European Union Takes Hesitant Stand on Venezuela

Members of the Venezuelan army and National Guard block the main entry to the Tienditas International Bridge that links Colombia and Venezuela, on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

(CN) – Venezuela’s escalating crisis is becoming a source of political division in Europe, exposing sharp differences between those on the left warning of a U.S.-led military intervention and Europe’s centrists and conservatives eager to see Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government collapse.

The European Union this week called for new elections in Venezuela, but it stopped short of recognizing Juan Guaidó as the interim president. Guaidó, a long-time opponent of Maduro and the leader of the National Assembly, declared himself interim president in January.

The EU was blocked from recognizing Guaidó by an intransigent Italy, according to news reports, citing diplomatic sources. In taking stances in foreign policy, the EU’s member states must all agree, and that’s consistently proven very difficult for a bloc with 28 member states.

Individually, major European nations – including France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Spain – backed Guaidó, a position in line with the United States, Australia and Canada. China and Russia, which have invested heavily in Venezuela and are vying for global power against the United States, oppose interference.

Italy, too, is on the side of leaving Venezuela alone. Italy’s government is led by a populist anti-establishment left-leaning party, the 5-Star Movement.

Although the party has not explained its position publicly, a window into its thinking was provided by Alessandro Di Battista, a top 5-Star figure.

On Jan. 26, Di Battista was quoted by Italian media as saying he was vehemently opposed to the EU issuing an “ultimatum” to Venezuela, calling such a move a “mega-galactic piece of crap.”

He said it would lead to Maduro being overthrown militarily in similar fashion to Libya’s strongman Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Gaddafi’s fall led to civil war in Libya, whose history and politics are entwined with Italy’s. Many Italians argue Libya’s collapse led to a surge in asylum-seekers seeking entry to Europe via Italy’s southern shores.

U.S. President Donald Trump and his advisers have said military intervention in Venezuela is an option.

“It is not about defending Maduro. It is a matter of avoiding an escalation of violence,” Di Battista said. 

The 5-Stars’ position caused new friction with its coalition partner in government, the far-right League party, and with other European countries.

The crisis in Venezuela isn’t just causing conflict in Italy.

In Britain, the Labour Party has come out in opposition to intervening in Venezuela. Labour’s positions have shifted farther left since Jeremy Corbyn took the party’s helm in 2015.

On Wednesday, Emily Thornberry, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, said the EU should not be recognizing Guaidó.

“I do not think you can make demands without knowing what you are going to do next,” she said, according to the Guardian newspaper in Britain. “It’s about not striking a pose, but doing things that are realistic and practical.”

She advocated letting “regional voices” resolve the conflict in Venezuela. “I think it is a question of approaching this with a little more humility,” she said.

She was echoing Corbyn, who said on Feb. 1 in a tweet that “the future of Venezuela is a matter for Venezuelans …We oppose outside interference in Venezuela, whether from the US or anywhere else.”

Labour’s non-interventionist approach in Venezuela drew rebuke from Conservatives.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph newspaper, William Hague, a former Tory leader and foreign secretary, called Corbyn’s statements “the hand-wringing language of moral bankruptcy.”

Hague said it was necessary to intervene because Maduro’s government is a repressive dictatorship responsible for the oil-rich country’s collapse.

He charged that Labour’s leaders were “guilty on three counts: of supporting economic insanity, of indifference to intense human suffering, and of a refusal to accept any measures to alleviate it.”

In Europe, as elsewhere, many on the left, including Labour members, in the past spoke admiringly of the socialist movement of Hugo Chavez and his successor, Maduro. One Labour member, John McDonnell, said in 2014 that Venezuela showed “the contrast between capitalism in crisis and socialism in action,” according to the Daily Telegraph. 

Now, such warm feelings toward Chavez and his socialist “Chavismo” politics are being called into question with chaos engulfing Venezuela. The country is suffering from hyperinflation, reports of starvation, economic collapse and political repression. In the worsening conditions and violence, more than 2 million people have fled Venezuela.

Still, some on the left argue that sanctions imposed on Venezuela by the United States and other countries brought the country to its knees, not Maduro’s socialist policies.

The legitimacy of Maduro’s presidency was thrown into doubt after he won re-election in 2018 in elections boycotted by opposition forces outraged at the banning of political parties and imprisonment of dissident politicians.

In Spain, the repercussions of Venezuela’s crisis may be the most profound, and lasting. Spain has deep ties to Venezuela and about 208,000 Venezuelans, including prominent dissidents, live there, according to Politico, an online news outlet.

Spain’s government is led by the Spanish Socialist Workers Party and its former leader, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, is deeply involved in Venezuela. Zapatero is acting as a lead mediator between Maduro and the opposition.

He’s a controversial figure, blaming U.S. sanctions for causing Venezuela’s problems. The president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, exiled Julio Borges, has called Zapatero “the lawyer of the government,” Politico reported. 

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has distanced himself from Zapatero and backed sanctions against Maduro’s government. He also joined other European leaders in recognizing Guaidó, while also talking about the need for dialogue.

His chief political opponents, the conservative Popular Party, have attacked him nonetheless as being soft on Venezuela and demanded Spain do more to help Venezuelans fleeing their country.

Pablo Casado, the conservative leader, called on Spain “to show solidarity” and to take a tougher stand against Maduro. The Popular Party has close ties to Venezuelan dissidents and the socialist government in Caracas has accused the party in the past of seeking to foment a coup.

Even more problematic for Sánchez is the relationship between Podemos, a far-left populist party, and Venezuela. Sánchez relies on Podemos to keep his fragile minority government in power.

Podemos was founded in 2014 by political professors, some of whom served as advisers to Chavez. The party’s leader, Pablo Iglesias, was an ardent Chavez supporter and said in the past Venezuela was a model for southern Europe. In recent weeks, he has said his past comments were a mistake.

Podemos leaders are frequently accused by rivals of having supported a dictatorship and receiving funds from Venezuela to carry out their political ambitions in Spain.

At a Senate hearing in December, Iglesias was grilled on his ties to Venezuela. He denied receiving financing, according to El País, a Spanish newspaper.

On the center and the right, support for ousting Maduro and holding new elections is solid. On Jan. 31, the European Parliament, which has a majority of centrist and conservative parliamentarians, voted to recognize Guaidó.

“This brings the Venezuelan people closer to freedom, justice, prosperity and respect for human rights,” said Antonio López-Istúriz, the secretary general of the European People’s Party, after the vote. His conservative group is the largest faction in the parliament.

The conservatives were joined by the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats and the Socialists and Democrats, other major parliamentary blocs.

“We must do whatever is possible to stop the criminal violence of Maduro’s regime, which is even targeting kids,” said Beatriz Becerra, a member of the liberal group. “Venezuelans see the EU as an ally and we can’t let them down.”

In an interview with the European Council on Foreign Relations, Felipe González Márquez, a former Spanish prime minister, said Europe needed to play a role in forcing fair elections in Venezuela but also remain steadfast against U.S. military action.

“The international community has to say with all clarity that nobody will accept a U.S. military intervention in Venezuela,” González said.

He said he was worried about Trump.

“I think he is an unpredictable and arbitrary guy and he is also surrounded by guys like [John] Bolton who already conducted the intervention in Iraq and who were the architects of all the war’s lies and who are now threatening again,” he said.

González said the EU needs to put pressure on Venezuela so that new elections are held and Maduro loses the support of the military, “the bayonets that sustain” him.

He also said the EU must freeze Venezuela’s assets to ensure they are not stolen by Maduro and his allies.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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