The Mexico Dialogue on Venezuela and the End of the Lima Group

Foreign ministers representing member states in the Lima Group meeting together on 13 February 2018 in Lima, Peru. Photograph Source – CC BY-SA 2.0

The conversations in Mexico between the opposition Unitary Platform of Venezuela and the Maduro government, with the intermediation of Norway, represent the failure of the US interventionist strategy and the end of the Lima Group. On August 13, a new stage of negotiations officially began to reestablish the institutional framework and democratic coexistence in Venezuela and put an end to the economic sanctions that suffocate its citizens.

Juan Guaidó, Leopoldo López, and other prominent opposition figures participate in the Unitary Platform, which groups together the majority of opposition parties. The talks with the Maduro government have the approval of the European Union, the United States, and Canada. These countries agree on their willingness to “review the sanctions” imposed on Venezuela if “significant progress is made in a global negotiation” that repairs “the country’s institutions” and allows free elections.

This political will was demonstrated by Antony Blinken, Josep Borrell, and Marc Garneau, the highest representatives of the diplomacy of those countries, in a document that they jointly signed in late June that calls for “a peaceful solution”, based on  “the Venezuelan people themselves” and channeled through Venezuelan political structures.

The failure of the “President Guaidó” project

These points reveal a radical change of approach with respect to the proposal during the Trump administration, when Mauricio Claver Carone, then-director of Western Hemisphere Affairs of the White House National Security Council, and Elliot Abrahams, special envoy for Venezuela, stated at the beginning of 2019 that Juan Guaidó was the one who had to call elections in that country. For both, Maduro was just another citizen of Venezuela and, as such, could only transmit that offer to an interim government headed by Guaidó.

“We do not recognize Maduro as President and from our perspective he does not have the authority to convene anything,” they claimed. An instance of gross interference in someone else’s house.

At that time, the Lima Group unconditionally supported that arrogant attitude, which only exacerbated the crisis and the suffering of the population. Without considering that Venezuela has a civil-military co-government, the Group encouraged the Armed Forces to ignore Maduro. One would have to have very little knowledge of the reality of the country to suppose this strategy would easily succeed. T

The express plan to overthrow Maduro included allocating huge amounts of resources to maintain parallel diplomatic representations, and in some international organizations; manipulation of humanitarian aid for political purposes and, most seriously, the intensification of a plan of embargoes and blockades begun in 2015 under the Obama administration to strangle the economy, on the assumption that Venezuela represented a threat to the United States national security.

The joint armed incursions in May 2020 of Venezuelan soldiers who deserted and former members of special forces of the United States Army, trained in Colombia (Operation Gideon) with the aim of capturing Maduro and other leaders, were also unsuccessful. These were apparently run by private military companies that hire mercenaries, such as those who participated in the assassination of the President of Haiti and in the occupation of Afghanistan.

Project “President Guaidó” crowned its failure on December 6, 2020, when Guaidó lost his position of president of the National Assembly after most of the opposition boycotted the election, insisting beforehand it would be fraudulent, just as Donald Trump did in the presidential election against Joe Biden and, as foreshadowed by Jair Bolzonaro concerning the Brazilian elections scheduled for October 2022. Fallen from the National Assembly post, Guaidó lost the umbrella of legitimacy that allowed him to be recognized by more than 50 countries as interim president of Venezuela Many of those inexplicably continue to recognize him as such, in a clear example of disrespect for institutions.

A shift in U.S. foreign policy

This is probably one of the reasons why the Biden government, in line with the European Union and Canada, has put aside an interventionist strategy and favored one built among Venezuelans and based on the Constitution. It is also possible that they have pressured the opposition to act as a front in order to have a chance to overthrow Maduro. Financing the opposition is expensive.

However, the foreign policy of the United States also has its great contradictions. The Pentagon is not the same as the State Department, which supports negotiations. Obviously, the president of Colombia, Iván Duque, does not respond to the State Department when he points out regarding the current dialogue process that “any agreement that consolidates the dictatorship will be a continental tragedy that will only promote exodus and misery.” It is not by chance either, that the same day of the negotiations, Duque, ordered a “raid and assault” of the Venezuelan fertilizer company “Monómeros”, based in Barranquilla to “create a provocation” that would end up breaking up the dialogue with the opposition.

Along the same lines, the Democratic Senator from the United States, Bob Menéndez, launched a statement that was endorsed by his peers on the Foreign Relations Committees of the Parliaments of the United Kingdom, Germany, the European Parliament, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, the Republic Czech Republic, Poland, and Denmark, in which they urged President Maduro to “act in good faith in order to restore democratic governance, restore the rule of law, and return fundamental freedoms and human dignity to the Venezuelan people. An agreement that specifies the conditions and terms of new elections, especially legislative and presidential elections, is key to this effort.

They would seem to be unaware that, at the end of June, Nicolás Maduró said he was willing to leave power in 2022 with a recall referendum of his second term, which the opposition described as illegitimate and stolen. Maduro invited Venezuelans to collect their signatures. to request the plebiscitary elections of the presidential office as established by the national Constitution.

U.S  interference in the Venezuelan process is replicated internally by the most radical opposition sectors that do not participate in the elections, due to their dislike of Guaidó. Although this minority sector does not participate in the elections, it has the capacity to make a lot of noise and attains wide coverage in the international media. Among them is María Corina Machado, who believes that the memorandum between the opposition and the government served to  “recognize the Maduro regime as a legitimate government” and not as a usurping regime. Other leaders such as Antonio Ledesma, the former mayor of Caracas and Andrés Velásquez of the “Causa R” Party,  demand that the government be convicted of crimes against humanity, that the Inter-American Democratic Charter be applied and that the military rebel. These sectors remind Guaidó that he previously maintained that “to vote in elections in which Maduro participates is to be a useful fool, a traitor and an accomplice of the regime.”

The negotiations

The president of the National Assembly, Jorge Rodríguez, and the opposition lawyer Gerardo Blyde, signed a memorandum of understanding in Mexico on August 13 before starting the first round of negotiations there. Consultation mechanisms with other political and social actors have been established, and international accompaniment. In addition to the facilitation of Norway, the Netherlands, Russia and other countries to be convened by Norway will form a so-called Group of Friends of the Process.

The first round of negotiations took place from August 13 to 15 and was described by representatives of the opposition and the government as “constructive”. The signing of the memorandum of understanding and the beginning of the negotiations were supported by a new joint communiqué from the chief of diplomacy of the European Union and the governments of the United States and Canada. It states:  “they are willing to review their sanctions against Caracas if there are significant advances in the negotiations ”. The Foreign Minister of Mexico, Marcel Ebrard, declared on behalf of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) “that the entire region and the entire world have its eyes on the conversation.” For the Venezuelan government, Jorge Rodríguez declared that dialogue, negotiation and respect for the Constitution work with his government, rather than threats.

As a result of the negotiations, on August 31, the opposition Unitary Platform announced to the international community that it would participate in the regional and municipal elections that will take place on November 21.

The second round of talks was held between September 3 and 6 and concluded with two preliminary agreements: The first does not require further negotiation, since it deals with the joint defense of sovereignty over Guyana, Esequiba, a territory in territorial dispute between Venezuela and Guyana for 180 years. The other, more relevant, establishes the need to rescue and “recover the assets belonging to Venezuela, and the money and wealth found abroad, necessary for economic recovery in the post-pandemic.” The resources would thus be allocated to health: provision of hospitals, purchase of vaccines against Covid-19, rehabilitation of hospitals, etc. ”

Despite the congratulations of the spokesman for the US State Department, Ned Price, for the development of the talks, it is not yet clear what will be the scope of the resources that should be unlocked to meet the agreed goals. Biden has the key to unlock the money that belongs to Venezuela, in a context in which negotiations are progressing.

The second meeting in Mexico encountered some thorns typical of the electoral scene. Gerardo Blyde, head of the Unitary Platform delegation. explained that the points discussed seek to lessen the deep economic crisis that is hitting Venezuela, although he stressed that the underlying problem is an economic model that “failed.” Nicolás Maduro promised a strong hand, in reference to Juan Guaidó who faces multiple accusations in Venezuela. Maduro added that he dreams “of the day when Guaidó will be brought to justice because the damage he has done is a lot.”

He also said that he feels that in Mexico they are negotiating with the United States “because those politicians (in reference to the opposition) have always responded to US policies, in times of Bush, Obama, Trump, and now Biden.” Gone are the times when the “interim president” of Venezuela received standing ovations by Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, such as when Trump invited him to his State of the Union address in February 2020. Guadó now is harshly criticized by the opposition that is not participating in the negotiations on the one hand, and on the other accused by the government of “organized crime, treason, usurpation of functions, assassination, homicide, attempted coup.”

Guaidó, in turn, has led the accusation in the International Criminal Court that Maduro has committed crimes against humanity.

The end of the Lima Group

The Lima Group was born in August 2017 at the initiative of former President Donald Trump. Specifically, then-security adviser for the Western Hemisphere in the White House, John Bolton, saw the impossibility of obtaining enough votes to reach the qualified majority that could invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter and sanction Venezuela within the framework of the OAS, and proposed the new strategy. The Lima Group formed in circumstances of major clashes between the government and the opposition.

At the time, the opposition gained a majority in the National Assembly in 2015, and placed Juan Guaidó at the head, within the framework of a political campaign to depose  Nicolás Maduro, elected in 2013 after the death of Hugo Chávez. The demands for Maduro to leave power turned violent and in 2017, the president called a Constituent Assembly that functioned as a parallel body to the National Assembly. The objective of the Lima Group was to intercede in favor of the opposition against Maduro, which described the government as an autocratic regime for having opted for a Constituent Assembly, although the constitution allows this.

The absence of Mexico from Lima Group meetings after Andrés Manuel López Obrador assumed the presidency in July 2018, and the formal resignation of Argentina on March 24 weakened the Lima Group and Bolton’s plan that sought to use the Group to isolate and sanction the Venezuelan government. Argentine Foreign Minister Felipe Solá expressed his disagreement with the practices that sought to punish the Venezuelan government by imposing sanctions and blockades, which had only aggravated the situation of its population. The Peruvian government’s condemnation of the blockades, embargoes and unilateral sanctions on countries in the region, and the April 11 announcement by the government of Saint Lucia of its withdrawal from the Lima Group to immediately re-establish diplomatic relations with the Maduro government, in accordance with the official position of the Caribbean Community (Caricom) of non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states, constituted a mortal blow. The Lima Group has become a corpse lying in the geopolitical morgue, which many refuse to acknowledge.

The Lima Group was the counter-example of a real mediating body, since the opposition acted as judge and party as a member of it, while the Maduro government did not recognize it. In addition, two of its members were not in a position to teach democracy classes to any government: Honduras and Bolivia. The government of the former was elected in a highly irregular process that even Luis Almagro, head of the OAS, said should be repeated. In the case of the Bolivian government, then headed by Jeanine Áñez, her rise to power was the result of a coup d’état supported by the OAS.

Today the negotiations to reestablish democratic coexistence, the independence of powers and an end to the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela are advancing through new channels. Meanwhile, an exhausted citizenry observes this stage of negotiations, holding out hope that talks whose course and agenda are designed by Venezuelans based on their Constitution will end the crisis that afflicts that country. As the Washington Post points out, the meeting in Mexico is like a plea from the actors in conflict not to exacerbate the situation of a society that is tired of the avoidable deaths and suffering, and sees how thousands of its citizens continue to leave toward other nations in an unprecedented mobility crisis in the region whose consequences are still impossible to calculate.

The next round of talks will take place again in Mexico from September 24 to 27.

Ariela Ruiz Caro is an economist from Humboldt University of Berlin and holds a Master’s Degree in Economic Integration Processes from the University of Buenos Aires. She is an analyst of the Americas Program for the Andean/Southern Cone region.