Photo Jonathan Blair

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Venezuela: Who can and should do what?

As Venezuela marches towards disaster, it is difficult to identify domestic actors who could usefully bring the very many contending factions together and reach some kind of reasonable arrangement for a transition away from the personalist and chaotic governance of the last few years, for the simple reason that most everybody has a hand in the fight. Over time, obviously, some kind of solution would be found, but this could take months or years, with massive costs to the economy and possibly much blood too.

Somebody from outside should come in, openly or behind the scene, and bring the main players together for some kind of national dialogue. Who can and should do that and what should be on the table?

The perfect "White Knight" will have two key characteristics: it must wield influence over the parties, and, perhaps counter-intuitively, it must also have something at stake in the crisis, preferably a lot. Influence is self-explanatory: there is so much at stake for the contending parties that they will have to be compelled or strongly pushed to compromise. The need for intervenors to be "interested" is not as evident, but no less necessary, as significant resources will be needed to pressure the parties or offer them "side payments" appealing enough to force them to accept a bargain that will necessarily have drawbacks: only those with lots to win or lose will be willing to invest those resources.

Clearly, no single outside party has all those qualities, so a coalition will be needed. The most obvious one include a core of four parties, in the following order: Cuba, the United States, Colombia, and Brazil.

Cuba is most critical. They have the most influence of any outside actor in Chavista circles, as well as in the intelligence and security services, including the military. Their doctors, moreover, have gained them lots of good will in the streets. Most crucially, they have a lot at stake in a smooth transition that would secure as much as possible of the current flow of oil on which their economy literally depends for its survival.

The problem with the Cubans is that, to say the least, their very proximity to the regime and their crucial role in sustaining the regime, severely limit their credibility in the eyes of the opposition. This is wthere the US comes in: behind a simple commitment to due process and clean elections, the American government can critically bolster the opposition's stand and its chances of victory, this time or later, and the opposition knows it. Like Cuba, though by no means to the same extent, the United States also has lots at stake in Venezuela's transition: chaos would impact Venezuela's oil exports which, at roughly 900,000 barrels a day, still represent about 10% of the US' total imports. The impact of any export suspension on global oil prices would be even more consequential for the US economy. In addition, the establishment of some kind of narrow-based authoritarian regime with sympathies in Moscow, Beijing or Tehran, or of a huge and relatively rich narco-state at the Northern tip of South America, certainly makes US military planners nervous.

For Colombia, Venezuela is an important trade partner and, above all, a critical cog in the machinery that Juan Manuel Santos has built to finally get rid of the FARC. The stability and collaboration of the only significant sanctuary for the guerrilla is central to the government's strategy and to its very popularity. The regional and global credibility of Santos, along with his extremely clever rapprochement with Chavez, which does not seem to have burned him with the opposition, makes him a natural figurehead--now that Lula is gone and Dilma clearly does not have the royal jelly--for the initiative, especially if it goes public--which may not be a good idea, by the way, but more on that below.

Brazil, finally, has tried and largely succeeded, over the last fifteen years, in carving out South America from the reach of the UN, the OAS or even the US itself--except in the critical case of Colombia--in the management of major domestic or international crises. Strategically, Brazil's inability to manage a major crisis or at least to be heavily involved in its resolution, would be a major humiliation. The PT's entries in Chavista circles, especially around Marco Aurelio Garcia, could usefully be put to work. Above all, however, the Iranian crisis has shown the world that Brazil is ready to go very far in sabotaging international initiatives in which it is not involved. If things have to be public, then bring in UNASUL and friends--including Canada, which could be very useful in the reconstruction of Venezuela's oil industry--but stay regional, and avoid the UN or its Security Council where China and Russia hold a bit too much sway.

So, this is my team: Cuba and the US as the truly critical players, Santos' Colombia as a handy negotiator with broad credibility, and Brazil, as a marginally useful player that could derail the whole thing if left outside and should thus be brought in.

What should be on the table?

This one is trickier and I cannot get in the details, if only because I can't even see at this point who will make up the various sides of the discussion. The basic rule, however, should be the following: forget best practice and the perfect solution, focus on overall gains, in terms of political stability and accountability, and in economic management, while preserving as much of the rents on which those in power depend, as is necessary to avoid their defection. Given current levels of corruption and the sorry state of political and judicial institutions, the range of sustainable compromise may not include many cute ones, but nobody should be too picky, given the stakes.

[I must point out that this note is based in part on informal discussions with very clever and well-informed observers of Venezuelan politics. I think they prefer not to be named, but they should recognize themselves and accept my thanks.]