One Agreement to Bind Them All

Dialogue in Mexico is apparently taking shape with an UN-controlled humanitarian fund and a cloudy route for acceptable elections in 2024. We try to make sense of the new landscape

This is all new to us. The country that some used to call “Saudi Venezuela” is now the beneficiary of a humanitarian initiative, designed to allocate frozen national funds for a short menu of urgent needs, chosen from a long list of problems to solve in our devastated nation. It isn’t foreign aid: the money is ours, we can say, except that it’s been kept unused—or protected—abroad in accounts frozen by the countries that recognized then-Speaker Juan Guaidó as caretaker president in 2019. Mind the irony: neither the people in power—Maduro’s regime—nor the people who were supposed to manage that money—the caretakership—are touching it, but the Multipartner Trust Fund Office, or MTFO, which reports to the United Nations Development Program. 

Venezuela is like a former rich boy, now ruined and sick, who’ll receive medicine and food from a tutor because he’s likely to squander the remains of his bank account.

It isn’t clear how the different institutions that blocked or confiscated the funds will unfreeze them, but the most common figure is around $2.7 billion, which the MTFO will collect and send to several UN agencies in charge of contracting and managing the programs chavismo and opposition agreed upon, on healthcare (vaccines, medicine, equipment, hospital repairs and maintenance), education (mostly school infrastructure) and food security (by expanding the World Food Programme activities in Venezuela). Will it work? Well, MTFO has almost 20 years of experience managing more than $17 billion in 200 funds. Among them, one to allocate the funds deposited in Swiss banks by the daughter of Uzbekistan’s dictator, that are now being used in the country where they belong. 

Theoretically, we will be able to see what happens with the funds, because the MTFO publishes reports of how it uses them. We can also count on chavismo doing its best to get political credit on any work financed by this UN-managed trust, by staging inaugurations as if they had renovated a hospital room, and by feeding the Cuban-style trope of sanctions as “criminal aggressions.” Additionally, as insiders of humanitarian work and local economists have said, those millions won’t cover at all the magnitude of the needs. But the nation is in such bad shape that all aid is welcome, and this is a solid, public first step in a realpolitik international agenda that leaves behind the maximum pressure methods and the regime change aspirations, to embrace two more modest goals. One, alleviating the conditions that turned Venezuela into a hemispheric migration problem. Two, engineering a palatable electoral contest after which the West can leave the hot potato of political legitimacy back in Venezuelan hands. 

The United States, Canada and the European Union, among other actors in the same geopolitical team, need Venezuela to be less dysfunctional, in order to turn the page of what didn’t happened (watching an illegitimate and murderous regime collapse in 2019) and get on with so many other problems of our world, such as inflation, recession, Putin’s testosterone, China’s dystopian course, climate, etc. Ideally, the “international community” would profit from a moment when the three main allies of Maduro (Russia, Iran and Cuba) are distracted with domestic worries to make him bend, and perhaps opening a door to reestablishing diplomatic relations and opportunities to rescue the energy sector in Venezuela. 

The fact is, those world powers need to close the Venezuelan dossier, saving face as much as possible, and for that they need acceptable elections after which they can say the people spoke. The Norwegians mediation team would score another “happy ending.” AMLO could say his country hosted a family reunion for reconciliation. Obviously, it all depends on a dictatorship with high leverage and a history of ignoring commitments, that is currently telling everyone it will give nothing while it wants everything, and on a repeatedly defeated opposition that must be somehow fixed to run again. 

The Opposition’s Play

Venezuela’s international stakeholders want proper voting conditions (that are very hard to achieve), the possibility of including the diaspora vote (even harder), and a proper opposition primary and presidential campaign. For political scientist Stefania Vitale, the chances of achieving that agenda must be estimated from the reality of Venezuelan opposition parties. If they were already weak in 1998, when they failed to stop Hugo Chávez, in 2022 they are depleted of people, money, prestige and all kinds of capacities, after so many mistakes and pressure that included, for some of them, real human suffering. One must wonder how a politician can organize a political campaign against Maduro. How do they fund it, with a private sector under persecution and hurt by economic decline? How do they recruit party members during a multi-factor crisis? “Anyway, the opposition is diverse, with different interests,” Vitale says, “and we don’t know how the U.S. could force Maduro to comply with electoral conditions that are always volatile. Even if the opposition parties may be thinking not only about a presidential election in 2024 but on regional elections in 2025, some of them are discounting the future: they stop thinking about a future they can’t see how to use.”

The opposition must follow the agenda set by the foreign sponsors who provide the only funding it has, whatever it is, and at the same time seek the votes of a population that was told many times that we don’t negotiate with criminals. Vitale points at a powerful lesson: “The parties should have negotiated with chavismo when they had more capacities. Now they don’t have any, and they must not only make Maduro honor his eventual commitments, but to convince their own actors and voters that redemocratization must be negotiated inch by inch. The parties face a crucial crossroads with this dialogue: they use the moment to rebuild themselves, or they must accept chavista rule for a much longer time.”  

Vitale warns that there’s a lot to be defined, like the election method the primaries will use to guarantee representation of the winner, and therefore legitimacy. Or whether Manuel Rosales will take part in them, for instance. Another political analyst, Enderson Sequera, is sure that the opposition—except María Corina Machado—will nominate candidates for the elections in 2024 no matter the conditions. “More than a real aspiration, the voting conditions are just a flag the G4 used to justify the return to the electoral route,” he says.

“It’s a goal to mobilize the voters, not something that would condition participating in the presidential election. Actually, in this context so favorable to chavismo, and with the primaries still far from sparking enthusiasm, the Unitary Platform’s strategy in Mexico seems to consist on getting voting conditions by begging.” 

Sequera sees the opposition granting concessions ad infinitum, waiting for a nice gesture from chavismo to compete in 2024. “Paradoxically, it seems that the only chance the opposition gets better conditions is that chavismo believes that even without fraud it can win in 2024.” Besides, not everyone within the opposition experiences the same sense of urgency. Sequera thinks that people like Juan Guaidó or Juan Pablo Guanipa, among others, are still aware of the need of change and keep their will of power despite their own failures, while other emerging leaders prefer to wait, and a chunk of the opposition just expects to survive no matter what, adapting to the status quo. “This last one is the case of Rosales and Fuerza Vecinal. I don’t know which category Capriles belongs to.”

Meanwhile, how has this news been received among the people who are supposed to get the ultimate benefits of all this, common Venezuelans? For political scientist Ana Milagros Parra, co-host of A Medias podcast, most people aren’t even aware of what’s happening, and those who know will show minimal interest compared to the collective obsession about politics that was typical of previous years. “People here are quite separated from politics and focused on their own personal realities, just as the government wanted,” Parra says. “Perhaps they’ll begin to pay attention when they perceive a tangible agreement, but for now, the dialogue is something happening up there, with no impact on their lives.”

The process for the primaries is still looking for its final shape, so its eventual voters have yet to show interest in it. It’s uncertain how many people would show up to participate in them, besides party members. Parra points out a critical issue: the country is entering a new phase and the opposition is unable to describe it to millions of voters who trust no one, and who feel that the international community is also unable to bring some improvement to daily life in Venezuela.

“The opposition can no longer use the narrative about regime change, but even when a lot of things are happening, they have no leaders or a homogenous discourse to translate all this to the people.”

Even so, Parra thinks that if the opposition achieves a united front, and some event reignites the nation’s anger, people will vote again. “Venezuela is the country of sudden changes.”