now descended into chaos after twenty years of the so-called “Bolivarian Revolution” that was launched by the country’s late socialist president, Hugo Chavez. In economic terms, Venezuela has reached 10 million percent of hyperinflation, which is the highest inflation rate in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund. In practical terms this means that 94% of Venezuelans do not have enough income to pay for basic food, according to the Organization of American States.

As if that was not enough economic catastrophe, Chavez’s policy of expropriation and nationalisation of private industries and businesses has crippled Venezuela’s industry to the critical point of unprecedented shortages of basic food, medicine, electricity, and employment.

This is one of the root causes of Venezuela having the world’s highest homicide rate per capita and of the 5 million Venezuelans looking for refuge across the world – the largest displacement of people in the Americas, according to International Organization for Migration.

Social unrest has erupted. The regime of Chavez’s hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, has decided to crack down on any protest against him with full force. The death toll of the peaceful protesters in the streets of Caracas goes into the thousands, including students as young as fourteen years old. Maduro was up for re-election in 2018, but not before banning all major political parties, popular candidates, and conditioning social benefits to participating in the election. Almost all of the countries of the Americas declared the results of the election a fraud, as well as the European Union. On January 5, 2019, the National Assembly, which is controlled by the Venezuelan opposition, proclaimed its president, Juan Guaido, as interim president of Venezuela and called for new presidential elections within 30 days, as is allowed in the Venezuelan constitution.

More than 50 countries, including most European countries, fully recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president. Washington toughened up its sanctions against the Maduro regime, thinking they were pushing him out of power. Many predicted that after Guaido was recognised, Maduro’s regime would vanish in a matter of hours. But that did not occur. In fact, everyone miscalculated and Maduro’s close ties with the drug cartels have transformed his regime into a Narco State.

Venezuela’s generals and high commanders are closely involved in massive drug deals. Sanctions have barricaded most corrupt officials in Caracas and in the space of a few months, drug money has created an economic bubble. US dollars are now overflowing and high-end stores, luxury cars, products, and goods can be found in new shops across town.

The Cartel de los Soles, the name given to the high military-rank officials involved in the drug business, is unable to support any democratic transition because of fears of future criminal persecution if they switch sides. Terrorist groups such as FARC, ELN, and Heztbola have used the opportunity to expand their operations across a gold-rich area of Venezuela. Illegal mining has not only destroyed the ecosystem of this part of the Amazon, but has also helped finance these terrorist operations. All this has occurred without mentioning that Russia has given full support to Maduro’s regime. Military equipment, including airplanes and Russian military personnel, have arrived in Venezuela to defy Washington’s foreign policy in the region.

It is undeniable that Venezuelans are in desperate need of change. However, the possibility of holding free and fair elections in this context is almost an illusion. Guaido’s efforts are not enough to fulfill his promises and Venezuelans are beginning to lose faith in a peaceful solution.

The European Union, as a major player on the world stage, has a vital role to play in Venezuela’s future. Indeed, Venezuela’s crisis has become a significant test of its capacity to act effectively during these challenging times. The EU tried to find a negotiated solution. The International Contact Group, which includes eight EU members and four Latin American countries, also attempted to facilitate a dialogue and a peaceful solution but it has been unsuccessful. Many negotiations have been tried in the past, including the mediation of the Vatican and Norway. All of these failed because Maduro’s regime will not allow any presidential election until 2025.

Guiado’s trip to Brussels brought back the question of what role the EU is going to play in Venezuela. The “naming and shaming” diplomatic principle has not been effective. The other option of EU sanctions has failed. This is due to the lack of information among member states on how and where money laundered from Venezuela is coming to Europe making it very difficult to enforce tougher sanctions on corrupt individuals that support the Maduro regime. A new approach must be found.

With new leaders at the helm of the European Union institutions, an opportunity has emerged to stand up for democracy and the rule of law in Venezuela. The recent non-binding resolution of the European Parliament that reaffirms support for Juan Guaido as the legitimate President and condemns attempts by the Maduro regime to prevent him from swearing in as President of the National Assembly is a step in the right direction.

The recent International Solidarity Conference on the Venezuelan Refugee and Migrant Crisis held in Brussels was an important attempt to bring countries and international organizations together to commit to finding a real solution to this crisis, but efforts will have to be vamped up dramatically at the follow-up conference this year if a real impact is to be seen.

The time has come to step up the European Union’s response. Guaido’s legitimate presidency must be fully recognised by all of the members of the EU at the Council of the European Union. This would lead to unprecedent isolation for the Maduro regime as his operatives in Europe would have to pack up their bags and return to Caracas. Diplomats from Guaido’s team would then be able to start tracking those corrupt individuals using Europe for their money laundering operations on-the-ground, as in the case in Bulgaria where corrupt Venezuelan officials embezzled more than $60 million from Venezuela’s state-owned oil company.

The EU must join the call of several countries including Canada, Colombia and France to the International Criminal Court to investigate Maduro’s regime for crimes against humanity. As the biggest economic bloc in the world, the European Union must crack down on the Venezuelan gold trade that is linked to illegal mining, supporting terrorist groups and has helped consolidate the Maduro regime.

By having a unified position on Venezuela, the EU has a strong mandate to coordinate its position with regional partners and have a stronger voice to pressure Maduro and his regime to allow electoral conditions that can lead to free and fair presidential elections. Ultimately, Venezuela cannot achieve a democratic transition alone. Just as Europe once needed North and South America; the Americas, in this case Venezuela, now needs Europe.

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