New Venezuela talks: Maduro won, so what’s there to talk about?

New Venezuela talks: Maduro won, so what’s there to talk about?

You'd think that when a country suffers the worst peacetime economic collapse in modern history or generates the world's second largest refugee crisis, it would stay in the news for a while.

Not so with Venezuela, which, for all its struggles over the past three years, has fallen from global headlines.

Now's a good time to take a fresh look at this story, because later this week, the government of Nicolás Maduro will sit down with the opposition, still led nominally by "interim president" Juan Guaidó, to negotiate a path forward after nearly four years of political and economic crisis.

Items on the agenda include the negotiated release of political prisoners, a path to free and fair gubernatorial elections this fall, and ways to collaborate on bringing humanitarian aid to Venezuela's suffering people.

After similar talks collapsed almost immediately in 2019, these new negotiations — hosted by Mexico and brokered by Norway — are likely the last, best chance for any kind of negotiated solution at all.

But the balance of power between the two sides is skewed in one direction. Heavily.

Maduro's team will show up feeling good. Four years ago, hundreds of thousands were in the streets protesting his government's political repression and economic incompetence, millions were fleeing abroad, the US had imposed crippling economic sanctions and was even hinting at an invasion, while dozens of countries recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the rightful leader of the country.

And yet, here Maduro is. He kept his military cronies on side, exploited divisions among the opposition to take even more power in elections last year, and got just enough help from outside friends like Cuba, Russia, Iran, and China to weather the storm. With leftist friends back in power in Peru, Argentina, and Bolivia — and possibly even Colombia next year — Maduro is now in a commanding position. Most of Guaidó's outside backers have abandoned him.

Still, Maduro has a big problem: his economy remains in ruins, and US financial and oil-sector sanctions certainly aren't helping. Maduro wants to win some sanctions relief, and he wants something else related to that, says Eurasia Group Venezuela expert Risa Grais-Targow: recognition. Dropping the de facto fiction of Juan Guaidó's presidency would help Maduro to attract more investment and access overseas cash reserves more easily.

The US, along with the EU and Canada, has signaled that some incremental sanctions relief — like allowing certain fuels to enter the country more easily again — could be on the table if Maduro makes a few credible concessions to the opposition this weekend. He has already released some key political prisoners as a show of good faith.

The opposition, meanwhile, shows up with head(s) bowed. Their bid to topple the Chavista government has failed. They gained some foreign support, most notably from the US and Europe, but they failed to sustain pressure in the streets at home. And boycotting last year's legislative elections, crooked as they were, also backfired: it allowed Maduro to take more power in the National Assembly, while letting pass a great opportunity to build durable local campaign networks.

There's a silver lining in this reckoning, though. A change of tack could lay the groundwork for a more sustainable and realistic — if longer-term — push for power. On Wednesday, the opposition announced that they will, in fact, participate in the upcoming gubernatorial elections this fall. And from Maduro's perspective, that's probably fine, especially if it pleases the Americans. Worst case is that the opposition wins a few governorships — but he would still control the presidency, the legislature, and the courts.

The longer-term questions remain: Would Maduro be willing to allow free and fair elections at the national level — say for the legislature or presidency? Will the opposition seek to unseat Maduro in a recall referendum that they have the right to call for next year?

But in the short term, there is a lesson. "You just can't will a different government into being," Grais-Targow says of international efforts to back Guaidó. Where opposition leaders and their foreign supporters miscalculated is in underestimating how risky it was for regime cronies to actually defect. We've seen that mistake elsewhere: in Syria, where a decade of war and sanctions failed to peel away Bashar al-Assad's generals, and in Russia, where foreign sanctions over the annexation of Crimea ended up binding Putin's oligarchs even more closely to the Kremlin.

Of course, caught in the middle of all this, still, are the Venezuelan people, who have lived in crisis for almost a decade now. Small wonder that neither Maduro nor Guaidó has the support of more than 15-20 percent of the population. Both sides have an interest in changing that — can they? The Mexico City talks would be a good place to start.

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Visa is well known all over the world, but how well? Many have long misunderstood it as a credit card company, but Visa is actually a network—working behind the scenes, connecting just about everyone to just about everyone else, so more of us can play a part in this commerce thing. Visa helps people and small and big businesses alike move money around the world. And it works to open doors—and change minds about what makes a business, a business. It's a network working for everyone. That's way more than a piece of plastic.

Meet Visa

Germany's historic moment of choice is finally here, and voters will stream to the polls on Sunday for the country's first post-World War II vote without a national leader seeking re-election. They will elect new members of the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament. The leader of the party that wins the most seats will then try to secure a majority of seats by drawing other parties into a governing partnership. He or she will then replace Angela Merkel as Germany's chancellor.

If the latest opinion polls are right, the center-left Social Democrats will finish first. In coming weeks, they look likely to form a (potentially unwieldy) governing coalition with the Green Party and the pro-business Free Democrats, which would be Germany's first-ever governing alliance of more than two parties.


Though he's a man of the center-left, Olaf Scholz, current finance minister and most likely next chancellor, wouldn't represent a radical break from Merkel. He's among the more fiscally frugal of Germany's Social Democrats, and after decades in German politics, he's an experienced technocrat and a skilled manager of political alliances.

Nor would a change in government radically shift Germany's foreign and trade policies. Its new government, whoever it includes, will keep strong security ties with the United States and NATO and protect opportunities to expand economic relations with China. Germany's dependence on Russian energy will demand a continuation of Merkel's pragmatic approach to Vladimir Putin's government.

Scholz's conviction that a strong and cohesive EU is good for Germany will limit any temptation to get tougher with the governments of Poland and Hungary over their violations of EU rules and principles. And aware that COVID can widen gaps between richer and poorer EU countries, and that anti-EU economic populism remains a potent force in Italy and elsewhere, he's likely to support a generous approach to pandemic recovery in southern Europe.

But climate policy, an area where Merkel concedes she should have done more, will be an important and interesting story to watch. Given its leadership within the EU and its standing as the world's fourth largest economy, the influence of Germany's next government on climate policy will be crucial to global climate strategies. A new German government with Scholz as chancellor will likely push the pace of transition from carbon to renewable energy, at least in part because the Green Party coalition partner will push for this as hard as it can. The Greens must show progress on the climate front to maintain political credibility and popularity. If the Free Democrats are indeed part of the coalition, they'll push hard to limit tax increases to pay for tougher climate action, but they won't blow up the coalition that gives them a seat at Germany's governing table.

Merkel's legacy

Even in a country that values stability and continuity, Angela Merkel's 16-year run is remarkable. More than once she's proved the maxim that it's not the smartest or strongest who survives, but the one most adaptable to change. Merkel is smart and strong, to be sure, but she'll be remembered longest – by both devoted admirers and bitter critics – as the leader who insisted Germany could and should do more to help indebted countries survive Europe's sovereign debt crisis (2010-12) and to manage the surge of migrants that followed unrest in the Middle East (2015-16). Her improvisational talents also led her to change tack on nuclear power (after the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan) and on common European debt.

But the main reason Merkel leaves power with an 80 percent approval rating is that, whether she receives more credit than she deserves, she has presided over a period of economic expansion and prosperity in Germany that few other world leaders can match. It's all the more remarkable then that her party looks set to find itself in opposition once a new government is formed. It's Merkel that German voters like, not her political family.

Bottom-line: Whatever he accomplishes as Germany's next chancellor, Olaf Scholz will find Angela Merkel a tough act to follow.

Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington, shares insights on US politics:

Is a US government shutdown coming?

Hard to say. Republicans and Democrats generally are in agreement about the need to fund the government. And they generally agree at what level the government should be funded. And they generally agree about the need for supplemental money for Afghanistan and some natural disasters, coming out of hurricanes this season and wildfires. What they're not in agreement about is the federal debt limit, which is the cap on US borrowing that the US hit in early August and needs to be extended by some time in October. Otherwise, the US will have a first-ever default. This would be a very bad outcome with cataclysmic results for the entire world economy.

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Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel has seen a lot during her 16 years in power. She's navigated a global economic recession, multiple wars in the Middle East which sparked an EU refugee crisis, and now a once-in-a-generation pandemic. Often the only woman in the room, Merkel has had to learn to tactfully deal with dozens of idiosyncratic world leaders. Many have come and gone since 2005, but Merkel has won elections again and again. We take a look at who she's dealt with from the top democracies (by economic size) throughout her tenure.

In May 2020, economic historian Adam Tooze told GZERO World he feared 1 in 5 American workers could still be out of job now due to COVID. It didn't happen. Why? Tooze says he failed to anticipate how quickly we'd get highly effective vaccines, and the scale of the economic stimulus the government was willing to put up. During the 2008 financial crisis, he explains, "we were still beginning to flex our muscles with regards to economic policy, and the scale of fiscal and monetary stimulus that we've seen is as unprecedented as the shock of the spring of last year."

Watch Tooze's interview with Ian Bremmer on the latest episode of GZERO World, airing on US public television starting Friday 9/23/21. Check local listings.

Will Evergrande be China's Lehman Bros? Chinese authorities are bracing for the increasingly likely default of Evergrande, the country's most indebted property developer. If Evergrande — a gargantuan corporation with properties in 200 cities across China — stiffs its creditors, that'll send shockwaves throughout the country's financial system, and the wider Chinese economy and society. The possible ripple effects on home buyers and countless companies and individuals that do business with or are owed money by Evergrande have invited comparisons with Lehman Brothers, the US investment bank whose 2008 collapse triggered an American financial crisis that quickly spread to the entire world. Although in principle authoritarian China has ways of containing the fallout, the potential for social unrest is real — and opacity could make it worse. More broadly, the demise of such a big player in the country's once-booming real estate market, which accounts for over 7 percent of GDP, would expose the shaky foundations of China's debt-driven economic growth model, eroding confidence in China both at home and abroad.

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Betrayal. Treason. Duplicity. These are some of the words used by the French government to describe the US' recent decision to freeze Paris out of a new security pact with the UK and Australia in the Indo-Pacific, which nixed a contract for Australia to buy French submarines.

Macron's subsequent tough stance against one of its oldest and closest allies is unusual, including his decision to briefly recall the French ambassador from Washington, the first time a French president has done so. But this headstrong strategy is also a deliberate diplomatic choice.

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