A Response to the “Open Letter to WOLA”
In our 45-year history, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) has built a long trajectory of criticizing both U.S. military intervention and violations of democracy and human rights in our hemisphere. In the case of Venezuela, we were one of the first U.S. human rights organizations to condemn the 2002 coup attempt in Venezuela, and have been critical of U.S. unilateral policies towards the country. We have opposed, and we continue to oppose, foreign military intervention in Venezuela.
At the same time, we have consistently denounced the accelerated attacks on Venezuela’s democratic institutions and repeated human rights violations carried out in recent years by the Maduro government, including violence against protesters, crackdown on dissent, and assaults on the democratically-elected National Assembly. We have been clear that the May 2018 electoral process that Nicolás Maduro used to claim a new term lacked the fundamental guarantees of a free and fair process.
In the face of a deep political and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, WOLA supports a non-violent, negotiated, and democratic solution to the conflict among Venezuelans, with the support of multilateral actors.
In a letter sent to us several days ago and posted on Common Dreams, a number of academic colleagues criticized our positions on Venezuela. We appreciate their concern and their willingness to engage in a principled dialogue on an issue that too often descends into personal attacks. The issues are important, and it is essential that progressive activists, policymakers, and analysts be proactive in speaking about Venezuela’s crisis.
That said, the letter makes numerous false or misleading assertions about the Venezuelan crisis and WOLA’s positions that must be corrected. We welcome the opportunity to do so.
- WOLA is supporting the efforts of the International Contact Group (ICG)—mistakenly identified as the “European Contact Group” in the letter—which was formed last month to push for negotiations for new elections in Venezuela. The International Contact Group is politically diverse and brings together countries from Latin America (Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Uruguay) as well as the European Union and eight of its Member States (France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom).
- The International Contact Group is not a U.S.-aligned initiative or part of a “regime change” effort, as the letter suggests. In fact, the entire European Union and the Latin American countries that are part of the International Contact Group have all spoken out clearly against any kind of military intervention or use of force, even as the White House has claimed that all options are on the table. What is more, the Trump administration has disapproved of this initiative from the beginning and has been actively counseling against it. When the International Contact Group was first formed, U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams criticized it as part of an effort of “trying to accommodate Maduro.”
- Our colleagues’ letter calls for support for “offers of mediation by Pope Francis.” This is misinformed. The Vatican has not been substantially involved in any dialogue processes in Venezuela since 2016. In fact, the Vatican’s special envoy left Venezuela in early 2017 because the government failed to make good on commitments agreed to in previous talks. Earlier this year, Maduro sent a letter to the Pope asking the Vatican to get involved once again. But the Vatican has been openly critical of Maduro’s refusal to follow through in the past and declined to participate. In a letter last month responding to Maduro, Pope Francis said that conditions were not right for Vatican involvement, because after their 2016 mediation “there was no follow-up with concrete gestures” on the part of the Maduro government. The unfulfilled agreements from the 2016 dialogue include preconditions sought by the International Contact Group: freeing political prisoners, re-establishing democratic constitutional order, ending barriers to political participation, and providing open access to humanitarian aid.
- The letter urges support for another effort initiated last month by Mexico and Uruguay—the “Montevideo Mechanism.” This too is misinformed, as this initiative appears to have been discarded. While Uruguay proposed the “Montevideo Mechanism” with Mexico on February 6, the next day it signed on to the efforts of the International Contact Group, becoming a leader of the initiative. Since then Uruguay co-chaired the International Contact Group’s February 20-21 technical mission to Caracas along with European Union representatives, which explored the potential for holding new, credible elections. Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez has been explicit in advocating for new elections in Venezuela. Uruguay’s former President Pepe Mujica, a moral authority in the country’s governing Frente Amplio coalition and certainly no advocate of U.S. intervention, has explicitly backed the idea of new elections in Venezuela under the conditions sought by the International Contact Group.
- We do not reject United Nations involvement in Venezuela’s crisis, as the letter mistakenly asserts. To the contrary, we have continually called for UN involvement (for example in 2016, 2017, and 2018). In January of this year, in a policy memo directed at the U.S. government we wrote: “The new U.S. Ambassador to the UN should consider calling on Secretary General Antonio Guterres to name a Special Representative to the Venezuelan Crisis with a mandate to facilitate solutions to the country’s political crisis.” We still hold that position. However, we agreed with Secretary General Guterres’ statement last month that the UN would be better off “not being part of any of these [mediation] efforts in order to give credibility” to its offer of “good offices.”
- WOLA has supported previous rounds of dialogue between the government and the opposition, but we believe that dialogue, in the way it has been conducted in the past, is unlikely to resolve the situation. There have been dialogues in 2014, 2016, and 2017-18. Each time Maduro either refused to make substantial concessions or subsequently refused to honor them. If Maduro was actually serious about having a binding dialogue, he could simply recognize the National Assembly. A democratic state is, after all, simply an institutionalized dialogue.
- At the same time, it is clear that any solution to the current crisis must involve some form of negotiation between stakeholders. What we believe is much more likely to succeed is shuttle diplomacy between the two sides in which an agreement can be brokered through intermediaries, which is what the International Contact Group is doing.
- There are conflicting interpretations regarding the legality of National Assembly President Juan Guaidó’s assuming the interim presidency. The Venezuelan Constitution does not specifically provide for this exact situation, i.e., when the executive branch is perpetuating itself in power by organizing sham elections. In a democratic country, different interpretations of the Constitution could be argued and interpreted before impartial courts, but it has been well-documented that the executive branch has co-opted the judicial branch in Venezuela, making this an impossibility. But what is undeniable is that Venezuela’s legislative branch now holds more democratic legitimacy than does Maduro. We think that the head of the National Assembly assuming the interim presidency, with the clear goal of achieving fresh elections for a new president, seems like the most logical interpretation. But to actually determine what the Constitution says would require a legal opinion that we are not in position to provide.
- WOLA has been clear on sanctions. We have stated time and again that we are not in principle against them, but we are in principle suspicious of them. While they provide a non-violent form of pressure, we are skeptical of their ability to change behavior unless they have certain characteristics (also discussed in our latest policy memo), and believe they must include exceptions to minimize harm to the broader population. The literature is quite clear that sanctions generally do not work, and we have argued that point repeatedly (for example here last week). We reject sanctions that deepen the suffering of the Venezuelan people without contributing to a solution to the broader causes of their suffering. This is why we oppose the January 2019 U.S. oil sanctions, which will likely deepen the country’s humanitarian crisis and only weaken the population vis-a-vis the Maduro government. We considered that the August 2017 debt sanctions, which had exceptions for food and medicine and did not apply to debt approved by the National Assembly—which is its Constitutional role—hurt the government more than the population, and provided effective pressure on it. But from the beginning we were concerned by their ability to have a broader impact over time. In fact, it was WOLA who published Francisco Rodriguez’s essay showing the correlation between the August 2017 sanctions and the decline in oil production.
- The central goal of our work on sanctions is to clarify the issues for journalists, activists, and policymakers in order to facilitate grounded, effective policy that could lead to a return to democracy in Venezuela. We have pushed on these contradictions time and again to try to generate discussion and promote a fine-grained and effective approach.
Our most fundamental disagreement, and probably the one that explains our difference with the signatories of the letter, is in how we frame the problem. For the signers, this is about the United States. The letter mentions the United States twice as many times as it mentions Venezuela. What is more, the letter’s mentions of Venezuela are almost exclusively as a passive subject receiving action. The only real actor mentioned in the text is the Trump administration. Most specifically, there are no descriptions of the Maduro government’s assault on democratic institutions and violations of basic human rights.
For WOLA, this is about Venezuela. As a human rights organization, WOLA’s central focus is on the Venezuelan people and their rights. We engage many key power players—from the Maduro government to the opposition, from the European Union to the Lima Group, and from the U.S. administration to the U.S. Congress—to cultivate and push for policies that will strengthen fulfillment of the basic rights of Venezuelans, including their democratic rights. We applaud these actors when they are constructive; we criticize them when they are not. Our goal is always to further the rights of the Venezuelan people, and we take great pains to analyze Venezuela’s complex reality, embedded in international context, on WOLA’s Venezuela blog.
In sum, we share the letter signers’ concern with U.S. foreign policy. But we believe that flattening out Venezuela’s complex reality and instrumentalizing it as a chess piece in a political struggle against the Trump administration risks dehumanizing Venezuelans and desensitizing everyone to their situation.