Europe’s Last Chance in Venezuela

The following months are a make-or-break window of opportunity for the EU to accelerate Nicolás Maduro’s demise and a democratic restoration in the country, argues a new report.


Barely five months into 2021, the year keeps precipitating the European Union into ever more foreign policy conundrums.

Notwithstanding the “Covid nationalism” denounced elsewhere, the Commission’s vaccine debacles continue to delay the wished-for humanitarian victory lap when much of the Third World would reach immunisation through EU-supplied jabs. Earlier on in the pandemic, the cutthroat race for medical supplies elevated “strategic autonomy” over and above the single market orthodoxies of old and Germany’s geo strategic penchant for managed neutrality.

The buzzword has since been used as cover for a series of miscalculations wholly at odds with the principles outlined by Emmanuel Macron, its chief cheerleader. The European Parliament resolution from late April condemning Russia’s military buildup along Ukraine, its involvement in the 2014 blast of a Czech munition depot, and its treatment of Alexei Navalny is a welcome course correction to the appeasement signaled by Josep Borrell’s infamous meeting with Sergei Lavrov back in February, though a belated and costly one. Dissonant blunders like these have narrowed the realm of possibility for the EU’s diplomatic re-assertion. If the bloc is sincere about taking up Joe Biden’s offer of renewed multilateral engagement, it should look West.

EU’s firm posture on Venezuela

Venezuela’s free fall into authoritarian chaos under the yoke of Nicolás Maduro’s entourage is a challenge for the transatlantic community like no other, and the EU’s posture remains, at least on paper, driven by the imperative of democratic restoration. To the extent allowed by the regime’s door-slam on aid, the plight of Venezuelans inside and out the country has been markedly alleviated by the Commission’s record sums of assistance. With the further precarity wrought by Covid and competing demands in host countries, the EU admirably stepped up to the plate by convening a donor conference in May last year that drummed up an additional €2.5 billion.

No humanitarian drive of this scale is open-ended, and the EU’s palliative efforts remain premised on a political solution. Its attempts at policing Maduro’s electoral shenanigans, human rights abuses and crimes against humanity are all driven by a clear-eyed assessment of the profound source holding the once prosperous country in a stalemate of one-party rule and socio-economic catastrophe. Maduro will stop at nothing to keep a monopoly on power, and the EU is right to refuse accommodating a dystopian narco-state embedded with criminal networks plundering the country’s wealth for the benefit of a crony few.

Neither Borrell’s team nor the member-state diplomacies it channels want to make do with another Cuba, more perilous for the region and the wider world this time. Much like Biden, they see an urgent return to democratic normalcy through international pressure as the only possible endgame.

And yet the European External Action Service and its sanctions architecture keep falling short in several ways. Its latest misstep had a way of summing up all that’s wrong with the EU’s diplomacy vis-à-vis Venezuela. When Borrell set out to offer the bloc’s rubber-stamp as election observer back in December, the basket of concessions he demanded in exchange was meagre for a race known in advance to be rife with fraud. Coupled with the equally paltry 19 ex post additions to the EU’s list of only 55 sanctioned individuals, Borrell’s diplomatic adventurism looked a worrying lot like appeasement. US diplomats have taken notice on both sides of the Trump-to-Biden transition.

The Powder Gold Route

Despite the regime’s threat to European security growing starker every day, the EU’s sanctioning record has in fact been woefully unfit all along relative to that of comparable democracies. A shocking volume of the global cocaine trade is known to have realigned along Venezuela-to-Europe routes, and still the EU remains skittish to see in it the hand of Maduro’s narcos. Whether as a wilful enabler or an active participant through the Cartel de los Soles, flooding the West with drugs was part of Chavismo’s playbook all along. Toughened prosecutorial crackdowns and anti-narcotics raids in Colombia and the US, however, are yet to find enough imitators east of the Atlantic.

Drugs are not the worst means that Venezuela’s despots are deploying to destabilise their transatlantic foes. Besides the long-haul effort at grand-fathering Europe’s progressives into their Bolivarian alliance, Venezuela has gradually become a haven for terrorists of all stripes. Since a slew of ETA and IRA members took refuge in the country in the early 2000s, their allies from FARC-D and Hezbollah have similarly found a friendly hub from which to conduct operations, with European targets often in their crosshairs. This has happened just as the full disarmament and rehabilitation of Colombia’s guerrillas remains a roadblock in that country’s peace process—which the EU has spent inordinate amounts to help bring to fruition—and Iran’s uncoupling from Shiite militias is foregrounded as a non-negotiable condition for jumpstarting Europe’s role in striking a redux of the JCPOA.

Yet the largest menace to the EU is not each of these criminal hotspots individually, but the possibility of them slipping out of reach if Maduro’s “authoritarian learning” continues apace. With Cuba, Iran, China, and Russia shunning dialogue with the EU on their continued backing of Caracas, the strongman’s forays into election-rigging, torture, state-sponsored violence, and narco-trafficking may well end up buttressing his project of a one-party state insulated from the globe, relying on a victimised narrative of ideological warfare as cover for the looting of the country for private gain. Every day its wealth keeps shifting to the offshore accounts of regime cronies, Venezuela’s return to democratic prosperity recedes into the future. Those left to suffer are expecting more from Europe than flowery declarations and Sakharov Prize ceremonies.

Spanish conundrum

Borrell and the less amenable of the EU’s members—Spain primarily—may come around to adjusting their arsenal to the new normal. Toughness, enforcement, and coordination with Biden’s team will all be grounds to work on. A synchronised, intel-sharing approach to targeting abusers, traffickers, and state entities—which the EU still shies away from sanctioning—will be key to optimising the balance of pressure on the regime and citizens’ collateral exposure. This won’t keep Maduro from playing European states against one another and against Juan Guaidó, seizing on the interstices of sanctions and agitating through political allies. Only a hardline approach to enforcement across the EU’s vast territory will preempt costly blunders such as Delcygate, an infamous breach of EU sanctions in February last year by a Spanish minister who welcomed Maduro’s right-hand into Madrid’s tarmacs. By allowing its central bank to transact with Venezuela’s, and by allowing bolichicos linked to the oil giant PDVSA to fictitiously contract with shell companies registered in its jurisdiction, Spain has also become a way station for the laundering of ill-gotten gains into the safety of the euro. Only tougher financial rules and eurozone-wide screens on investment can remedy these rule-of-law shortcomings.

All of which should come underpinned by the unequivocal recognition of Guaidó’s team as the interim government of Venezuela, as opposed to the rank of “privileged interlocutor” to which he was demoted by Borrell’s muddled brokering of the December sham race. Our outlines concrete steps the EU can take to bring its diplomacy and sanctions arsenal closer in line with an ideal transatlantic front staked on Maduro’s demise and a subsequent restoration of democracy. Whether part of an agenda of “strategic autonomy” or simply a shared transatlantic commitment to freedom and prosperity in Latin America, this may be Europe’s chance to show that its grandstanding on behalf of democratic values has real teeth. As Venezuela goes, it may also be its last.

Ryan C. Berg PhD, Senior Fellow in the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (Washington DC), and Jorge González-Gallarza, researcher at Fundación Civismo (Madrid), are co-authors of the newly-released report Europe’s Last Chance: How the EU Can (and Should) Become the Indispensable Actor in Venezuela’s Democratic Restoration.

28th May 2021