The Norwegian Talks

Norway has a tradition of neutrality and solid know-how on international negotiations. Now that it joined the foreign efforts to produce a peaceful outcome in Venezuela, what can we expect?

Photo: Efecto Cocuyo

Throughout 2019, Venezuela’s conflict has become a global problem. It’s not that there was no interest about it in previous years; it’s that the terrible living conditions experienced by Venezuelans now, the migrant avalanche (perhaps I should talk about displacement, instead) across the Western Hemisphere and the increasingly visible web of criminal activities connected with the Maduro regime have sparked more than the attention of many countries and international bodies. It’s come to a point where everyone finally agrees it’s necessary to do something about Venezuela.

And when I say everyone, I mean it. What started more than two years ago with the almost personal crusade of Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS) became a fixed idea for U.S. President Donald Trump: Venezuela must recover democracy. The desire was mirrored later by other Latin American countries, giving way to the creation, in 2017, of the Lima Group, whose members disregarded the elections held by chavismo in May 2018. Maduro’s most powerful allies, Russia and China, didn’t hesitate to support him then. Of course, the Cuban regime can’t be more involved in the matter: its stability depends on the Bolivarian Revolution’s continuity.

The Venezuelan conflict is too peculiar, totally asymmetrical and it involves multiple foreign interests. It’s also a conflict that has aligned the world’s democracies on one side and the autocracies on the other

Everything intensified this year, when Juan Guaidó took his oath as caretaker president and was recognized by over 50 countries. The European Union, skeptical about Trump’s belligerence, created by request of European socialists (especially the Spanish government) the International Contact Group, to try and approach the situation in a firm and conciliatory fashion. Governments close to Maduro, such as Uruguay, Bolivia and Mexico, proposed the “Montevideo Mechanism,” as a way to negotiate without compromising from the get-go, but the formula doesn’t seem reliable to the other democracies. The matter has also been discussed in the United Nations Security Council, always without reaching an agreement. Was there anyone else seeking to get involved?

Yes. Norway.

If there’s a country recognized for its commitment to peace, that’s Norway. They peacefully split from Sweden at the start of the 20th century, and now house some of the oldest and most prestigious think tanks for studying conflicts and their peaceful resolution. They also have a considerable intergenerational savings fund (owed both to the wise management of their oil rent and their society’s austere habits) which allows them to offer generous assistance to other countries’ development. In recent years, they’ve promoted the search of peace in over 20 different conflicts.

What does Norway offer in order to persuade so many actors in conflict to seek their support? Basically three things: neutrality, discretion and know-how.

Their neutrality owes much to their history and geographic location: they don’t have too many borders, they’re relatively isolated and they were never a colonial power. Although they’re part of NATO, they’re not members of the European Union. They never stand in favor of any party in a conflict, being open to talk with everyone. Therefore, it has discrete channels and offers ample possibilities to establish contacts. One of its most famous figures, Johan Galtung, is in fact the father of a whole branch of studies known as “peace research.”

If there’s a country recognized for its commitment to peace, that’s Norway. 

It’s worth mentioning that the specific methodology to seek peaceful solutions may vary greatly depending on each case; in general, it has a basic format in turn divided into several phases. The first is key, because it defines whether there will be a negotiation or not: the pre-negotiation phase. Its primary goals are establishing communication channels between the actors in conflict, generating enough trust between them to work seriously in an agreed solution, and create a negotiation agenda. These contacts tend to be discrete, far from public view and with the help of mediators that will create some sort of “conflict map” or diagram, to help them understand the basic structure and particular traits.

The Norwegian government’s recent statements, recognizing the development of preliminary contacts in their country between chavista and democratic representatives, seems to indicate that they’re working on this pre-negotiation phase. Although there’s little public information so far, we know of, first, the presence of Cuban government representatives and meetings in Cuban soil; second, the statements of important Venezuelan democratic leaders, who seem to keep their distance from the process, and; third, the fact that chavismo, and possibly other sectors, surrendered information about it.

It’s impossible not to remember the scheme of negotiations developed in recent years in Colombia, between the Santos government and the FARC. That time, a pre-negotiation phase was silently developed for a year before Santos himself made it known, and such prior contacts developed in Oslo and Havana. In fact, Cuba and Norway were “guarantors” of the process, while Venezuela and Chile “accompanied” it. In other words, Santos and the Norwegian mediators seem to have reached the conclusion that it’d be impossible to negotiate with the FARC, if Cuba and Venezuela didn’t take part in the process. Today, it seems they recognize that a solution in Venezuela means dealing with the Cuban regime.

Since the Colombian process took place just a few years ago, it’s almost natural to think that the channels created between those actors remain open. It’s not crazy to think that even Santos himself, awarded with a Nobel Peace Prize, might be playing some role in the process. Meanwhile, it’s clear that Maduro has used dialogue several times to win some time and reduce pressure from his adversaries; in fact, once the “Zapatero way” was exhausted, Chávez’s successor tried to apply the “Montevideo Mechanism” with no credibility from the democratic forces. It’s perhaps possible for Norway to be seen by both sides as a more reliable instance, and Cuba (whose government is also interested in finding escape valves) may have shown preference for Norway over other alternatives.

For now, saying anything more would be speculating and we don’t have enough space here to go deeper. We can conclude that negotiation is never a problem; the problem resides in losing sight of the reasons, methods and actors for negotiation.

The Venezuelan conflict is too peculiar, totally asymmetrical and it involves multiple foreign interests. It’s also a conflict that has aligned the world’s democracies on one side and the autocracies on the other, as the humanitarian emergency intensifies. We could wonder, then, if keeping a strictly neutral stance will actually help, since a negotiation that isn’t focused on ending the regime as soon as possible might become a part of the problem, and even worsen it.