Last month’s preliminary talks between representatives of Venezuela’s government and the democratic opposition, facilitated by the government of Norway and held in that country, are an important first step toward a democratic transition. Norway is well placed to take the lead in facilitating negotiations; it has considerable experience, expertise and international respect for its scrupulous and impartial approach to conflict resolution.
Solutions to bitter conflicts are possible when circumstances convince key actors on both sides that negotiating a change of regime on mutually acceptable terms is preferable to a painful stalemate. At that point, effective local leadership, backed by strong international support, can forge agreements that work.
The divisions within Nicolás Maduro’s coalition laid bare during the failed April 30 uprising, coupled with Juan Guaidó’s unsuccessful call for the support of the armed forces, may have finally persuaded key people on both sides that the only viable way forward is a negotiated transition.
Those who seek to achieve a durable transition from authoritarian rule to democratic governance should exercise strategic patience. This can be a hard ask of Venezuelans, who are experiencing widespread suffering and displacement. Combating an authoritarian regime in close coordination with efforts to negotiate a peaceful transition requires discipline, while acting purposefully on distinct issues along multiple timelines simultaneously.
Many remain skeptical of “dialogue,” but negotiation and compromise between the conflicting parties is key. To explore whether such compromises can be achieved requires creating space and other conditions for discreet conversations, even while confrontations between the incumbent regime and the opposition continue. Opposition leaders need to explain why negotiating with the government makes sense, confronting predictable criticism, while not raising expectations too high, too fast.
The opposition should mobilize civic protests to challenge the regime but at the same time concentrate on improving its leverage through realistic demands and concessions. This sometimes requires more political courage than clinging to attractive but impractical principles. Although Mr. Guaidó’s three-part sequence — end of usurpation, transition government and elections — is very popular, his coalition must be flexible and make hard choices about priorities.
The coalition must also help create the conditions that induce key figures within the authoritarian regime to support transition. This means ensuring that wholesale revenge against the former rulers and their main supporters will not be taken and that certain economic and other interests of established power centers will be respected within the rule of law. It is not easy to reconcile such assurances with the expectations of the long-repressed opposition, but concrete efforts to do so are necessary.
Inclusionary procedures should engage all key players, rather than insisting on specific outcomes up front. Modes of interim and medium-term power sharing should include key officials of the Maduro regime and the armed forces, key leaders of the democratic opposition and representatives of Venezuela’s economic sector and its civil society.
Accepting Gen. Augusto Pinochet as senator for life and as commander in chief of the armed forces for eight years helped broker Chile’s transition. Naming members of the Communist Party as ministers of defense and the interior facilitated the Polish transition. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela’s appointment of F.W. de Klerk as deputy president was one of several pragmatic steps that made a historic change possible.
It is encouraging that in Venezuela each side sent relative moderates to begin the discussions in Norway. To find a way forward, opposition leaders must now sublimate their own differences and rivalries. This may require confronting those who are too skeptical of negotiations to undertake it in good faith, as well as rejecting the participation of those who encourage violence or external intervention. The incumbent regime must also constrain those who favor violent repression, as was done in Chile, Spain, South Africa, Brazil and elsewhere.
Those who seek to make a democratic transition must project an attractive, optimistic, inclusive and credible vision of the future that can help ordinary people overcome pervasive frustration and crippling fear and enable them to embrace positive change. Negotiations should concentrate on identifying and pursuing the interests all parties have in common before trying to resolve what divides them.
Processes of transitional justice must be carefully created to address or commemorate human rights violations without inviting revenge or risking a return to repression. Finding an approach that recognizes victims and restores justice without returning to mutual intolerance and exclusion must be a high priority.
A key challenge in democratic transitions is to bring the armed forces, the police and other security institutions under democratic civilian authority while recognizing their legitimate roles, their appropriate claim on some level of resources and their need to be protected from reprisals. Trying to replace security forces lock, stock and barrel is likely to be disastrous, as was the case in Iraq.
Claims that most of Venezuela’s military officials are deeply corrupt don’t take into account that some may still honor the codes and vocation of the professional armed forces. Subjecting all security and intelligence forces to firm civilian control will require constant vigilance and the gradual construction of trust. Vague references to eventual amnesties and reconciliation are not enough; detailed plans must be drafted in consultation with affected parties.
Democratic transitions are primarily achieved by domestic forces and processes, but they can be assisted by strategic international involvement. International players clearly have their own interests and priorities. They should not be expected or asked to resolve internal issues, nor should they try to displace domestic individuals, who should take and retain the lead. Military intervention would only bring more violence, destruction and hostility. It would also exacerbate the regional migration crisis. Threats of military force tend to silence moderates and lead hard-liners to dig in.
The international community should now exercise skillful diplomacy and willingness to help Venezuela move forward. Norway can help the parties find space and procedures for negotiation, but support will be necessary from other countries and multilateral bodies, as well as assurances from countries and international agencies that they will provide assistance for reconstructing Venezuela’s economy and reintegrating the country into global trade and investment; facilitating and monitoring negotiations and the processes of transitional justice; and if requested, providing technical assistance and monitoring for eventual free, fair and credible elections.
The United States government should explore and help reinforce the interests that other international powers — including China, Russia and Cuba — actually share with the United States in a stable Venezuela with a recovering economy, a healthy petroleum industry, reduced violence and effective governance. That outcome should be welcomed by all Venezuelans and the entire international community.
Abraham F. Lowenthal is a professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, and the founding director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Latin American Program and the Inter-American Dialogue. David Smilde is a professor of human relations at Tulane University and a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America.
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