Nicolás Maduro, the successor of the Bolivarian revolution, who spent years as Hugo Chávez's chancellor, accumulated diplomatic conflicts. The last: a friction with the European Union as a result of the new sanctions on 19 officials, the reactive expulsion of the Brussels ambassador in Caracas, Isabel Brilhante, and the reciprocal measure from Europe to declare Claudia Salerno Caldera, representative, persona non grata of the Venezuelan regime in Europe, which led to the revocation of its diplomatic status. The play, however, acquires another dimension in the current stage of the prolonged Venezuelan crisis. Chavismo has managed to stay on its feet – although not without consequences – in the midst of the intense storm of sanctions that has exacerbated Washington since 2019. It has been left without a real opposition to counterbalance it on the institutional ground. The international community, and its language of sanctions, looks like the only lever to move things around in the South American country and Maduro seems willing to isolate himself even more in the face of pressure.
It is not the scenario of last June, when the Chavista leader also fired Brilhante, but a call between the high representative of European foreign policy, Josep Borrell, and Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza prevented the exit. Europe exhausted attempts at dialogue to request a suspension of the December 6 parliamentary elections that left the opposition out and raised serious questions about their transparency and a very high abstention. Borrell sent a part of his team to mediate, but Maduro went ahead with his plan. Reading the names of the 19 sanctioned collects the spectrum of accusations that weigh on Maduro: there are opposition deputies that he has appointed himself, electoral arbitrators and the magistrates who chose those electoral arbitrators. All are accused "of undermining the electoral rights of the opposition and the democratic functioning of the National Assembly." But there are also the heads of police and military bodies who are listed as responsible for committing crimes against humanity, according to the assessment made by the Independent Fact-finding Mission sent by the United Nations and whose results were presented last September.
"Either you rectify or with you there is never any treatment of any kind," Maduro said this Wednesday in a ceremony after the European diplomat was expelled. The manners used by Caracas also support the thesis that the Maduro government is moving towards radicalization. Brilhante was called to Arreaza's office, where the declaration of persona non grata was delivered to her in an act that was televised, something totally outside the forms of international diplomacy. Diplomatic representatives from Germany, France, the Netherlands and Spain followed who were handed out protest notes and given a warning.
This Saturday, in addition, the Venezuelan leader announced that he would review "thoroughly" the relationship with Spain, considering as an aggression the recent visit to the border between Venezuela and Colombia by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Arancha González Laya. The objective of the head of Spanish diplomacy was to supervise the cooperation projects that her country has in the main recipient of the more than five million Venezuelans who have fled a devastating economic and institutional crisis in recent years.
"The EU has made a clear signal to Maduro with the new sanctions: they have done everything possible so far for a negotiation that facilitates democratization in Venezuela, all they can do, but they understand that Maduro is hindering it," explains the political scientist Angel Alvarez. "They are telling him that if he radicalizes, only more sanctions will come," adds the academic.
In a kind of shadow boxing, the new individual sanctions come as a sudden hook to Maduro and also to the narrative that Chavismo has built, and which has an echo in Europe, about the effect of these measures on the worsening of the crisis humanitarian of the country. From Brussels, political analyst Nelson Dordelly Rosales points out that what happened will end up raising the tone of the most radical voices that support the sanctions, since the expulsion of the European ambassador can be taken as a slap to the 27 of the bloc. Thus, Venezuela returns to the agenda that other domestic and international conflicts have monopolized, such as vaccination against covid-19, the crisis with Moscow and Myanmar.
The reaction of Caracas, on the other hand, is a sign that the most closed positions are also being listened to. "The regime is determined to isolate itself more and stay out," says the specialist in international law. "The most serious thing about this is that all the things that the European Union is doing in Venezuela with humanitarian aid are also put in suspense," he adds. Dordelly Rosales continues to underline the geopolitical rebound in Venezuela's aggressive reaction, which could be due to Russian influence in the regime. Two weeks ago, the Kremlin expelled three European ambassadors – accusing them of supporting the opposition Alexei Nalvany – and did so just during Borrell's visit to that country. The analyst adds that the position that the United States played with the Trump Administration and Europe with respect to Venezuela, in which the former played the bad cop and the latter tended to negotiate, has changed with the arrival of Joe Biden. "After the visit of Antony Blinken – US Secretary of State – to Munich it is clearer that the EU and the United States are going to work more together."
The economic lever
Maduro spoke at the United Nations this week about how sanctions have prevented him from fulfilling his responsibilities as head of state by restricting the country's sources of income. He said that he faces more than 450 punitive measures that seek to exert "excessive pressure and persecution" against him. This week it has also approved millionaire resources to reactivate infrastructure works, leveraged on the investments it has captured in some privatization of state companies and in the legal opacity of the anti-blockade law. Chavismo has managed to accommodate itself to the siege, although it maintains its recurring narrative of external aggression.
From the perspective of Álvarez, and also of some national consulting firms such as Anova that have measured it, the sanctions have had a liberalizing effect on some stress points of the economic crisis, something that has been positive for improving the living conditions of some sectors of the population. "While Maduro has strengthened politically, he has been forced to liberalize economically," says the political scientist. Although these measures do not immediately lead to the democratization demanded by the opposition and the international community, in the long term, in their opinion, they pave the way for the internal pressure to be developed to push for a transition. “The population is in subhuman conditions of daily subsistence. You cannot think of democracy if you are thinking about the food for the next 24 hours ”.
Europe's measures have been seen by some moderate sectors of the opposition as a kick to attempts to negotiate better electoral conditions for the regional elections scheduled this year, under the premise that they can help to rebuild this path of participation as a way out. to the crisis. But from Álvarez's point of view, "Maduro is not going to negotiate politically with the opposition, with sanctions or not, because he doesn't have to." Its internal strength is directly related to the weakening of the opposition led by Juan Guaidó, which has lost space for dialogue. "Maduro can dispense with the relevant opposition and stay with the loyal one."
Along the same lines, the political scientist Maryhen Jiménez, associate researcher at the University of Oxford, points out that the moment in which the sanctions are produced is key to capitalizing on their effect and that, given the readjustment of Chavismo to the sanctions, a rearrangement of the opposition to the new circumstances. The recent ones, he believes, vanish the unifying property of the electoral path and exacerbate the dilemmas that have divided the opposition. "They arrive at a difficult time to capitalize on them, in a window where there are regional elections this year, in an authoritarian context, and a possibility of a recall referendum in the next," says Jiménez. "There are sectors that believe that the election is like a possibility, it is a window of opportunity to negotiate and that other expressions of the opposition may arise, but the sanctions represent a warning, because no one wants to be sanctioned."
With a strengthened Maduro, who has no real need to negotiate, “any decision made by foreign actors can be used as an excuse to close ranks towards radicalization and to also have something to say to that 15% of the base that is undermined with Maduro and the elites who accompany him in his government ”.