Can UNASUR help Brazil stabilize Venezuela?

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Over the past months, Western media have strongly criticized Brazil's reluctant stance on the deepening crisis in neighboring Venezuela, where more than 30 people have been killed and more than 1500 have been detained. Former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso wrote that Brazil's current government was acting with "incredible timidity" in the face of human-rights abuses in Venezuela.

And indeed, the Venezuelan government's response to the demonstrations has been entirely unacceptable. Reporters have been detained, beaten and robbed, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Media blackouts, arrests and a campaign of harassment against dissenting voices has become a hallmark of this administration,” the group’s deputy director said. As a consequence, the United Nations and its Secretary General have expressed concern about human rights violations in Venezuela and asked for the deaths to be investigated.

The arrest of Leopoldo López, an opposition figure, on trumped-up charges and the exclusion of Maria Corina Machado from Venezuelan Congress for supposedly violating the constitution by addressing the Organization of American States (OAS) at the invitation of Panama strengthened international criticism further. Two mayors have been sentenced to a year in jail for failing to remove road barricades put up by anti-government activists. The protesters, of course, are also to blame, and it is also the opposition's failure that so many demonstrations turned violent.

Yet rather than specifically pointing out that both the government and the opposition were to blame, Brazil initially co-issued three rather bland communiqués (through UNASUR, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and Mercosur). The latter was particularly controversial, as it was generally interpreted as being soft on the Maduro government, characterizing protesters as anti-democratic forces.

In response, Brazil's Foreign Minister Figueiredo defended his country's strategy, arguing in an interview with Folha de São Paulo that the Mercosur statement had been "misunderstood". Yet when the reporter asked whether Mercosur leaders had tried to send a message to President Maduro, the foreign minister replied that "Maduro did not need a message" – hardly a sign that Brazil was eager to get involved in Venezuela.

It would be wrong, however, to argue that Brazil's passive rhetoric so far is proof that it does not care about defending democracy in the region. Quite to the contrary: The consolidation of democracy in the region has turned, over the past decade, into one of Brazil’s fundamental foreign policy goals. Since Cardoso's presidency, Brazil has often assertively engaged in its region, willing to intervene if political crises threatened democracy. Partly to strengthen regional institutions and partly out of fear of being seen as a bully, Brazil usually acts through regional bodies (such as Mercosur and Unasur) -- a strategy that, while right in principle, also at times turns out to be less agile than acting bilaterally. In addition, Brazil has been more concerned about constitutional crises and the possibility of undemocratic removal of a president in the region than about "procedural aspects" of democracy such as free speech - precisely the kind of problem visible in Venezuela.

The true test of regional leadership is whether Brazil can help bring the government and the opposition in Venezuela to the table as quickly as possible. A negotiated settlement would have to oblige the government to disband the armed militia groups (colectivos), release all those imprisoned for taking part in street protests, end restrictions on the media and social media and allow greater measures of free political activity. In return, the opposition must give up any aspirations of ousting President Maduro.

In April 2002, President Cardoso was active in behind-the-scenes negotiations to return Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to power, 48 hours after he was deposed by a coup d’état. The incoming Lula government continued to work with all sides in Venezuela to assure continued political stability. While today's situation is different, Brazil will yet again have to engage and assume regional leadership - may it be through Unasur, Mercosur, or bilaterally. With trust largely eroded between the government and the opposition, it seems increasingly unlikely that Venezuela can solve the crisis on its own - an arbiter is needed.

Yet contrary to 2002 and 2003, when the Brazilian Presidents Cardoso and Lula were able to influence the internal dynamics in Venezuela, Brazil today is a far less credible mediator than it was a decade ago. Back in 2003, President Lula insisted on including the United States and Spain into the group “Friends of Venezuela”, which helped bring the government and the opposition together. Lula’s move proved crucial as it convinced 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 Brazil have since then lost this status. After Chavez’ death, Brazil’s former President Lula (still one of the most powerful political actors in the country and highly influential in the current administration) actively supported Nicolás Maduro’s campaign, a move that firmly placed Brazil - in the eyes of the opposition - in the chavista camp.

Yet rather than ideology, economic interests are decisive in Brazil’s considerations. Large Brazilian construction firms have projects in many parts of Caracas. While many other foreign firms have been expropriated or castigated by the Venezuelan government, Brazilian investors have received preferential treatment – even though now an increasing number of payments are being severely delayed to Brazilian investors as well. According to Valor Economico, a Brazilian business daily, Venezuelan public-sector companies now owe Brazilian companies $2.5 billion in debt. If political tension and conflict increases, Brazilian business interests would be increasingly in danger, so a growing number of private sector representatives has attempted to put pressure on Dilma Rousseff to adopt a more assertive strategy.

Yet the Brazilian President’s centralizing leadership style and limited interest in foreign policy – especially as she is preparing for reelection – have turned Brazil into a far more hesitant and less visible international actor than was the case under President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2002) or Lula da Silva (2003-2010). A growing number of critics point out that Rousseff’s foreign policy is characterized by a lack of participation and overall diplomatic retreat, strongly contrasting Lula’s controversial and highly active foreign policy. While Presidents Cardoso and Lula provided their Foreign Ministers with ample room for maneuver (Foreign Policy once wondered whether Celso Amorim, Lula’s top diplomat, was “the world’s best foreign minister"), both Foreign Ministers under Rousseff faced strong internal restraints. These circumstances may help explain why Brazil has failed to assume regional leadership in Venezuela, and instead its behavior has been marked by apathy.

There are also legitimate reasons to act with caution, of course: Given its dominant size on the continent, it is quite astonishing that Brazil is not more frequently criticized as a regional bully by its many smaller neighbors. 

The latest developments included a meeting in late March by the UNASUR Foreign Ministers, who in their declaration called for peace and respect for human rights, while urging "all political forces" to engage in dialogue – thus supporting the government somewhat less than previous statements. Such nuances may be noted by the two sides involved, but it is unclear in how far their help turns UNASUR into a legitimate mediator.

In how far UNASUR is able to reduce tensions and start a constructive dialogue between the opposition and the government is yet unclear. Representatives from the UNASUR group obtained a commitment from President Maduro to accept a mediator, possibly from the Vatican (Vatican's State secretary, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, was mentioned), to coordinate talks with the opposition. The key question, of course, is in how far the grouping is able and willing to put pressure on both sides to assure that they engage in a serious dialogue.

Considering how polarized the country is, the road to compromise and reconciliation is bound to be long and difficult. The Venezuelan President, who feels cornered, routinely describes even the moderate opposition as “fascists”, and has jailed opposition candidates may never come to trust the government again. This is particularly the case for the more radical wing of the opposition that openly vowed to remove Maduro from power before the next election.

UNASUR’s attempt to mediate in the Venezuelan conflict is a multilateral undertaking, and an interesting experiment to see in how far the continent is capable of solving its own problems. Yet given that the United States is largely staying out of the discussion, Brazil is by far the most important actor in South America that, in theory, would be best placed to assume leadership. If things go wrong in Venezuela, it is Brazil, not UNASUR, that will – rightly so – be blamed for failing to defend democracy and stability in the region.

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Photo credit: Agencia EFE