The top UN political official told the Security Council on Saturday that dialogue and cooperation were vital to ending the crisis in Venezuela, but during a contentious debate, Council members disagreed over the appropriate response to mass protests in the South American country and competing claims to the presidency.
“We must try to help bring about a political solution that will allow the country’s citizens to enjoy peace, prosperity and all their human rights,” Rosemary DiCarlo, the UN Under Secretary-General of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, urged the Security Council as she briefed an urgent meeting of the 15-member body on Saturday morning.
The meeting was requested late last week by United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the wake of days of political unrest in Venezuela, marked by popular protests that erupted on Wednesday after the leader of the opposition legislature, Juan Guaidó, declared himself interim president and called for fresh elections, a direct challenge to President Nicolás Maduro, who had been sworn in to a second term in office just two weeks earlier.
In a statement issued by his Spokesperson on Wednesday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres urged parties to “lower tensions” in Venezuela and called for all relevant actors to commit to inclusive and credible political dialogue. Concerned by reports of casualties during demonstrations and unrest in and around the capital, Caracas, the UN chief also called for a transparent and independent investigation of those incidents.
Today, Ms. DiCarlo described the situation in Venezuela as “dire”, and as having both an economic and political dimension.
“The population is affected in a systemic way, nearly all 30 million Venezuelans are affected by hyperinflation and a collapse of real salaries; shortages of food, medicine and basic supplies; deterioration of health and education services; deterioration of basic infrastructure such as water, electricity, transport and urban services,” she told the Council.
Years of political strife boil over into street protests
Ms. DiCarlo went on to lay out the political landscape in the country since the parliamentary elections of December 2015, when the opposition won a large majority of seats in the National Assembly. Subsequently, the Supreme Court ruled that the Assembly was “in contempt” and that all its actions were “null and void”.
In 2017, a National Constituent Assembly was established through elections in which the opposition parties did not participate. The National Constituent Assembly took over key functions of the legislative branch and undertook a process of constitutional reform that remains inconclusive and is not recognized by the opposition parties.
Attempts to bring about political dialogue started as early as May 2016, through an initiative facilitated by three former leaders from the Dominican Republic, Panama and Spain, under the auspices of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR).
“Despite some initial progress, no concrete agreements were reached through this initiative, which was suspended by the beginning of 2017,” she said, adding that attempts to resume and continue dialogue faltered in February 2018 over a disagreement was the electoral calendar and guarantees to ensure free, transparent and credible elections.
Subsequently, the Government went ahead with presidential elections in May 2018. President Nicolás Maduro was declared the winner over two other candidates. Most of the opposition did not participate in the elections or recognize the results. On 10 January, Nicolás Maduro was sworn in as President for a second six-year term.
On 23 January, large scale opposition protests culminated with Juan Guaidó, president of the opposition-led National Assembly, announcing that he did not recognize President Maduro or his Government.
“While the protests were largely peaceful, there were incidents of violence,” Ms. Dicarlo said, noting that according to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, (OHCHR), credible local sources have reported that at least 20 people have died in the unrest. Many more have reportedly been reportedly injured and detained in violent incidents.
Call for a political solution
Recalling that the UN Secretary-General had offered his good offices to help resolve the crisis, Ms. DiCarlo stressed that the main concern is the well-being of the Venezuelan people and their ability to enjoy their full rights.
“The UN has been providing assistance, particularly in the areas of health and nutrition. And the Secretary-General had asked the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to establish a mechanism to support Venezuelans leaving the country.”
“There are divergent visions of what the future should hold for Venezuela. But we must all be guided, however, by the pursuit of the well-being of the Venezuelan people, and work together so that their needs are fully met,” she said.
A divided Security Council
Ms. DiCarlo’s call for cooperation and dialogue was echoed by many of the Council’s 15 members during the contentious debate that followed her briefing, even as speakers for the United States and Russia sparred over the path to end the crisis.
The US State Department on Wednesday ordered the departure from Venezuela of some non-emergency employees, following a decision by the Trump administration, and several other nations, to recognize Mr. Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful president.
President Maduro respoended by cutting diplomatic ties with the US.
Today, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on the UN to recognize Mr. Guaidó as Venezuela's interim president, and declared: “Now it is time for every other nation to pick a side. No more delays, no more games. Either you stand with the forces of freedom, or you're in league with Maduro and his mayhem.”
But Russia’s UN Ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, rejected that view saying the US was imposing its own “approaches and recipes” to resolve the problems on the ground in Venezuela. “This meeting is yet another attempt by the United States to affect regime change and [the Russian Federation] regrets that the UN Security Council has been drawn into such an unethical ploy.”
The two diplomats had faced off ahead of the meeting when the Council held a procedural vote on whether the session would even go forward, as ‘the situation in Venezuela’ is not an official item on the Council’s agenda.
But by a vote of nine in favour (Belgium, Dominican Republic, France, Germany, Kuwait, Peru, Poland, United Kingdom, United States) to four against (China, Equatorial Guinea, Russian Federation, South Africa), with two abstentions (Côte d’Ivoire, Indonesia), adopted the agenda item.
During the debate, French Ambassador Anne Gueguen said it was “entirely legitimate” that the Council considers the topic, as the crisis in Venezuela was spilling into neighbouring countries. France called for a political and negotiated solution to the crisis. “Mr. Maduro must understand that this is his last opportunity and he must take it,” she warned.
She said: “If elections are not announced in eight days, France is ready, along with the European Union, to recognize Mr. Guaidó as the interim President to trigger such a political process.” She urged authorities to refrain from the use of force against democratically elected officials, members of civil society and peaceful protestors.
Jorge Arreaza, Venezuela’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, rejected what he saw as US attempts to interfere in his country’s affairs, as well as Mr. Guaidó’s presidential self-proclamation, which he deemed illegal.
He said the Trump administration was trying to build a physical wall on its border with Mexico, while also erecting an “ideological wall” and resurrecting Cold War strategies aimed at bringing misery to wider Latin America. Nonetheless, Caracas, he declared, would find its own way forward, without interference. “No Power […] can dictate to my country its destiny or its future.”