Venezuela Crisis at Center of U.S. Diplomatic Push in Mexico

  • ‘Contact group’ would seek to revive political talks on crisis
  • OAS need for consensus may weaken results of Mexico gathering

Why Venezuela's Many Crises Keep Getting Worse

The Trump administration is seeking to spur negotiations to end Venezuela’s political crisis, pressing Western Hemisphere nations meeting in Mexico this week to set up a mechanism for new talks to resolve a threat to regional stability.

“We really want to get a wider group of countries, including the Caribbean countries, to send a message to the Venezuelans that you have got to address this ongoing political, economic and humanitarian crisis,” Francisco Palmieri, acting assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said in an interview.

One challenge will be to get agreement on a strong statement from all members of the Organization of American States, whose foreign ministers began three days of meetings Monday in Cancun, Mexico. That requires getting full support from Caribbean nations that depend on Venezuela for subsidized oil.

The push for a show of unity out of the OAS meeting -- with the possibility of establishing a “contact group” to engage in talks -- is only the latest regional bid to resolve the crisis in Venezuela, whose economy is in a state of collapse amid a standoff between President Nicolas Maduro and opposition leaders. Repeated efforts to negotiate a political solution, including through a process led by the Vatican, have made little headway.

For a QuickTake Q&A on Venezuela’s ‘Hunger Bonds,’ click here

Palmieri and other officials declined to comment when asked who would make up the contact group, but likely candidates include Mexico, Canada, Peru and Colombia. Given Maduro’s hostility toward the U.S., any involvement by Washington would probably remain in the background.

“The U.S. can’t take the lead on it, but they also can’t not be involved,” said Michael Shifter, head of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. “They have to be supportive. But if this is seen as a Trump administration-backed effort, it won’t be seen as effective.”

As part of that balancing act, President Donald Trump’s administration has sought to keep up the pressure on Venezuela with public statements. Trump met Panama President Juan Carlos Varela at the White House on Monday, and the two leaders “addressed the increasingly dire situation in Venezuela and the importance of restoring democratic norms in that country,” according to a White House statement.

The push will in some ways be a test for the OAS, which has little enforcement power and in the past has been hobbled by the requirement for member states to achieve consensus to take any action, narrowing the chances for a powerful outcome.

“This isn’t an effort to impose a solution or intervene in Venezuela but to use the mechanism of the OAS to help what is clearly a gridlocked situation,” Palmieri said.

Test for Trump

One of the key divisions is likely to be the U.S. insistence that Venezuela meet its existing commitments on resolving the crisis before any new negotiations begin. Venezuela so far has refused to live up to its promise to agree on an election timetable, respect the powers of the national assembly and release political prisoners.

“The government’s goal now is clear -- to remove the remaining authorities of the freely elected national assembly and replace it with a puppet,” Michael Fitzpatrick, U.S. deputy assistant secretary for Andean, Brazilian and Southern Cone Affairs, said on a conference call with reporters Monday. “Maduro is again attempting to change the rules of the game to maintain access to power, privileges, patronage, and protections.”

The meeting will be a diplomatic test for Trump’s administration and a gauge of South and Central American attitudes after he backed off parts of former President Barack Obama’s plan to improve relations with Cuba. At the same time, his administration has eased off talk of building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. In a meeting with Central American leaders in Miami last week, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declined to mention the border wall at all, saying only that the U.S. was determined to stop illegal migration.

New Constitution

As Venezuela’s crisis has deepened, with triple-digit inflation, record shortages of food and medicine and rising crime rates, Maduro has sought to reestablish support by calling for a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution. The country’s opposition called that a power grab and a “coup.”

There are at least two draft versions of the final statement that may come out of the OAS meeting in Cancun, according to experts. One would call for the creation of the contact group and project regional unity in a bid to isolate Venezuela. The other would be a more tepid expression of concern.

“What I expect to come out of this meeting based on points of similarity of proposals is some kind of expression of concern over the situation of Venezuela, which we’ve already seen,” Eurasia Group analyst Agata Ciesielska said in an interview. “Both proposals have been urging for the cancellation of the constituent assembly process, and some call for humanitarian aid and a dialogue offering some kind of involvement or mediation in the process there.”

Tillerson had originally planned to attend the OAS meeting to lend his weight to the bid for the contact group, but announced Friday he would send a deputy instead so he can focus on efforts to resolve tensions between a Saudi Arabia-led coalition of nations and Qatar.

— With assistance by Nacha Cattan, and Andrew Rosati

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