A Plan to Steady Venezuela Falls Apart, Again

7 MINS READSep 13, 2017 | 11:31 GMT
Negotiations to create the conditions that would allow President Nicolas Maduro to step down have stalled yet again.

Negotiations continue to find a way to end Venezuela's political crisis by ushering President Nicolas Maduro from power.

  • Negotiators from the Vatican apparently tried to enlist Cuba's help in granting Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro the option of asylum, but Havana rejected the offer. The asylum offer seems to be part of a broader negotiation aimed at breaking the political impasse between Venezuela's government and its opposition.
  • Cuba's government is likely reluctant to grant Maduro asylum because his departure could threaten its supply of subsidized oil from Venezuela.
  • A plan being developed by the Mexican government to send oil shipments to Cuba could help revive discussions of asylum for Maduro. With a more secure source of oil and fuel, Havana would be less reluctant to accept a Maduro asylum request.

In many areas of the world, the interests of Russia, China and the United States do not align. But on the subject of Venezuela, they all want the same thing: an end to the political instability that has wracked the country and hamstrung its economy. But so far, outside efforts to facilitate a political solution to Venezuela's morass have come up short. A recent negotiation mediated by envoys from the Vatican that would have allowed Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to depart for Cuba has fallen apart, leaving the country's sticky political problems to fester.

Stratfor sources have consistently reported that for more than a year, Maduro has explored seeking asylum abroad. On Sept. 2, Argentine newspaper Clarin reported that a proposed agreement mediated by the Vatican to facilitate Maduro's passage to Cuba fell through. Under the terms of the agreement that had been on the table, Maduro would have departed for Cuba in exchange for continued Venezuelan oil exports to the island nation. As part of their effort to secure Maduro's departure and a transitional government in Venezuela, Vatican negotiators sought to enlist Russia's government to apply pressure on the government in Caracas for such an agreement. The talks reached an impasse because some members of the Cuban government and armed forces, who were not named in the report, would not accept that proposal.

Political stability in Venezuela will not come easily amid the chaos created by its economic freefall and the growing risk of dissident military challenges to the national government. Nevertheless, the governments in Washington, Moscow and elsewhere continue to work, both officially and behind the scenes, to press for an end to the crisis, although their motives do not necessarily line up. The United States would like to steer Venezuela back toward holding free and fair elections and reduce the risk of mass migration from the country. Russia would like to make sure its energy investments in Venezuela remain safe. China, for its part, is trying to safeguard not only its energy investments but also continued repayments for the extensive loans it has made over the past decade to Caracas. Cuba, which has been the beneficiary of a flow of low-cost oil and fuel from Venezuela, would like to keep that tap flowing for as long as possible.

The Price of Stability

But to secure political stability, those outside interests must first facilitate a soft landing for the Maduro government, including guaranteeing Maduro's ability to safely leave power. Maduro cannot take the risk of simply stepping down or allowing himself to be voted out of power. A new government, especially one dominated by the political opposition, could put him on trial in Venezuela or extradite him to the United States, where he could face criminal charges. The longer Maduro clings to power, the greater the risk becomes that opposition parties will stage renewed, more violent challenges to his administration or that dissident members of the military will intervene. Yet, unless he receives a guarantee that he can safely leave while retaining money and other assets, Maduro will see no reason to break from his political allies in the government. Therefore, it's logical that the Vatican would be trying to broker his safe passage out of the country — possibly in conjunction with the United States and Russian governments.

Eventually, the Vatican's offer to Cuba may yet be revived, or Maduro may express renewed interest in a deal. Another round of negotiations sponsored by the Dominican Republic was scheduled to start Sept. 13. But two key obstacles stand in the way of an agreement for Maduro to leave Venezuela. For starters, Venezuela's political opposition is relatively weak, and hard-liners in Maduro's administration like Diosdado Cabello and Vice President Tareck El Aissami have managed to intimidate and divide its members. The opposition has also lost some of its leverage against the Venezuelan ruling elite, as the government has sapped its ability to drive major protests. Cabello and other key officials control numerous Venezuelan governmental institutions and are unwilling to cede any to the opposition.

Even allowing free and fair gubernatorial elections presents problems for Cabello and his allies, given that governorships are key to controlling the patronage networks necessary to pay armed groups that defend the government. Some segments of the opposition, such as Voluntad Popular and Vente Venezuela, are also unlikely to want to cooperate with a post-Maduro government that leaves individuals like Cabello in key positions. Any asylum deal for the president may not be viable if no opposition coalition capable of administering the state after his departure emerges and remaining ruling party officials remain intransigent.

Cuba's thirst for subsidized oil and fuel from Venezuela has led it so far to reject a plan to allow President Nicolas Maduro, a staunch advocate of the subsidy program, to seek asylum there.

The Camilo Cienfuegos refinery, a joint project of Venezuela and Cuba, was inaugurated in 2007 under Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. A decade later, petroleum continues to tie the two countries together. Cuba relies on subsidized Venezuelan oil and fuel supplies to generate electricity.


Cuba's Objectives and Objections

The Cuban government forms the other major roadblock to a Maduro deal. Maduro's departure would leave Venezuela's foreign policy to politicians such as Cabello who do not share Maduro's close ties to the Raul Castro government. Those leaders of the ruling party who would remain in charge are more concerned with the survival of the current Venezuelan government above all else. Thus, if Maduro cedes power, the Cubans risk losing a key ally to grant them subsidized crude oil and fuel shipments. A loss of oil shipments would weaken the Cuban government's grip on power, as a majority of the island's electricity is generated using fuel oil and diesel. In the absence of a new energy patron, the risks associated with an asylum deal for Maduro may be simply unacceptable from the Cuban point of view. This possibility of losing oil supplies likely influenced Havana's decision to press for the appointment of Delcy Rodriguez — a Maduro loyalist — as president of Venezuela's National Constituent Assembly, which was installed on July 30 and rules by decree.

Cuban insecurity over future oil supplies is why Mexico's proposed plan to supply Cuba with subsidized oil is important for Venezuela. For more than a year, as Venezuela's ability to supply Cuba and small Caribbean and Central American states has faltered, Mexico's government has been considering taking over for Caracas. From a strategic point of view, this would grant Mexico greater regional influence through oil exports and possibly give the Mexican government additional leverage in trade talks with the United States. In return, Cuba would send Mexico shipments of agricultural commodities, such as sugar. Mexico would also be able to provide investment for Cuba's economy, something the United States cannot deliver as easily. If Mexico decides to go ahead with its plan, the Cuban government, with its energy future secure, might be more willing to cut a deal for Maduro's departure. For Cuba, a deal with Mexico would also be a stopgap measure while it negotiated the lifting of the U.S. economic embargo. Havana and Washington are slowly moving in the direction of normalizing economic relations. While some political and private sector officials in the United States support lifting the embargo, that move has not yet become politically feasible. Recent restrictions enacted by Washington on transactions between U.S. citizens and Cuban government entities made normalizing U.S.-Cuban relations more difficult in the short term.

There are plenty of obstacles preventing a deal to usher Maduro out of office. Some Venezuelan officials, such as Cabello, are reluctant to grant any concessions to their opponents. In the absence of a deal with the United States or their political opponents that protects their interests, they would continue to rule by decree with or without Maduro at the helm and cement a one-party state in Venezuela. But if Maduro makes another move to secure asylum, it would be a sign that Venezuela's government and opposition leaders are willing to attempt coming to a political understanding, and that outside actors, whether Cuba, the United States, Russia or the Vatican, are working to steer the country away from political confrontation.

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