Can Europe Stop a Venezuelan Civil War?

Can Europe Stop a Venezuelan Civil War?
AP Photo/Fernando Llano

This piece is part of a small RealClearWorld series featuring different points of view on the crisis in Venezuela. The views expressed here are the author's own. Click here to read Julian Adorney's indictment of Chavismo, and here to read Jason Marczak's piece on the importance of diplomacy.

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Since April, more than 130 civilians have died in near-daily protests against the Venezuelan regime. As President Nicolas Maduro continues to cement his dictatorship, the European Union finally seems to be taking the situation in Venezuela more seriously. Targeted sanctions are being considered at a high level. Despite an increased sense of urgency to act, the European Union has yet to pass from words to action. But how can Europe at this stage act effectively to prevent a full-scale armed conflict?

Aside from insisting that the government restore the full powers of Venezuela’s National Assembly, release political prisoners, and open a humanitarian assistance line, the European Union and the international community should start thinking about the bigger picture. We need to help solve the Venezuela crisis for good.

Venezuela is on the brink of a civil war. A serious political breakdown that has been building for years has escalated to frightening levels in recent weeks. The streets of Caracas already look like a war zone, with armed forces and vigilante groups supported by the government roaming and harassing citizens while barricades are erected by protesters. On Aug. 14, President Maduro even ordered the armed forces to hold military drills, citing a threat of external invasion.

I have been following Venezuela since 2014 on behalf of the liberal group in the European Parliament, the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, and I authored three of the Parliament’s four resolutions on the topic. I have pushed for greater action, specifically calling for targeted sanctions, since these are one of the only instruments available to the European Union. The EU has responded weakly, limiting itself to words of condemnation and to support of a mediation process that the Venezuelan government has refused to take seriously -- and through which it has offered no concessions.

Enough words already

In my almost daily contacts with Venezuelan human rights defenders and opposition members, they have always stressed the importance of the European Union’s support for their cause in delegitimizing the regime and highlighting its abuses. But given the escalation of repression and the further authoritarian steps taken by the government, it is no longer enough for the European Union to stop at simple condemnations of the regime in Caracas.  

The situation has become ever more desperate, with growing numbers of injured and dead. The United Nations issued a report over the summer that demonstrated evidence of systematic use of disproportionate force by authorities to instil fear and crush dissent -- some of the reported measures amounted to torture.

Meanwhile, the economic and humanitarian crises have further perpetuated the suffering of Venezuelans. Venezuela has one of the highest inflation rates in the world, predicted to reach 720 percent by the end of this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. Due to a lack of basic nutrition, Venezuelans have lost an average of 9 kilograms involuntarily, and 93 percent of citizens say their income is insufficient to buy the food that they need. Many have resorted to eating out of trash cans. Perhaps even more serious is the shortage of medicines, with pharmacies reporting they were short of around 85 percent of medicines needed.

The government has met the crises with denial. Its attempts at dialogue with the opposition have been undertaken with reluctance and marred by increasing repression and further assaults on democratic institutions. One of the latest and best-known examples of this subversion of democracy was the creation of an illegal Constituent Assembly set up by Maduro through fraudulent elections and tasked with rewriting the Constitution. One of the first moves of this new body has been to take over the functions of the opposition-held parliament. Although more than 50 countries, including the Vatican, do not recognize the Constituent Assembly -- and neither does the European Union -- we have yet to see a meaningful response beyond condemnation and rejection.

Maduro cements his dictatorship more with every day that goes by. Venezuelans need our support, and we cannot afford to wait any longer. While voices abroad grow stronger in condemnation of the atrocities in Venezuela, the European Union needs to finally speak in a firm and coherent voice -- it needs to offer concrete solutions. Calling for basic requirements such as the liberation of political prisoners and a timetable for elections is only an important first step.

So what can the EU actually do?

How can Europe show that it is serious? The first step, as I mentioned, should be targeted EU sanctions on regime officials. The individuals responsible for unlawful acts and human rights violations can thus be punished; pressure is put on the regime without affecting the rest of the country. The United States has had targeted sanctions in place since 2014, and Washington imposed new ones this summer. Targeted sanctions from the European Union would have even greater impact -- many high-level officials in Venezuela have assets in EU countries, especially in Spain.

Military intervention as threatened by U.S. President Donald Trump would be a huge mistake. Even the mere threat is detrimental: It plays straight into the hands of the regime by giving it a pretext for further power grabs in the face of a so-called external threat. We need to instead pressure the government to seriously begin negotiating a transition of power.

Beyond sanctions, the European Union should begin pushing for a common international policy toward Venezuela. Brussels should actively try to unite the United States with Latin American countries such as Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil to create a contact group, as was done during the Balkan Wars in the 1990s and more recently in Ukraine. This would serve to facilitate a coordinated and more effective international response to help support any future transition to democracy.

The Venezuelan crisis will ultimately need a Venezuelan solution. Once there is a common approach in place, this contact group should aim to create a roundtable with the Venezuelan government and the opposition that would guide a formal process of transferring powers and restoring democracy. For an example of how this can work, look to the 1989 roundtable discussions in Poland. The first step toward creating this roundtable would be for the European Union to send an official mission to Venezuela. Repeated European Parliament resolutions have called for this step. It provides a way to  engage with all actors and assess the situation on the ground.

To summarize, a simple answer to the question posed in title of this article is “no” -- the EU by itself will not be able to stop a civil war in Venezuela. But by backing strong words with strong actions, such as targeted sanctions, and by actively trying to unite international efforts, we can begin to make a difference. Although the future looks bleaker with every day that passes, a violent result is not yet inevitable.

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