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The EU Tries and Fails Again on Venezuela

Instead of issuing limp statements, Europe should join Washington to get Maduro’s regime to negotiate with the democratic opposition.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro speaks during a press conference at Miraflores Palace in Caracas on Feb. 14, 2020.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro speaks during a press conference at Miraflores Palace in Caracas on Feb. 14, 2020. Carolina Cabral/Getty Images

Achieving unity among the European Union’s 27 member states is always a challenge. But that is hardly an excuse for the scale of disappointment presented by EU foreign ministers with their joint statement on Venezuela last week.

To be sure, it contains many good lines. The EU repeats its clear condemnation of the phony Dec. 6 Venezuelan parliamentary elections. They “failed to comply with the international standards for a democratic process,” the ministers wrote. “As a consequence, the EU cannot recognise this electoral process as credible, inclusive or transparent, and thus its outcome cannot be considered as representative of the democratic will of the Venezuelan people.” The EU also lays the blame squarely in the right place: The actions of President Nicolás Maduro’s regime have “persistently prevented the resolution of the profound political crisis in Venezuela.” So far, so good.

But then the trouble starts. The EU suggests that the only way out of the crisis is “to resume political negotiations promptly”—and to “establish a Venezuelan-led dialogue and transition process leading to credible, inclusive and transparent local, legislative and presidential elections.”

Achieving unity among the European Union’s 27 member states is always a challenge. But that is hardly an excuse for the scale of disappointment presented by EU foreign ministers with their joint statement on Venezuela last week.

To be sure, it contains many good lines. The EU repeats its clear condemnation of the phony Dec. 6 Venezuelan parliamentary elections. They “failed to comply with the international standards for a democratic process,” the ministers wrote. “As a consequence, the EU cannot recognise this electoral process as credible, inclusive or transparent, and thus its outcome cannot be considered as representative of the democratic will of the Venezuelan people.” The EU also lays the blame squarely in the right place: The actions of President Nicolás Maduro’s regime have “persistently prevented the resolution of the profound political crisis in Venezuela.” So far, so good.

But then the trouble starts. The EU suggests that the only way out of the crisis is “to resume political negotiations promptly”—and to “establish a Venezuelan-led dialogue and transition process leading to credible, inclusive and transparent local, legislative and presidential elections.”

Unfortunately, the EU already tried that last year. EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell negotiated with the Venezuelan regime for months, trying to get minimally acceptable terms for the elections. He failed because the regime would not move an inch. So what is the point of calling for new negotiations and new elections unless there are new ingredients that might bring success the second time around?

The EU hints that it might take coercive action: “In view of the deteriorating situation of human rights, rule of law and democracy in Venezuela, the EU stands ready to adopt additional targeted restrictive measures against those undermining democracy or the rule of law and those responsible for serious violations of human rights.” But if you were Maduro, how scared would you be by that threat? The EU has sanctioned only 36 regime officials in its ever-so-slow sanctions process—compare that with Canada’s 113. The EU statement can only be seen as limp when the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has reported nearly 7,000 political executions by the regime and a U.N. fact-finding mission has written of “crimes against humanity.” Why does the EU find it impossible to strengthen its sanctions?
Meanwhile, parts of Europe—not least Spain—remain safe havens for Maduro regime bigwigs.

Meanwhile, parts of Europe—not least Spain—remain safe havens for Maduro regime bigwigs, whose bank accounts, families, mistresses, and mansions remain there. In most cases, regime figures travel to Europe freely. So what is the EU waiting for before imposing wider sanctions to pressure the regime to enter serious negotiations?

The EU rightly calls attention to the awful humanitarian situation in Venezuela, demanding “full and unhindered access” for humanitarian personnel and supplies. In the long term, these needs can only be addressed through a political solution, the ministers add.

Fair enough. But the EU is not being candid about the regime’s own role in creating the humanitarian crisis. Incredibly, despite widespread hunger, the U.N. World Food Program still cannot operate in Venezuela. Why not? Because the organization has rules and standards, and the regime refuses to allow it to carry out its work.

Several months ago, there was an agreement to provide 35 antigen machines for virus testing to aid Venezuela’s efforts to fight COVID-19 through the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). They were paid for by Juan Guaidó, recognized by the United States and Britain as the legitimate Venezuelan president, through an official Venezuelan government account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The Maduro regime agreed to allow PAHO to determine to which hospitals and clinics the machines would go. As soon as they arrived in Venezuela, the machines were seized by the regime—and have never been seen since.

That should be another reason for the EU to go well beyond stating mere deep concern about the humanitarian crisis. Europe must finally condemn the Maduro regime for preventing international aid organizations from being able to work there for the health of the Venezuelan people.

And what about negotiations? Like the EU, I favor an effort to negotiate a transition to democracy. But if Maduro is on one side of the table, who is on the other? It can only be a team from the legitimate Venezuelan National Assembly elected in 2015 and from the truly democratic parties that have remained largely united since then behind Guaidó. Unfortunately, the EU bypassed most of the country’s opposition last year when Borrell attempted to cooperate with former Venezuelan presidential candidate Henrique Capriles on his own negotiations with the regime. Those efforts failed and will fail again if Capriles and Borrell try the same move. Instead, the EU should abide by its own statement, which names Guaidó and the opposition deputies elected in 2015 as “privileged interlocutors.”
Think how much more effective any statement would have been had it spoken for both the EU and the new Biden administration.

Finally, think how much more effective any statement would have been had it spoken for both the EU and the new Biden administration. Regretfully, the EU did not hold off a few weeks to see if a joint statement—perhaps by Borrell and Secretary of State Antony Blinken—might have been possible.

After all, it is Washington that holds leverage over the regime with economic and financial sanctions. When the United States and the EU speak as one, the impact in Venezuela will be significant. Despite widespread claims that no diplomacy was ever conducted during the Trump administration, the U.S. State Department had close working relationships on Venezuela with many Latin American and European governments as well as with Canada. The Biden administration can and should build onto those foundations.

To get diplomacy underway again, the new administration should soon name an assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere and—in my view as someone who served in that capacity—a special representative for Venezuela. A serious negotiation may be unlikely if Maduro is unwilling to contemplate ever leaving power. But it is surely impossible unless the EU, the United States, Latin American democracies, and Canada coordinate their actions closely and ratchet up the pressure.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the former U.S. State Department special representative for Venezuela during the Trump administration.

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