Venezuela: Questions for the day after

Putting Venezuela back together again will mean that weak or non-existent institutions in government, law, business, and civil society will need to emerge. International coordination will be key.


News headlines make it seem that the Venezuela political situation has suddenly erupted, with whiffs of “regime change” and all it conjures up in terms of uncertainty and what will need to be done ex-post.

As a Latin America-focused American business lawyer, active in human rights and international policy, it strikes me how it is sustained, collaborative diplomatic efforts in Latin America that have brought us to this point. These have been sustained by the countries that signed the 2017 Lima Declaration (Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, and Peru) and OAS Secretary General Luis Almágro’s activism, all in conjunction with efforts by Venezuelan democrats, especially National Assembly President Juan Guaidó and Miguel Angel Martín, President of the Venezuelan Supreme Court in Exile.

This collaboration provided the solution to the collective action dilemma that has allowed Nicolas Maduro to stay in power despite consistent, often unified international opposition to his authoritarian rule. It has also catalyzed the impending response to the humanitarian crisis there. Because of this organic, informal bloc, the change that will likely happen will come not from sudden efforts by the U.S. or any other individual actor, but instead from broad-based support by regional players, in government, civil society and the business community. But such effort will require sustained coordination and thoughtful planning.

Such coordination is more important now than ever, as Guaidó accumulates overwhelming national and international support, legitimizing his role under Venezuela’s constitution as interim president in the absence of a legitimately elected executive. With opponents jailed, free speech curtailed, and international observers barred from participating in the May 2018 presidential contest, more than 50 countries denounced Nicolas Maduro’s election as illegitimate. One of the first steps for reconstruction is a policy of serious and transparent, coordinated planning by the international community, policy-makers and the business community to ensure the political and legal environment for legitimately free and fair elections.

The facts on the ground tell a story of devastation and the need to rebuild both public and private sectors. Venezuela’s economy has shrunk by 50 percent in recent years. Chávez and Maduro expropriated private businesses and property with reckless abandon. What was not expropriated was exposed to looting, theft and extortion. PdVSA’s production has contracted; its capital infrastructure is in tremendous disrepair; it is in deep debt, which will be all the harder to restructure with world oil supplies high and prices low. Basic goods like food, medicine, consumer products, and building materials are in short supply at best.

However great the need—or, as we optimists say, the “opportunity”—to rebuild, there is a cloud of mystery hanging over the future direction of the country post-Maduro. Key questions include the political environment, the role of foreign players, the return of at least parts of the still-growing Venezuelan diaspora, and the strengthening or establishment of necessary institutions.

Politically, it is anybody’s guess whether there will be a national unity government for some period—some kind of post-Maduro honeymoon involving some measure of amnesty and compromise for the sake of basic restoration. Or will the enduring social divisions of Venezuelan society that led Chavez to power and helped to sustain Maduro perpetuate disorder and produce conflict, recriminations, high crime and violence? From diplomats in the Grupo de Lima to business, legal, and civil society leaders, all will have to stay involved to lend a helping hand to support constructive engagement between and among Venezuelan stakeholders to maximize the chance to midwife restoration through stability and to encourage needed foreign investment.

Transparency will be essential. Will foreign participation in rebuilding be welcomed openly, or will there be a feast of corruption as the price of admission? On the side of potentially unsavory foreign actors, what about the interests of Cuba, China, and Russia: are they lost, up for grabs, or will they linger?

So many Venezuelans have left the country over the last two decades, hollowing out the professional class and producing a refugee crisis. How many will want to, or be able to, return home, and to what kind of changed opportunities? Given all of the wealth that has been taken out of the country, what policies will attract its return, and how will looted assets be found and repatriated? What foreign holdings by members of the soon-to-be-former regime will be found and restored? How fast will resumption of law and order proceed and how will that affect operations of criminal and drug trafficking organizations currently operating with impunity or even (paid) support from the current regime?

Weak or non-existent institutions will have to establish themselves in government, law, business, and civil society. International coordination has led us this far, but the hard work lies ahead.

Hunter T. Carter is a partner at Arent Fox, LLP and a founding board member of Global Americans. He is the co-chair of AFInternational, Arent Fox’s international services group, focusing on Latin America.

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