This publication is from Carnegie’s Rising Democracies Network.

In the run-up to the hotly contested parliamentary elections in Venezuela scheduled for December 6, the country is facing a toxic mix of political instability, economic uncertainty, and violence. In October, President Nicolás Maduro suggested in a televised interview that in the unlikely event the ruling party were to lose, it would seek to govern “with the people” in order to defend Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution.1 This veiled threat to refuse to comply with electoral results makes it clear that Venezuelan democracy is facing its most severe challenge since the late Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999.

Andreas E. Feldmann
Andreas E. Feldmann is an associate professor in the departments of Latin American and Latino Studies and Political Science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

A number of important South American governments claim that defending democracy in the region is a priority of their foreign policy. In addition, democracy protection is a stated goal of various regional organizations, including the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). Given this professed interest, it is natural to ask what these governments and organizations have done to address the crisis unfolding in Venezuela. What methods or mechanisms have they employed, and how effective have they been? More broadly, what do the actions of these governments and organizations reveal about their core interests? Venezuela’s political and economic weight, as well as its once-proud standing as one of South America’s longest-lasting democracies, make it likely that the crisis will have profound consequences for the future of human rights and democracy on the continent. It will be a litmus test for both national policies and regional mechanisms that are supposed to strengthen democratic rules and norms by exerting pressure on wrongdoers and serving as effective mediators at moments of political conflict.

An Intensifying Crisis

Political polarization and consequent tensions and conflicts regarding Venezuela’s political direction grew in the years after Hugo Chávez’s election. They spiked in 2002, when a group of businessmen and military leaders staged a short-lived coup d’état—Chávez returned to power within forty-eight hours. Some international actors (in the form of the “Friends of Venezuela”: Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and the United States, among others) tried to establish a dialogue between the government and the opposition in the aftermath of the coup. But the polarization has continued, peaking again in 2014, when large-scale antigovernment demonstrations shook the country. More than 30 protesters died during the clashes, and more than 1,500 were detained.

Federico Merke
Federico Merke is a professor of international relations and director of undergraduate studies in political science and international relations at San Andrés University in Argentina.

The harsh response to the demonstrations by Venezuelan authorities generated international criticism. Reporters were detained, beaten, and robbed, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.2 “Media blackouts, arrests and a campaign of harassment against dissenting voices has become a hallmark of this administration,” the group’s deputy director said at the time.3 UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed deep concern about human rights violations in the country and asked the Venezuelan government to investigate the deaths of protesters. International criticism did not change conditions on the ground, however.

The arrest in February 2014 of a leading opposition figure, Leopoldo López, on questionable charges as well as the exclusion of María Corina Machado, a prominent civic and political figure, from the Venezuelan Congress for allegedly violating the Venezuelan constitution by addressing the OAS (at the official invitation of the government of Panama) fueled still greater international criticism. In September 2015, López was sentenced to nearly fourteen years in prison, after a trial that Human Rights Watch said “involved violations and failed to provide evidence linking him to a crime.”4 Very recently, one of the two prosecutors in the case, Franklin Nieves, declared after having escaped to the United States that the trial was a “sham” and that the Venezuelan regime invented the charges because it feared López’s leadership.5

In addition, the democratically elected mayors of two of the most important cities in the country, Antonio Ledezma of Caracas and Daniel Ceballos of San Cristobal, were detained and are serving time on dubious charges. According to several domestic and international human rights organizations, Venezuela’s justice system has all but broken down, and for all practical purposes, separation of power between the executive and judicial branches has almost ceased to exist.6

Oliver Stuenkel
Oliver Stuenkel is an assistant professor of international relations at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo and a nonresident fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin.

This political deterioration is aggravated by a serious economic crisis that has been propelled by the sharp drop in the price of oil, the country’s main source of revenue and the government’s main method of funding its domestic and foreign policies. In November 2014, President Maduro made a plea to keep oil at $100 a barrel, a price Venezuelan officials deemed “fair.”7 Yet the oil price has fallen from $107 a barrel in June 2014 to as low as $47 a barrel in July 2015.

Venezuela’s steep recession has been worsened by economic mismanagement leading to mounting inflation, a widening fiscal deficit, and growing shortages of essential goods including food, soap, and diapers. One of the most acute problems is public health, with even basic medicine now hard to come by. This economic situation has forced Caracas to reduce support for allied regimes such as Bolivia and especially Cuba. That in fact may have contributed to President Raúl Castro’s decision to accelerate Cuba’s rapprochement with the United States, a process that took the Venezuelan government by surprise.

Diplomatic Initiatives Ineffective

The acute political and economic crisis afflicting Venezuela has prompted serious concern in the Western Hemisphere. Many governments view the authoritarian turn of the Venezuelan government and the radicalization of the opposition with dismay and concern. Yet they have so far proven incapable of intervening meaningfully to forestall the emergency that is overcoming Venezuela. Their inaction derives from a combination of partisanship, indifference, and impotence.

The United States and Canada seem removed from the crisis, preoccupied with more pressing concerns elsewhere in the world (for example, Islamic radicalism and Russian defiance) as well as their own domestic political developments. Yet even if they were to try to engage more actively, they would have little leverage with the Maduro administration, which views them with outright contempt. The recent election in Canada of the center-left coalition led by Justin Trudeau may open up some space for a Canadian intervention, but that is yet untested.

Mexico, which given its size and influence has the power and credentials to act, has remained aloof. President Enrique Peña Nieto seems unwilling to act because Mexico does not have vital interests in Venezuela and is reluctant to antagonize the United States. Cuba is deeply involved in Venezuela and is often savvy in calling on the regime to show a more moderate, pragmatic face. But Havana is aligned with the government and therefore widely distrusted by the opposition.

Among South American countries, only a handful have shown the will and leverage to intervene meaningfully. Colombia is in a weak position given its recent frictions with Venezuela over the deportation of thousands of Colombian nationals from Venezuela after three Venezuelan soldiers were wounded by Colombian smugglers. Ecuador and Bolivia, as staunch supporters of the Maduro administration, are therefore, like Cuba, unable to serve as bridges between the two sides. Paraguay and Peru are too distant from Venezuelan political life. While Uruguay and Costa Rica could play a role given their skillful diplomacy and recognized moderation, they lack the power and leverage to put real pressure on Venezuela.

That leaves the ABC countries—Argentina, Brazil, and Chile—as the only regional states with some interest and leverage to intervene. Brazil is by far the most powerful South American player and the only one with enough political weight to broker a breakthrough in the polarized Venezuelan context. Unfortunately, however, Brazil has been exceedingly timid in its involvement, eschewing measures to rein in the Maduro administration and moderate the increasingly battered and distrustful opposition.

Brazil’s position reflects a basic reticence about political interventionism, an attitude that contrasts with its more muscular foreign policy of the recent past. Ever since the presidency of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995–2002), Brazil has often assertively involved itself in the political affairs of other South American countries, intervening diplomatically when political crises have threatened democracy. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003–2010) embraced the idea of Brazilian regional leadership by introducing the idea of “non-indifference” to threats to core democratic values in South America.

Yet in contrast to 2002 and 2003, when Cardoso and Lula were able to influence the internal dynamics in Venezuela during and after the coup against Chávez, Brazil today is a far less credible mediator. In 2003, Lula insisted on including the United States and Spain in the Friends of Venezuela group, which helped bring the Venezuelan government and the opposition together. Lula’s move proved crucial in persuading the opposition to seriously engage in the debates. Lula may have been a left-wing president, but he was still seen as a legitimate and relatively impartial mediator by the center-right opposition in Venezuela.

Both he and the Brazilian government generally have since lost this status. After Chávez’s death in 2013, Lula, in his capacity as former president (and still one of the most powerful political actors in Brazil), actively supported Nicolás Maduro’s campaign. The move firmly placed Brazil—at least in the eyes of the opposition—in the chavista camp of adherents to Chávez’s ideas, policies, and style of governing.

The administration of Lula’s successor, President Dilma Rousseff, has taken a rather distant position toward Venezuela. Distracted by internal conditions and divided as to what to do, it has done little to intervene significantly in Venezuela. For Brazil, both economic and political interests are at stake. According to Valor Econômico, Venezuelan public sector companies now owe Brazilian companies $2.5 billion. If political tension and conflict in Venezuela increase, Brazilian business interests would be increasingly in danger, so a growing number of private sector representatives have attempted to put pressure on Rousseff to adopt a more assertive strategy.

Brazil’s incapacity and unwillingness to make strong efforts to try to defuse the crisis in Venezuela severely undermine its regional leadership ambitions. If things fall apart in Venezuela, Brazil more than any other international actor will be blamed—and rightly so—for failing to defend democracy and stability in South America.

Given its overall regional weight and its ideological proximity to Venezuela, Argentina could potentially play an important role in mediating among Venezuelan parties. In the past decade, Argentina and Venezuela have become close political and economic allies. A mix of ideology and pragmatism has driven this convergence: President Chávez needed Argentina’s support for his Bolivarian initiative across the continent, and Argentina needed Venezuela’s subsidized oil and financial assistance. The Caracas–Buenos Aires axis also served to counterbalance Brazil’s growing leverage in South America. Venezuela became a major holder of Argentine sovereign bonds, and Argentina became an ally in Chávez’s critique of U.S. influence in South America. During the 2005 Summit of the Americas, Chávez was the featured speaker at a parallel anti-summit in Buenos Aires, and in March 2007, he was allowed to hold a huge anti-American rally in Buenos Aires to coincide with then U.S. president George W. Bush’s visit to neighboring Uruguay. In March 2014, when the United States declared Venezuela a national security risk, Argentina affirmed steadfast support for the Maduro administration.

Its support for the Venezuelan government has constrained Argentina’s role because the Venezuelan opposition does not really view it as an evenhanded party. Still, in light of the solid bond between Buenos Aires and Caracas, analysts in Venezuela, Argentina, and elsewhere in the region expected the Argentine government to be more vocal and raise concerns with the Maduro administration regarding the worsening of its human rights practices. Argentina has some moral authority in that regard because its diplomatic stances on human rights issues are among the most progressive in South America.

But even though Argentina is in a position to play a role in helping alleviate the crisis in Venezuela, it has seemed unable to find ground to do so. Moreover, volatile conditions in both countries create uncertainty about the future of the bilateral relationship. Against the backdrop of its serious economic woes, Venezuela’s capacity to support Argentina has shrunk, decreasing its strategic importance in the eyes of Buenos Aires, which itself is running out of money to pay its bills.

The November 2015 election of Mauricio Macri as the successor to Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner may bring changes in this regard. During the election campaign, Macri promised to take Argentina in a new direction on foreign policy and voiced his concerns regarding Venezuela’s political and social situation. In his first press conference after being elected, Macri stated that he wants Venezuela to be ousted from the regional trade bloc Mercosur because of the country’s human rights abuses.8 Macri’s triumph might trigger a regional swing in how South American governments address Venezuela. For this to happen, however, Argentina would need to move forward together with Brazil and Chile. This would not be possible through Mercosur given that Chile is not a full member state. Macri would need to pursue his new approach through UNASUR, where Chile and other important South American countries that are not full members of Mercosur, such as Colombia and Peru, would be able to join in.

A third external actor that could potentially play a constructive role in the Venezuelan crisis is Chile. While Chile is less influential than Argentina or Brazil, its solid economic position and reputation for moderation make the country a potential facilitator of a negotiated solution. Chile’s ruling center-left elite, led by President Michelle Bachelet, has developed a cordial relationship with Caracas over the years, and Chile is also highly regarded by the Venezuelan opposition leadership, many of whom have visited Santiago.

Chile’s view on the Venezuelan crisis has evolved from a passive to a rather assertive position that reflects genuine concern over the path that the Maduro administration has taken. In April 2015, Chile expressed its willingness to assist the Venezuelan electoral process. Heraldo Muñoz, the foreign minister, declared that Chile was willing to collaborate on the promotion of dialogue and greater understanding among the government and the opposition in Venezuela and was ready to take steps to help Venezuela “avoid conflict and find the path to dialogue” (translation by authors).9

In the past couple of months, however, the Chilean government’s rhetoric has turned critical, to the point where Chile has appeared to invalidate itself as a neutral broker in the Venezuelan crisis. In September, upon the conviction of Leopoldo López, Muñoz issued a blunt statement indicating that Venezuelan authorities needed to ensure that the opposition figure’s trial respected fundamental procedural guarantees in accordance with basic international human rights norms.

What made this change in attitude remarkable is that Chile is under mounting diplomatic pressure concerning a territorial dispute with Bolivia, which seeks to regain direct exit to the sea. As a result, Chile has taken care to maneuver with extreme caution to avoid diplomatic isolation.

Venezuela’s reaction was swift and forceful: it condemned the Chilean statement as an intolerable intrusion in its internal affairs and counterattacked by criticizing several aspects of Chile’s own human rights record, including what it described as the antidemocratic nature of Chile’s constitution and the negative treatment of indigenous communities in southern the country.

Why Chile interjected itself in an internal Venezuelan matter can be understood as reflecting two factors. First, there was mounting pressure to speak out coming from Chile’s Christian Democrats, an important part of the ruling coalition that is ideologically more distant from and more critical of some left-leaning governments on the continent. Some members of the socialist wing of the coalition, particularly young members of parliament, also demanded a more vocal questioning of Venezuela’s situation.

Second, some important members of the coalition who historically tended to condone or justify some excesses on the part of left-leaning governments such as those in Venezuela and Cuba began to be seriously concerned that Maduro’s administration was crossing the line by openly cracking down on opposition figures and the press. Many senior figures of the current Chilean administration, including the president, were victims of human rights abuses by the Chilean dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s and therefore adamantly reject repressive actions.

Impotent Multilateralism?

In light of the constraints and difficulties at the bilateral level, many observers have hoped that regional organizations might serve as an alternative for meaningful action. Regional mechanisms allow states to create a unified front, diminishing diplomatic exposure when intervening in a crisis. Several prominent Latin American foreign ministers have underscored the need to rely on regional mechanisms to curb the dangers posed by the critical socioeconomic and political situation in Venezuela.

New political dynamics across the continent in recent years have transformed the diplomatic scene concerning regional organizations, marginalizing the OAS in favor of new regional groupings, such as UNASUR. Several senior diplomats in the region have stated that UNASUR, not the OAS, should actively mediate Venezuela’s internal crisis. Such calls reflect their belief that Venezuela will refuse to accept any intervention on the part of the OAS, which Caracas sees as inevitably representing Washington’s views and interests. Caracas indeed flatly rejected the attempted mediation by the OAS of its border dispute with Colombia. In a recent letter to the head of Venezuela’s National Electoral Council, Tibisay Lucena, the OAS secretary general, Luis Almagro, exhorted her to level the playing field between the government and the opposition on the eve of the elections,10 a move that will probably reinforce Caracas’s view that the OAS is helplessly biased against it.

Given the OAS’s history, its marginalization may strike some observers as surprising. After the end of the Cold War, the OAS became the focal institution to protect and promote democracy in the Western Hemisphere, and the organization boasts a fairly solid tradition of upholding democratic principles, particularly since its adoption of the Inter-American Democratic Charter in 2001. (The charter was in fact invoked for the first time in Venezuela in 2002 after the coup against then president Hugo Chávez. The OAS condemned the attempted overthrow and supported mediation efforts between the government and the opposition.)

In the fourteen years of the charter’s existence, the OAS has relied on it in five other instances as a basis for engaging in actions to safeguard democracy: Nicaragua (2005), Ecuador (2005 and 2010), Bolivia (2008), and Haiti (2010). However, the charter has not been employed consistently, due to weak implementing mechanisms and rifts among member states over the meaning of democracy.11 In addition, because of the widespread perception that the OAS is heavily influenced by the United States, it has lost legitimacy in the eyes of many Latin American and Caribbean states apprehensive about U.S. encroachment on regional politics.

The founding of UNASUR in 2008 generated expectations regarding its potential role in promoting and monitoring democracy in South American trouble spots. The organization, which has broad objectives (political, economic, energetic, environmental, social), was conceived as a Washington-free alternative and complement to the OAS. UNASUR has created formal democracy promotion mechanisms such as its Electoral Council, which sends delegations to “accompany” (to observe, though not monitor) elections in the region. It has been present during elections in Venezuela (2015) and Bolivia (2014).

It has also established diplomatic mechanisms to intervene during democratic crises, particularly when the country in question rejects OAS involvement (as Venezuela did in 2013). The organization also intervened in a crisis in Paraguay in 2012. Thus, at least in principle, UNASUR has become a valid alternative in cases where insurmountable differences among member states impede OAS intervention in defense of democracy. Diplomats privately convey that South American countries like to gather in a more private, intimate forum in which they can resolve their differences candidly without feeling constrained by U.S. pressure.

UNASUR’s attempt to mediate in the Venezuelan conflict is thus an interesting experiment in whether the continent is capable of solving its own political problems. Given the lack of trust between the Venezuelan government and the opposition and the low level of credibility of the National Electoral Council, which has lost its autonomy, diplomats across the region agree that external monitoring is critical.12

Yet regional governments working within the UNASUR framework have struggled to put in place a coherent strategy to tackle the crisis. At the height of the protests in 2014, UNASUR issued bland statements about the situation in Venezuela. In 2015, after difficult negotiations, UNASUR persuaded the Venezuelan government to accept an electoral observer mission for the December elections, but disagreements about details have marred the process. After the Brazilian government proposed Nelson Jobim, former president of the Brazilian Supreme Court, for example, Venezuela objected, leading the Brazilian National Electoral Commission to pull out of the process.

The problem lies in the recalcitrant position of the Venezuelan government. President Maduro has indicated that Venezuela “is not monitored and will not be monitored.”13 Cleverly, however, the government has not ruled out external involvement, claiming it is open to having external parties “accompany” the process but only under certain conditions. These conditions include not allowing any of the external observers to make statements on the electoral process unless they are specifically permitted by the National Electoral Council. Conditions such as these go against basic principles of electoral monitoring followed by organizations including the United Nations, the OAS, and the European Union.

The obstructionist position has infuriated moderate countries such as Brazil and torn to pieces the strategy devised by UNASUR’s secretary general, former Colombian president Ernesto Samper. Countries aligned with Venezuela have pressed UNASUR to accept the conditions demanded by Caracas. This position is encapsulated by the former Argentine vice president, Carlos Alberto “Chacho” Álvarez, UNASUR’s electoral monitoring chief in the 2012 and 2013 elections, who asserted that any doubts about the Venezuelan electoral process are the result of prejudice and misinformation.

In this context, UNASUR, like the OAS in similar cases, has been stymied by Caracas’s obstinacy, the unwillingness of some like-minded states (for example, Bolivarian Alliance for the AmericasALBA—countries) to demand minimal conditions of electoral transparency, and the frustration of moderate governments such as those in Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay, which see very limited diplomatic space to intervene meaningfully. It is therefore not surprising that UNASUR has not really made a substantial difference in terms of addressing the Venezuelan crisis.


Venezuela’s uncertain future hinges on the dynamics surrounding the upcoming parliamentary elections. The authoritarian turn of the government seems to indicate that it is genuinely fearful of losing the elections. Opinion polls show that the government is unpopular and that its support is declining rapidly, even among longtime supporters. Probably mindful of this, the Maduro regime has deliberately harassed the opposition (for example, jailing its candidates and leaders), silenced the media (revoking licenses and threatening the media), and manipulated the electoral process (excluding opposition candidates, threatening voters, avoiding external scrutiny of its actions, and curbing free media reporting).

Statements by officials indicating that the government may not recognize the results of the elections, moreover, hint that the government is in no mood to abandon its Bolivarian revolution. The specter of an increasingly massive crisis with unforeseen consequences is hence very real. The potential repercussions of such an outcome are immense and could include intervention by the Venezuelan military, generalized civilian disobedience by a radicalized opposition, or the eruption of severe civil unrest with a concomitant forced migration crisis.

External actors have thus far been unable to act in meaningful ways to forestall a serious crisis, with potentially important domestic and even regional repercussions. In particular, major South American governments have failed to build a unified front to pressure the regime to handle the crisis in democratic ways and persuade the opposition to tone down its demands. This would be critical to help move Venezuela toward a national dialogue necessary to foster a legitimate response to its pressing sociopolitical and economic challenges.

For governments across the continent, the situation in Venezuela poses an immense challenge. Given that so far, under difficult but for the most part peaceful conditions, they have failed to act decisively in defense of democratic principles due to a combination of partisanship, unresponsiveness, and powerlessness, the prospect of concerted action amid possibly violent, unpredictable circumstances seems remote. Acting in such a context would entail intrusive diplomacy to forge dialogue in Venezuela by persuading the parties to change course—in particular getting the government to work with the opposition—toward the establishment of a working formula, such as a government of national unity.

Latin American countries thus will have to put aside their differences and act in more principled ways. First, they should call for the parliamentary elections to be free, fair, and impartial. Second, they should start working on averting any post-election unrest. This would require embracing democratic principles in earnest and denouncing disingenuous calls to support undemocratic forces, both at the government and opposition levels. Third, powerful nations, in particular Brazil but also Argentina, Chile, and Colombia, will need to put pressure upon ALBA countries to modify their unfettered support of the Venezuelan regime in order to avoid an all-out democratic breakdown.

This would require summoning UNASUR’s Council of Heads of State and Government and imposing sanctions against the Maduro regime by invoking both UNASUR’s democratic clause and the OAS’s Inter-American Democratic Charter. Another potential move could be seeking mediation from beyond the region, including from the European Union and the United Nations.

Failure to act decisively could seriously erode Latin American countries’ credibility as promoters of democracy and human rights. Moreover, it could very well worsen the tainted reputation of the OAS and possibly fatally wound independent organizations such as UNASUR that were purportedly created to manage regional problems more efficiently and in a more principled manner without the interference of the United States. Such an outcome would severely undermine democracy promotion efforts in South America.

The Carnegie Endowment is grateful to the Robert Bosch Stiftung, the Ford Foundation, and the UK Department for International Development for their support of the Rising Democracies Network. The opinions expressed in this article are the responsibility of the authors.


1 “La amenaza de Nicolas Maduro ante una posible derrota del chavismo en las elecciones” [Nicolas Maduro’s threat in the event of Chavismo defeat in the upcoming elections], La Nación, October 30, 2015,

2 “Journalists Under Fire Covering Protests in Venezuela,” Committee to Protect Journalists, February 20, 2014,

3 Natalie Kitroeff, “Venezuela Battles Media, Social and Otherwise, to Restrict Protest Coverage,” The Lede (blog), New York Times, February 21, 2014,

4 José Miguel Vivanco, “Who Will Protect Leopoldo López?” Human Rights Watch, September 30, 2015,

5 “Venezuela Ex-Prosecutor Speaks Out on Lopez ‘Sham Trial,’” BBC News, October 28, 2015,

6 “Venezuelan: Opposition Leader Unjustly Convicted,” Human Rights Watch, September 10, 2015,

7 “Maduro: ‘Venezuela seguirá luchando por el barril de petróleo a 100 dólares,’” Infobae, November 27, 2014,

8 “Argentina’s President-Elect Macri Lays Out New Course,” BBC News, November 23, 2015,

9 “Chile ve con sorpresa rechazo Venezuela a dichos del canciller sobre diálogo,” El Nuevo Herald, January 13, 2015,

10 “OAS Chief Slams Venezuela Over Election Observation,” Reuters, November 10, 2015,

11 Daniela Donno, “Who Is Punished? Regional Intergovernmental Organizations and the Enforcement of Democratic Norms,” International Organization 64, no. 4 (October 2010): 594,

12 International Crisis Group, “Time for UNASUR to Defuse the Crisis in Venezuela,” media release, March 11, 2015,

13 Phil Gunson, “Venezuela: ¿observación electoral? No gracias. . . ” International Crisis Group, September 23, 2015,