The Venezuelan government and the opposition coalition known as the Unitary Platform have signed a major humanitarian agreement in Mexico City, while the United States has agreed to relax elements of its financial sanctions, marking the formal restart of political negotiations after a fourteen-month suspension. As the negotiation process enters a new phase, the United States and international stakeholders should lend their full support and encourage the parties to engage the voices of civil society in order to maximize the chances of success.
Press reports suggest that representatives of the government of Nicolás Maduro and the opposition coalition Plataforma Unitaria are scheduled to announce an agreement to unfreeze and allocate nearly $3 billion of Venezuelan funds for humanitarian aid. The UN will directly monitor this aid, prioritizing access to essential health care and medicines, combating child malnutrition, and restoring electricity and other critical infrastructure.
This deal could have a significant impact on the country’s long-suffering population. The UN has estimated that seven million people, approximately 25% of Venezuelans, are in need of humanitarian assistance. Venezuelan humanitarian organizations suggest that the population in need is even larger, with surveys stating that as many as 19 million need help. Across the country, patients are desperate for life-saving care, forcing them to turn to a crumbling public health system. Children from slums show signs of stunting due to malnutrition. Access to electricity and running water remains patchy, especially in low-income areas in the interior of Venezuela.
To support this humanitarian agreement – and to push for broader negotiations – the Biden Administration has agreed to recalibrate its sanctions policy. Although the extensive oil and financial sanctions will remain, the Treasury Department will grant a license to the US oil company Chevron to import Venezuelan oil into the United States.
The Biden government will retain significant influence that it can use to encourage future agreements in this process. This license will not allow an increase in drilling activities, nor will it allow direct cash payments to the state oil company PDVSA; rather, the oil shipments would serve to pay off the government’s outstanding debt to Chevron.
This resumption is the result of months of talks. This year there has been constant communication between the Maduro government and the opposition, facilitated by Norway and supported by the United States. The talks have remained largely confidential until now, under the reality that they are complicated, sensitive and could fall apart at any moment.
However, closed-door negotiations come at a cost, which has been reflected in public opinion. When the heads of government and opposition negotiating teams appeared together in public in Caracas, Oslo and Paris over the past eight months, widespread skepticism and a lack of public communication fueled speculation and rumors.
Perhaps the most common misperception is that this negotiation, in reality, has been between the Biden Administration and the Maduro Government, with the opposition excluded from the discussion. But this is misinformed: the Biden government has participated with the opposition throughout the negotiation process. In fact, for the past six months, opposition negotiators have been sitting across from Maduro’s representatives to work out the details.
Another misperception is that the humanitarian agreement and license extension are the ultimate goals of the negotiation: In reality, these agreements are seen as confidence-building measures – “short mangos” to drive the process forward. In fact, the parties frame this agreement as part of the seven-point agenda established when this process began in August 2021, which includes the resolution of the humanitarian crisis, as well as the conditions for the holding of free and fair elections, the restoration of the rule of law and reparation for victims.
Skepticism and misperceptions are understandable. This is the fifth negotiation process with international support in Venezuela in the last eight years, and in all of them significant agreements have not been reached. There are also no guarantees this time that an agreement can be reached that restores the fundamental right of Venezuelans to free and fair elections, or that addresses the rights of victims to truth, justice and guarantees of non-repetition.
But there are ways to maximize the chances of success. One way to make it harder for both sides to leave the table is to make sure that the Venezuelan public is active in and engaged in the process. As we enter a new phase, it is essential that the negotiations be attractive to the whole of Venezuelan society, and that international participants and supporters better inform the Venezuelan public about how these talks can shape the future of their country.
It is equally important to create channels for direct or indirect participation, just as the peace process in Colombia incorporated victims and groups of victims. Conflict resolution experts have consistently found a correlation between the success of agreements and the degree of involvement of civil society in the talks. While the negotiating teams have agreed in theory to create “consultation mechanisms”, it remains unclear how they will engage with other stakeholders, such as victims or human rights organizations, let alone whether those perspectives will be taken into account in any future deal. While the United States and other international governments continue to support the progress of the negotiations, it is essential that they urge the parties to broaden their commitment to Venezuelan society.