The Vatican’s participation in the mediation effort in Venezuela poses an unusual challenge to US policy in Venezuela and the region. On Sunday, October 30, three of the four major opposition parties and other prominent opposition leaders met with the government, with mediators from the Vatican and UNASUR (the Union of South American Nations). Some progress was made. The government released four people who the opposition considers political prisoners, and the opposition called off a political trial against President Maduro and a planned demonstration that most observers believed ran a high risk of violence.
Thomas Shannon, the number three official in the US State Department, also went to Venezuela this week, met with President Maduro and opposition leaders, and supported the dialogue. I wish I could say that this represents an actual change in US policy in the region, but all evidence still points to the contrary.
The US government is not looking at Venezuela in terms of dialogue or compromise. The Obama administration has economic sanctions against Venezuela, which President Obama renewed last March. In renewing these sanctions, the executive order again declared that Venezuela presented “an unusual and extraordinary threat to US security.” The world knows what happens to countries that the US deems to be “an unusual and extraordinary” security threat. Look what happened to Iraq. Look what happened to Nicaragua in the 1980s. It doesn’t matter how many people are directly affected by the specific sanctions against Venezuela. The threat is what matters, and it is ugly and belligerent enough to keep many investors from investing in Venezuela and to raise the country’s cost of borrowing. (Not to mention that the whole premise of Venezuela as a “security threat” is absurd.) And the US government has also directly pressured financial institutions not to do business with Venezuela.
For all of these reasons, it is clear that Washington’s goal in Venezuela is currently the same as it has been for almost all of the past 15 years. Shannon’s support for dialogue is almost certain to turn out the same as previous diplomatic thaws in the past: a brief and insincere interlude. President Obama initiated the longest period (about five months) of calm US-Venezuela relations ― since the US-backed military coup of 2002 ―between March and July last year. It soon became clear that this was only because the Cubans ― with support from the rest of the region ― made it a condition of progress in their own negotiations for opening relations with the US. This was something that Obama wanted for his legacy. But as Venezuela’s National Assembly elections approached, the Obama administration went back to its regime change strategy, supporting an international campaign to delegitimize Venezuela’s elections. (This turned out to be unnecessary, since the opposition won in a landslide.)
The Venezuelan opposition pursued a “strategy of military takeover” for the first four years of the Chávez government, including the 2002 military coup. But since 2004, they have been divided on whether to pursue change through legal means. Whenever they had people in the streets supporting a violent or extralegal overthrow ― as in 2002–03, 2013, or 2014 ― the US government has taken their side. Washington has also led various campaigns to delegitimize the Venezuelan government, a vital part of any extralegal “regime change” strategy.
But for the moment, Pope Francis has altered everyone’s calculations. It is not good optics for the hard-line Venezuelan opposition to condemn the pope. And the Obama administration cannot exert the kind of pressure on the Vatican that it does on, e.g., European governments to support its sanctions against Russia, or various unpopular military adventures. Also, the international media cannot marginalize or ignore the pope in the way they do the rest of the hemisphere’s governments, e.g., when these governments resist Washington’s support for regime change in Venezuela, Honduras, and other countries.
The pope is likely to look at the Venezuelan crisis in a pragmatic way, rather than through the lens of Washington’s imperial and ideological imperatives. There is a divided government in Venezuela, with the chavistas controlling the presidency and to a large extent the judiciary. The fractious opposition controls the National Assembly. Until the next presidential election, there is no way to resolve the political conflict except through dialogue and negotiation.
Pope Francis can be a pragmatic diplomat, but he has certain principles and is not easily intimidated. He is likely to understand that Venezuela’s divided government is a result of a divided country. From 2003, when the Chávez government got control of the national oil industry, until 2014, the large majority of the population experienced enormous gains in their living standards. That is why, in December of last year, in the elections for National Assembly, the ruling PSUV still got more than 40 percent of the vote ― despite inflation running at 180 percent and widespread shortages of basic consumer goods.
A big part of the gains of the Chávez era have been lost in the past nearly three years, and especially over the past year. But the governing party still has a political base that remembers worse poverty and exclusion, if not worse shortages, in the pre-Chávez era. They do not see the political opposition, which is a right-wing political movement that has always represented the upper classes, offering solutions that will make their lives better.
The Vatican will therefore likely seek negotiation and compromise on both sides of the political divide. This poses a unique challenge to Washington and some of its closest allies in Venezuela.
This article originally appeared in The Hill.