by Maurizio Sacchi
On April 25, 2023, an international conference was held in Bogotá: the goal was to resolve the crisis in Venezuela. Representatives of 19 countries and the European Union met in the capital of Colombia, whose President Petro initiated the meeting. In his opening speech, he called on the international community to lift sanctions against Venezuela, but also pressed for Maduro to hold democratic elections in the country. ‘The history of Latin America is in our hands said Petro, Colombia’s first left-wing president, to an audience of diplomats. They are those who can ‘mark a path that leads towards war and the deconstruction of democracy, or we can rebuild the path of peace and democracy’.
Argentina, Brazil, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as a delegation from the European Union, among others, attended the conference, which was aimed at reigniting stalled talks between Maduro’s administration and Venezuela’s political opposition, but none of the conflicting parties were present at Tuesday’s conference. The main opposition coalition, the United Democratic Platform, expressed its support for the meeting, although some factions questioned Colombia’s role as mediator. The two sides had previously met in Mexico City to negotiate a solution to the country’s political impasse, but the talks stalled last December.
After Maduro took office in January 2019, Juan Guaidó, opposition leader and then President of Venezuela’s National Assembly, had appointed himself ‘interim president’ in Maduro’s place. Some countries, such as the United States, had chosen to recognise the opposition government by disowning Maduro’s and imposing heavy sanctions against Venezuela. But after Latin America saw a number of left-wing representatives rise to the top of the state in 2022, some countries took action to resume relations with Maduro’s government. These include Colombia, which restored diplomatic ties under Petro, and Brazil, which restored relations with Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who returned to the country’s leadership in January.
In the meantime, Guaidó had lost much of the opposition’s support and, in December, opposition members voted to dissolve his government and remove him from the position of ‘interim president’. In an attempt to regain lost space, the opposition leader crossed the border from Venezuela into Colombia ‘on foot’, a media move to try to meet diplomats at Tuesday’s conference. But immigration authorities escorted Guaidó to Bogota’s El Dorado airport, as he had crossed the border ‘irregularly’, to board a plane to Miami. The Venezuelan opposition leader then denounced this treatment as an extension of the repression he would have received under the Maduro government.
“The persecution of the dictatorship has unfortunately extended to Colombia today,” Guaidó said in a video posted on Twitter. But on Tuesday, Petro issued a rebuke to the former opposition leader’s statements. “Mr Guaidó has not been expelled,” he replied again on Twitter. “It is better that lies do not appear in politics. Mr Guaidó had an agreement to travel to the United States. We allowed him to do so on humanitarian grounds, despite his illegal entry into the country.”
The global energy crisis caused by the war in Ukraine, the massive exodus of millions of migrants and refugees from Venezuela, and the political shift to the left in Latin America have created the conditions for this international initiative, the first objective of which is the resumption of dialogue between the two sides in Mexico City. But after Tuesday’s meeting in Bogotá, diplomats from the 19 countries and the European Union had difficulty drawing up a concrete plan on how to bring government and opposition back to the table. But the Bogota conference, which neither the Venezuelan government nor the opposition were invited to attend, showed that a quick solution to the ongoing crisis in Bogota is unlikely. “None of this will be resolved quickly,” said Ligia Bolivar, an analyst with the human rights group AlertaVenezuela. “This is a process.”
The US decision to send a high-level delegation was welcomed warmly, as was President Petro’s new role in helping to promote dialogue, but when Maduro’s government dictated its conditions for the resumption of talks, including the release of Venezuelan diplomat Alex Saab imprisoned in the US on money laundering charges, it was clear that a solution was still some way off.
A crucial point in the talks concerned the creation of a multi-billion dollar humanitarian fund that had been agreed upon in the last round of political discussions. Both sides had agreed in November to release $3 billion held in foreign banks to create a UN-administered fund that would provide humanitarian aid to impoverished Venezuelans, and repair the country’s crumbling energy network. However, it is not yet clear when the funds will be available and analysts have said that the release of the assets could take some time.
Meanwhile, the statement by the Foreign Ministry in Caracas omitted any reference to the upcoming elections, which experts say appears to show the Maduro government’s reluctance to negotiate fair voting conditions. ‘The points of agreement more or less represent where the international community was before the conference,’ Carolina Jimenez, president of the think tank Washington Office on Latin America, said of the outcome of the talks.
The government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, which organised the 2018 presidential elections, considered illegitimate by many governments, has been accused of suppressing opposition voices, something that could be repeated in the 2024 elections. Meanwhile, amid the continuing rift over the prospect of a return to negotiations, the opposition has moved to join forces ahead of next year’s elections, scheduling primaries in October that will determine Maduro’s main challenger. Some contenders, such as Henrique Capriles and Guiado, have decided to participate in the primaries despite being disqualified from participating in the consultations. If elected, the National Electoral Council would prohibit them from registering as presidential candidates.
While the exact terms for next year’s elections have yet to be determined by negotiators, the EU has suggested 23 reforms after observing Venezuela’s 2021 regional consultations. These recommendations, which were outlined at the Bogota conference, include greater independence of Venezuela’s supreme court and a balance in state media coverage of election campaigns. Despite the obstacles, the Bogota meeting represents a glimmer of light and hope for the millions of refugees (estimates vary widely, between 4.5 million and 6 million) struggling to survive in neighbouring countries.
Cover image: Random Institute (Unsplash)