Lessons from Guatemala for Venezuela’s Electoral Odyssey

The lessons from Guatemala echo loudly: even if free and fair elections are held, a transition of power is not a straightforward process. The international community's role in facilitating an effective transition in Venezuela becomes paramount.


Source: Barron’s.

In the intricate landscape of Venezuela’s electoral crisis, Guatemala serves as a cautionary tale, illuminating the perils that persist beyond the ballot box. Guatemala can offer valuable insights into the pitfalls of relying solely on an electoral solution in Venezuela.

Consider the situation in Guatemala, where the newly elected President, Bernardo Arévalo, faces uncertainty even before taking office, with the transfer of power far from guaranteed. It remains to be seen if international pressure will prevent still-resistant state powers, like the Prosecutor’s office—sanctioned by the United States—from sabotaging the president-elect’s assumption of power. Winning an election is just the first step, since the road between election night victory and the first day in office is fraught with peril. These challenges persist, even if the opposition and the international community manage to achieve a semblance of a “transparent” Venezuelan presidential election.

The assumption that a free and fair election alone can resolve Venezuela’s complex issues is shortsighted. As we delve into this discussion, drawing parallels with Guatemala, a pivotal argument arises: winning an election marks just the beginning, and transitioning from victory to effective governance is a treacherous journey.

For almost a decade, the international community has advocated for a free and fair election as the solution to the Venezuelan crisis. While crucial, achieving fair elections alone is insufficient. Maduro has driven over 7 million Venezuelans to leave the country since 2014, constituting about 20 percent of the population. Guatemala’s experience further emphasizes that merely achieving the appearance of a presidential election is insufficient to address the root causes of the Venezuelan crisis.

Current U.S. policy, focusing on sanctions relief to encourage electoral improvements, faces severe limitations. Recent reports confirming crimes against humanity by the Maduro regime underscore the urgent need for a more practical approach.

The parallels with Guatemala´s current events highlight that a narrow focus on the executive branch overlooks the multifaceted challenges posed by state and non-state actors, including powerful illegal armed groups and foreign influences. The conflict between Israel and Hamas, for example, shows how dangerous it can be to have Iran cozy up to regional players such as Venezuela.

The lessons from Guatemala echo loudly: even if free and fair elections are held, a transition of power is not a straightforward process. The international community’s role in facilitating an effective transition in Venezuela becomes paramount. A comprehensive ‘carrot and stick’ approach, leveraging both incentives and deterrents, is essential. Guatemala’s success in this regard stems from the clarity and unity of U.S. government support, underlining the importance of consistent messaging and bipartisan backing.

Until very recently, U.S. policy fell short in pressuring for free and fair elections and overlooked potential challenges if the opposition candidate were to register and win in 2024. But in an October 18 statement put out by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the U.S. has specifically pressed for the release of political prisoners or the lifting of the candidacy ban for what will likely be the overwhelming winner in the upcoming October 22 primaries.

Just like in Guatemala, taking over the executive branch is not enough. There will be other state and non-state actors who will have the power to sow chaos in a transition. These not only include the regime-controlled National Assembly and Supreme Court, but also powerful illegal armed groups, such as the Colombian National Liberation Army (ELN) and regime-aligned oligarchs.

This goes without considering the role of Cuba and Iran in the state repression apparatus or the consequential debt with China that a new administration in Venezuela would have to consider. If a Prosecutor and economic elite have created barriers to a change of power in Guatemala, in that case, it is not hard to imagine the many layers of complexity that would exist in a Venezuelan transition. The magnitude and complexity are larger.

As a result, the case of Venezuela introduces fundamental questions about U.S. policy: what is the incentive for holding an election? Would an election really lead to a transition, or is success wishful thinking? It’s essential to define whether this is a political or a law enforcement problem, to then understand how to manage it. Understanding the nature of the problem is crucial because it determines the solution.

One of the key elements of support in the case of Guatemala has been the clarity and unity of the U.S. government in all of its forms, as well as the Organization of American States (OAS). President-elect Arévalo has not only met with senior members of the Biden administration from different agencies and departments, but also has bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress. This, in turn, has sent a clear message to the Guatemalan establishment of where the U.S. stands and the potential consequences for impeding a democratic transition in Guatemala.

Similarly, a new Venezuelan administration would have to consider leveraging the international community to lead an effective transition and govern in the face of a deeply entrenched mafia-run state. A more comprehensive ‘carrot and stick’ approach should be implemented to ensure that both incentives and deterrents are effectively employed.

In the case of Venezuela, the United States and Europe will have more leverage than ever since Maduro took office. U.S. oil companies are expected to continue to increase production in Venezuela, and European companies are already pushing for more control of their operations in potential new contracts. A protracted war in Russia and an active conflict in Israel pose the question if there will be any room left to implement such leverage in 2024. While these variables are unclear, and as the U.S. grapples with domestic political gridlock, it is not hard to fathom that the international community may not apply the required pressure for a democratic transition in Venezuela due to more immediate global crises. It is paradoxical that, despite China and Russia supporting the Maduro regime, it now may depend even more on Western sanctions lifting and oil companies doing business. As crises mount, will the U.S. leverage this influence to promote democracy in Venezuela?

The hope that an entrenched Maduro would stabilize the economy and cease repressing the Venezuelan people has yielded no tangible results. On the contrary, economic mismanagement and repression persist, prompting more Venezuelans to leave. It is in the best interest of the United States to have democracy and stability in Venezuela, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because a repressive regime like Maduro’s will continue to drive massive migration and not be a reliable business partner, among other challenges.

The United States needs to decide if it is committed to coordinating allies to advance democracy in Venezuela. The type of pressure that is being applied in the case of Guatemala is a positive blueprint. The issue remains if it will be enough in the case of Venezuela or even Guatemala.

As the international community grapples with the Venezuela crisis, the U.S. and Europe find themselves in a position of unseen leverage since Maduro assumed office. Economic interests, particularly in the energy sector, provide a unique tool to apply pressure. However, the geopolitical landscape introduces uncertainties, raising concerns about the international community’s focus and commitment to promoting democracy in Venezuela.

As diplomatic maneuvers unfold and economic pressures are brought to bear, the focus should not waver from the broader objective: empowering the Venezuelan people with a government that is accountable, transparent, and responsive to their needs.

The international community needs to recognize the lessons from Guatemala by understanding that the path to democratic governance is fraught with complexities. The echoes of Guatemala’s challenges are a stark reminder that comprehensive, sustained efforts are necessary to navigate the intricacies of political transition, especially in the wake of a deeply entrenched regime.


Carl Meacham spent over a decade as Senator Richard Lugar’s (R-IN) senior professional staffer for Latin America on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC). He served as the Director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and in senior leadership positions in government affairs and advocacy for Latin America at Uber and PhRMA. Currently, he is a Managing Director at FTI Consulting, specializing in trade, international affairs, political risk management, and Latin America.

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