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Bubbles, sanctions, and civic space: a necessary debate

In the course of the last 30 days, two events have occurred on the Venezuelan political scene that were unthinkable months ago. A visit to Caracas by high-level representatives of the Joe Biden government and a meeting between Maduro and members of the Civic Forum NGO, which brings together representatives of other organizations. Are these hopeful signs towards the changes that the country requires? Here is some food for thought.

The first meeting carried a mandate from Washington, although the details have not been released to public opinion. The second event was not the product of any previous strategy by those summoned, who, according to their own belated explanation 6 days later, attended in a personal capacity because they did not have time to consult with the organizations that group them in the Civic Forum. The meeting of the 11 members of the Civic Forum was followed by a second meeting in Miraflores and by a letter to President Biden signed by 25 people. It is not clear if the second meeting and the letter were also made in a personal capacity or if they were the product of a consultation; however, the reactions aroused indicate that, again, individual decisions prevailed.

From subsequent statements by White House spokesmen, it is clear that one of Biden’s motivations for sending a high-level delegation to Caracas is framed within the issue of energy security. That the US wants to recover a reliable supplier is not questionable. What is worrying, however, is that a possible reestablishment of trade based on oil will be done in a vacuum. The release of two US citizens, including one of the six former directors of the Citgo oil company, can only be interpreted as a minimal signal, which is more like a hostage release, without representing a significant change in the performance with regard to human rights by those who hold power in Venezuela.

It should be remembered that it was this negative behavior in human rights and the breakdown of democratic institutions that gave rise to the initiation of a set of individual sanctions against various representatives of the Maduro government, followed by others, in our opinion questionable, generic sanctions. In this sense, the lifting of some generic sanctions (never the individual ones) and the reestablishment of oil exports to the US cannot ignore the reasons that generated such measures.

On the other hand, the perspective of Venezuela as a reliable supplier will not be achieved in the short term, even if a group of foreign companies eager to invest in oil exploration and exploitation in Venezuela settle in the country. Since the massive and televised layoffs of the top executives of Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), led by Hugo Chávez exactly 20 years ago, the dismantling of the country’s main industry has not stopped. The accumulated vices, corruption and incompetence allow us to affirm that it would be easier to start an oil industry from scratch than to rebuild what is left of PDVSA.

As for the two meetings and the letter of individual actors, the confusion, bewilderment, and controversy have been enormous, surely because these are initiatives by people who did not act as part of a previously built consensus. The lack of consultation and improvisation are inexcusable on the political scene, however, what is left unsaid is even more worrying than what is said. The letter delivered to Maduro remains generic, without specific demands. The letter to Biden does not make any reference to human rights, nor does it establish a framework of conditions for the lifting of sanctions. Without a human rights discourse or strategy, any dialogue is unproductive.

In the context of the emergence of economic bubbles, it is worrying that the -unfeasible- reopening of the oil market and the lifting of sanctions are negotiated without conditions that ensure that these initiatives do not become unilateral concessions. Lifting generic sanctions and reopening the oil market can serve to continue enriching a few or to generate well-being for the population; these are two different results of the same action.

In addition, Venezuela seems to be moving towards negotiations that can lead to the generation of political bubbles, with the participation of a sector of civil society. In this way, the incorporation of people not close to Chavismo in the leadership of the National Electoral Council and the Supreme Court of Justice has been promoted. However, these processes have advanced without questioning the underlying problems of democracy and the rule of law.

It is necessary to note that, just as economic bubbles do not generate well-being, political bubbles do not recover democratic governability, and even less so when these bubbles are negotiated, paradoxically, at the worst moment of closure of civic spaces in the country. Any negotiation in the economic and political fields must start from the demand for clear signs of good faith on the part of those who hold power. Until now, only a government that sets demands has been observed, without showing any concessions, and counterparts that have demanded little or nothing in return.