Venezuela Is at a Critical Juncture

Venezuela is at a critical juncture, with tentative plans for negotiations to begin between the Maduro regime and representatives from the opposition in late summer of 2021 ahead of the November local elections. Against this background, political repression, restrictions on civic space, and the region’s most significant ongoing humanitarian crises have persisted and even increased in the country, causing over five million Venezuelans to flee abroad. In response to the Maduro government’s repressive actions, the United States has imposed expansive economic sanctions against Venezuela. The potential talks, which would be mediated by Norway, provide a chance for the Maduro regime to change its behavior and show signs of good faith, as well as for the United States to lift broad stifling sanctions that have a negative impact on Venezuelans.

First, the Maduro regime is currently detaining nearly 300 political prisoners in Venezuela according to the civil society organization Foro Penal, and these dissidents should be immediately released. Arrests and torture, as well as extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances, have been carried out by a broad range of security agencies, including the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana), Special Action Forces (Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales), and the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional), which indicates the systemic nature of harm faced by those who criticize the government. Trumped up criminal charges are routinely brought against individuals who are arbitrarily detained, and due to judicial delays political prisoners are often held for years without a trial, during which they may face sexual abuse and torture.

As part of any talks or negotiations, the Maduro administration should take immediate and concrete measures to release political prisoners in order to begin to bring itself in line with its obligations under Article 9 of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights. Unfortunately, recent developments suggest that Maduro’s approach to negotiations remains the same as in the past. For example, on July 12, 2021, the prominent opposition member Freddy Guevara was arbitrarily detained, charged with terrorism, attacks against the constitutional order, conspiracy to commit a crime and treason against the homeland. He was also denied the ability to speak with an attorney of his choosing after the tentative plans for talks were reported. Freddy Guevara as well as the hundreds of other prisoners must be released for Venezuela to comply with international human rights norms.

Additionally, the Maduro administration has vastly restricted civic space for journalists, protestors, and human rights defenders. The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has noted that media workers critical of the government are often silenced through a dual strategy whereby public officials malign journalists in order to discredit them, and spurious criminal charges are then brought against them under terrorism or hate crime statutes. These campaigns against media workers and their organizations often include raids, confiscation of broadcasting equipment, and arbitrary detentions. Similar tactics have been used against human rights defenders, including three members of FundaRedes who were detained in July 2021, despite the fact that one of them had been granted protective measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Additionally, over 2,000 protestors have been arbitrarily detained from January 1st, 2014 through July 15, 2020 under the Maduro administration. In order for truly democratic elections to be held in November, and to set the stage for the 2024 presidential elections, there must be guarantees put in place to ensure that these past abuses do not create a chilling effect, and that an environment exists in which individuals and civil society actors can exercise their freedoms of association and expression.

Finally, negotiations provide an opportunity for the United States to reconsider the broad economic sanctions against Venezuela that were originally imposed under the Trump administration. These sanctions have been implemented during, and likely exacerbated, an economic crisis that has given rise to a devastating level of instability for Venezuelan citizens. Approximately one in three Venezuelans suffers from food insecurity, and sixty percent of the population is at risk of becoming food insecure, which has only worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of the population has limited access to running water, in part due to frequent electricity outages that prevent water pumps from operating, and domestic fuel shortages additionally hinder the provision of a large cross-section of essential services. This confluence of limited basic resources has ripple effects throughout Venezuela’s health sector, and impedes access to medical care.

There are multiple factors that have contributed to this crisis, including the Maduro administration’s mismanagement of the oil sector, its blocking of humanitarian assistance, and the unstable energy market on which Venezuela depends. However, numerous observers have expressed concerns that the continuation of the Trump administrations’ economic sanctions against Venezuela violate international law and have led to additional suffering on the part of the Venezuelan people. The U.N. Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights, Ms. Alena Douhan, found that U.S. sanctions have restricted access to “machinery, spare parts, medicine, food, agricultural supplies and other essential goods.” This analysis confirms the OHCHR’s conclusions that sanctions have contributed to the deterioration of Venezuelan society.

In addition to harming the economy, the nonpartisan U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that over compliance with U.S. regulations has prevented essential humanitarian aid from reaching the country, a call that has been echoed by international human rights organizations. In a limited but positive measure, the United States allowed Venezuela to import propane for cooking fuel in July 2021. Going forward, any sanctions must be based on multilateral efforts with U.S. allies that target specific human rights violators, and the United States should take actions to remove sectoral sanctions that prevent Venezuelans from accessing basic goods.

A solution to Venezuela’s political crisis and humanitarian emergency will inevitably incorporate a broad range of national and international actors, and will likely take time to fully implement as part of a structured process. Among the measures that should be adopted, the Maduro regime must uphold its human rights obligations and, in tandem with these actions, the Biden administration should support the Venezuelan people by lifting broad economic sanctions against Venezuela.