Photo: The Guardian, retrieved.
Looked at from the outside, the Venezuelan crisis seems relatively easy to solve. Talk to anyone sort-of-smart (but uninformed) worldwide about Venezuela and they always come up with a variation on:
“Well, if both sides would just step back from all-or-nothing demands, there’s clearly room here for a power-sharing deal that leaves both sides better off.”
The Vatican, Pepe Mujica, the Norwegians, Antonio Guterres, Crisis Group, Ian Bremmer and pretty much everyone who’s looked at the Venezuelan crisis lands on this kind of formulation pretty quickly, and each of them think themselves a genius for having figured it out.
Power-sharing, it turns out, is the opium of the diplomats.
The process of mastering the Venezuelan brief is the process of grasping why these kinds of formulas are a mirage, an illusion that just can’t work. It takes real insight into and sustained contact with the particular brand of cultish extremism known as chavismo to understand why the Maduro regime would be so steadfast in its commitment to never meet the other side halfway.
Chavistas can’t negotiate towards a win-win compromise in good faith and remain chavistas, because the rejection of compromise is what defines chavismo in the first place.
Chavismo’s unwavering devotion to the creed of No Compromise isn’t rational. It can’t be made sense of in terms of cost-benefit analyses. It’s not tactical, it’s identitarian. The refusal to share power defines them. They see themselves as the guys who will never give an inch to the evil oligarchs on the other side. That’s how they understand themselves. Chavistas can’t negotiate towards a win-win compromise in good faith and remain chavistas, because the rejection of compromise is what defines chavismo in the first place. It is, when you look at it closely, the only ideological commitment neither Chávez nor Maduro has ever wavered from.
And yet, today the U.S. Special Envoy to Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, has just published a Democratic Transition Framework for Venezuela that calls on both sides to… wait for it… step back from all-or-nothing demands and embrace a power-sharing deal that leaves both sides better off.
For a long time, I greeted news out of Abrams’s office with a certain deference. Often, his line seemed not-very-well-grounded in Venezuelan reality, but I reasoned he had all the resources of the American state behind him and probably knew things I didn’t. Prudence seemed to demand a certain wait-and-see attitude.
But here we are, well into 2020. By now, American policy towards Venezuela has surely forfeited the benefit of the doubt. U.S. policy at this point is not merely ineffectual but incoherent: criminal indictments and entreaties towards a difference-splitting solution coming down the pipe one after another, with little apparent rhyme or reason. How Abrams is expecting the people for whom he’s offering $10 million bounties to come to the table and work out a deal is left unspecified.
U.S. policy at this point is not merely ineffectual but incoherent.
It’s difficult to meet the Abrams plan with anything short of despair. An enormously experienced Washington operator with decades of work in the region, Abrams was supposed to be one of the smart ones: a shrewd operator with particular insight into our world. That after fifteen months into the job, he would circle back to this dog’s breakfast is enormously disheartening.
I go to bed at night praying the next few months will prove me wrong. I’d love nothing more than to wipe this particular egg off of my face. But the evidence now seems clear that the U.S. is improvising its response, and it’s not even improvising it coherently.
It’s hard to know what Abrams is hoping to achieve with this proposal. Apart from the particulars, it’s clear it can’t work simply due to its provenance. Chavismo cannot be seen to acquiesce to a plan concocted by Washington, so any vanishingly tiny possibility of success this idea might have had is vitiated by the manner of its presentation. Perhaps it makes more sense to interpret it as a move in some complicated Washington turf war between the State Department and some other center of power—the National Security Council? The Justice Department? Whatever it may be, we know what it’s not: a realistic way out of the Venezuelan impasse.