Why the Barbados Agreement Failed: Maduro Needs an Off-Ramp

Though the agreement nominally gave the regime a fair chance at winning the election by lifting sanctions and boosting the economy, a fair chance was not good enough for Maduro when electoral loss could mean the rest of his life behind bars.


Image Source: Federico Parra / AFP.

On May 28, in what seems like a final nail in the coffin for the Barbados Agreement, Venezuela retracted its invitation to EU election observers, demanding more substantial sanctions relief. The retraction puts the hope of any reliable election observation for this July’s presidential election at risk, a move which could enable more overt election rigging than had initially been expected from the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

While some analysts, including myself, were cautiously optimistic at the signing of the Barbados Agreement – a major accomplishment as the first direct negotiation between the government and the opposition since Venezuela’s fraudulent 2018 election – in hindsight, it had one major flaw that doomed it from the start. Though the agreement nominally gave the regime a fair chance at winning the election by lifting sanctions and boosting the economy, a fair chance was not good enough for Maduro when electoral loss could mean the rest of his life behind bars. The Barbados Agreement lacked an off-ramp.

Over thirty years ago, at the height of the third wave of democratization in the 1980s, Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe C. Schmitter wrote a discipline-defining analysis of the eras’ transitions from authoritarian rule, identifying ‘pacts’ between incoming civilian representatives and outgoing military juntas as one of the key components that made such transitions possible. These pacts responded to the prevailing sense of uncertainty that deterred military dictators from giving up power, namely the fear that new civilian administrations would be forced to punish the former government for excesses committed under military rule. In successful transitions, reputable civilian representatives would make credible agreements to prevent subsequent democratic governments from exacting vengeance against the former rulers.

In one such prominent case, the democratic transition away from Pinochet’s rule in Chile, the outgoing strongman was guaranteed parliamentary immunity under the country’s constitution. Although these and other conditions were imposed by Pinochet himself, the incoming democratic forces accepted the rules of the game as a means to ensure democratization.  When Pinochet was arrested in London a decade later, the Chilean government successfully petitioned his release on humanitarian grounds, and Chilean courts repeatedly rejected lawsuits against the former dictator. Though the arrest prompted a new national investigation into the atrocities of his rule, judicial authorities insisted Pinochet himself remain immune from the results of the investigation, citing the constitutional agreement.

While Maduro’s regime in Venezuela may not be the naked military dictatorship that Pinochet’s was, events since the Barbados Agreement was signed have revealed the transition process to be equally subject to the whims of the regime, and unlikely to result in a fair election. Just days after the agreement was signed, Maria Corina Machado won opposition primaries with a high participation rate and a staggering 90 percent of the vote. The government reacted with surprise, immediately upholding a prior ban on Machado’s participation in the upcoming election and cracking down on the opposition group that had held the primary. When she appointed a surrogate to replace her in the election, Corina Yoris, she too was barred, in a widely condemned decision that led to a sanctions slapback from the U.S. and EU. Only a relatively unknown third candidate, Edmundo Gonzalez, was allowed to register for the opposition, with regime insiders reporting that the administration believed Maduro could prevail over a fractured opposition without overt election manipulation.

That presumed fracture never came. In a remarkable show of opposition unity, and a demonstration of Machado’s unprecedented political savvy as a post-Chavez opposition leader, the latest polls show over 60 percent of Venezuelans intend to vote for Gonzalez for president in the July elections. Almost 90 percent of that support comes from voters who say they will vote for whomever Machado tells them to, leading to a shocking 50-point polling lead for a candidate that half of Venezuelans said they had never heard of before his candidacy.

However, even without Machado’s political maneuvering, it has become more and more clear that the regime has exhausted the last of its political support. Over 40 percent of Venezuelans say they plan to leave the country if Maduro wins the July election, in addition to the nearly 8 million Venezuelan refugees who have already fled in the hemisphere’s largest migration crisis. Traditional working-class bastions of chavista support are beginning to engage the opposition as the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ fails to deliver on its economic promises. Young Venezuelans, especially, feel the need to search for greener pastures elsewhere, with much of the ruling party’s remaining support coming from older voters who fondly remember the days of Maduro’s late mentor, President Hugo Chavez.

In other words, while negotiators approached the Barbados Agreement as a tool for fair elections, given the ruling party’s inability to win free and fair elections, negotiations over electoral conditions should have been acknowledged more directly as the negotiated regime transition that they truly represented.

As things stand, it seems evident that the regime now intends to fabricate an electoral victory to remain in power. Policymakers around the region should begin to turn their focus from guaranteeing now-improbable electoral fairness to preparing for the electoral aftermath. With such low support among the population, protests are likely to break out against the Maduro regime, which will be forced to respond with the only tool it has left: the military. Regional stakeholders, especially neighboring Colombia and nearby Panama, should expect an outpouring of migration, and unfortunately, a possible bloodbath in the country, as the regime cracks down on those who choose to stay or are unable to flee.

Nevertheless, an electoral defeat for the opposition today does not mean we should simply sit by and wait for tomorrow. The Maduro regime cannot last forever, and this July may demonstrate that more clearly than ever to both the region and the regime itself. While the regime is at its lowest, as may be expected in the wake of the election, is a time for renewed negotiation rather than diplomatic isolation and the ever-tightening noose of U.S. sanctions. Only this time, negotiations should be predicated on providing Maduro and his key cronies the necessary off-ramp for a planned democratic transition. 

While the image of Maduro living out his days on a nice beach in the Maldives or the UAE may be a bitter pill for many to swallow, it may also represent the best chance for a new beginning for Venezuela and its people.

Scott Brasesco is a Senior Director at Global Americans.

Next Generation Commentary is a new GA series offering fresh insights from young analysts on the Americas, including our talented staff and interns.

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