Venezuela is a country with four intertwined crises: a political conflict, a complex humanitarian emergency, mass migration, and economic woes. The political struggle, spearheaded by the government, led to the disappearance of Venezuela’s means of production through expropriation and economic controls, which ignited the humanitarian emergency and caused a wave of mass emigration. All Venezuelans have been directly impacted by these events, and their views of the world are affected by this impact. At the same time, these realities influence the country’s diplomatic and commercial relationships with the international community. Therefore, all Venezuelan actors assess foreign stakeholders—countries, regions, or organizations—in terms of their involvement in these four crises.
Venezuela’s isolation has been increasing since 2018, when President Nicolás Maduro was reelected in a vote that violated the process established in the constitution. After the National Assembly declared the absence of a legitimate president in January 2019 and fifty-five countries, including most members of the European Union (EU), recognized the president of the legislature, Juan Guaidó, as the caretaker president of Venezuela, the Maduro government severed relations with part of the international community.
With this lack of international recognition for Maduro’s regime came stringent sanctions, including those imposed by the EU. This is a fundamental issue because the general public perception in Venezuela regarding international relations is directly linked to the sanctions, for two reasons: first, the sanctions have been a key element of the government’s narrative to explain the country’s economic collapse; and second, the measures have been essential leverage for the opposition to position itself as an actor important enough to participate in political negotiations.
This chapter aims to bring about a better understanding of how the EU is viewed from Venezuela, and how these insights can inform policies for a more realistic and effective relationship with this crisis-torn country. There is little literature on Venezuelans’ views of Europe—as opposed to the way Venezuela is and should be viewed from abroad. That is why this research focused mainly on interviews with informed voices from different parts of civil society. Venezuelan experts were interviewed on politics, history, economy and finance, diplomacy, and humanitarian aid. While most interviewees shared similar thoughts about the EU, their respective areas of expertise and political stances influenced their opinions. Two interviewees asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, especially when surveyed about their opinions of EU and U.S. sanctions against Venezuela.
Current Perceptions of the EU
The fundamental perception of Venezuelans not only toward the EU but toward the world in general is that external actors have little visibility beyond the urgent issues that affect Venezuelans’ lives. As Omar Zambrano, chief economist at ANOVA Policy Research, put it, “Venezuela is isolated from any discussion at the global level. The only relevant Venezuelan issue is the predicament between democratic transition and the consolidation of the Chavista dictatorship.”1 (The Chavista regime started with the 1998 election of former president Hugo Chávez and departed from democracy with the unconstitutional 2018 election held by Maduro.)
As to why the EU is not on the radar of the general public, the research revealed that many Venezuelans do not understand the impact the EU’s work could have on their country’s political crisis. That is why the uninformed parts of Venezuela’s population may consider the EU a marginal organization, or even be entirely unaware of its existence.
The EU in Venezuela’s Political Crisis
The most profound insights of the research relate to how people in Venezuela view the EU’s role and participation in the country’s political and humanitarian crises. In 2021, the union became more active in the political conflict. The Venezuelan government went from kicking out the EU ambassador at the beginning of the year to receiving an EU election observation mission (EOM)—something that had not happened since 2006—to watch over the November regional elections. These were deemed controversial because of the questionable validity of the electoral authority and because some opposition parties and candidates were unconstitutionally blocked from running. The main opposition coalition agreed to run in the elections, and the EU’s involvement through the EOM was considered a safeguard—although there was also a risk that it could legitimize unfair elections.
More than the EU, however, it is perhaps Josep Borrell, the union’s foreign policy high representative, who garners the most attention in Venezuela. Many Venezuelans see him as the bloc’s top authority, and some of his opinions are perceived as the unanimous views of the EU member states. Indeed, because of the way the EU is generally covered in the Venezuelan media, there is an incorrect perception that Borrell usually speaks on behalf of the EU as a whole.
The most common media narrative about the EU in Venezuela obliterates the complexities of the organization, confusing the European Council with the European Parliament. Venezuelans also frequently use the former name of European Community to refer to the EU. Supranational entities like the EU are not part of Venezuelans’ general political experience, despite the country’s membership in the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) or its suspended membership in Mercosur.
The EOM deployed by Borrell’s office in late 2021 has been at the center of political controversies sparked by both the government and the hard-core opposition. In October, the Venezuelan government lashed out against Borrell for saying publicly that “if the opposition decides to go [to the elections] and that is a path that helps . . . achieve a greater institutionalization of the opposition, am I going to say that I’m not going to send an election observation mission because the elections are fraudulent?”2 The government framed this statement as proof that the EOM would not be independent and dragged this narrative out for a couple of weeks.
Borrell was also the target of comments from opposition figures who opposed the elections. They said the high representative had overlooked the recommendations of an EU exploratory mission, which had concluded that the EOM posed a risk of legitimizing unfair elections.3 This criticism echoes the feeling about Borrell that prevails among opposition leaders, pundits, and ordinary citizens, both in Venezuela and among the Venezuelan community in Spain, who see Borrell as too close to the current Spanish government and to former Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. Zapatero has been hired as a mediator in previous negotiation attempts and is widely considered a close ally of Venezuela’s Chavista government. As far as this sector of public opinion is concerned, the perception of Borrell as a politician who leans toward Chavismo can be extended from the high representative to the entire EU.
To monitor how the EU is presented in social media, ProBox, a Venezuelan monitoring organization, has been tracking ongoing debates and trends on Twitter since January 2020. According to ProBox, there are four main actors in debates on Venezuelan social media: the regime, the opposition, civil society, and anonymous accounts. “The EU is mainly mentioned by the opposition, despite the regime . . . leading the trending topics through inorganic activity,” explained ProBox Executive Director María Virginia Marín.4
ProBox also contextualized the EU’s presence on social media: the union was widely mentioned in February 2021 after its ambassador to Venezuela, Isabel Brilhante Pedrosa, was expelled from the country in a televised event in which the Venezuelan foreign minister formally delivered her letter of expulsion. However, neither the EU’s sanctions, its humanitarian work, nor the EOM was a subject of debate on social media until the recent spats with Borrell—and even then, the EU did not trend on Twitter in Venezuela.
In the context of Venezuelan perceptions of the EU as an actor in Venezuela’s political crisis, a group of researchers conducted an experiment to measure people’s intentions to vote in the November 2021 regional elections according to whether the international community would be involved.5 Two studies targeted a specific municipality in Caracas. The first described the international community as “the United States, the European Union, etc.” and the second as just “the European Union.” In the first study, which mentioned the United States, respondents were 12 percent more likely to vote in elections if the international community were involved. In the second study, which referred only to the EU, there was no variation. Of course, the results of this experiment can only be taken as a set of individual preferences in a specific location, but they are consistent with other research findings.
Even though the EU has been involved in international cooperation with Venezuela for a long time, there has been little acknowledgment of it in the country, said international relations expert Luisa Kislinger: “I don’t think the problem is the EU, but the nature of the process, the actors, and the regime. That’s why I believe [the Europeans] have a limited role; I don’t think they will be allowed to do more than what the authoritarian and despotic nature of the regime will allow them to.”6
The EU’s stance as a global influence and a possible intermediary in the Venezuelan political crisis is distinct from the roles of the United States, China, and Russia because of the EU’s fundamental international profile of a civilian power or a nonmilitary superpower. This profile is based on a distinctive set of principles, which, in the words of one researcher, emphasize “diplomatic rather than coercive instruments, the centrality of mediation in conflict resolution, [and] the importance of long-term economic solutions to political problems. All of these are in contradiction to the norms of super-power politics.”7 Or, as Zambrano dubbed it: soft power.
A recent example of effective European soft power in Venezuela is that of French Ambassador Romain Nadal, who became a social media darling because of his involvement in humanitarian programs and cultural activities that were promoted by the French embassy. For example, in September 2021, he flew to Zea and Tovar, two small towns in the state of Mérida that had almost disappeared under mudslides, to provide humanitarian aid with the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Cáritas Venezuela.8 The impacts of these activities were widely covered in independent media, although they were associated with France rather than with the EU. An interesting anecdote about the French ambassador’s popularity in certain Venezuelan Twitter circles is that on April 25, 2022, the day after Emmanuel Macron was reelected president of France, several people celebrated the fact that the French election result meant that Nadal would remain in his post.
According to historian and political scientist Guillermo Tell Aveledo, there is notable incomprehension among Venezuelans in general regarding the workings and diplomatic capabilities of the EU as a bloc and a global actor. This may lead not only to unmet expectations from those who are relying on the international community to oust Maduro but also to misinformation from the government. “The government uses the lack of understanding of the differences between the EU as a bloc and the stances of individual countries to promote the narrative that the opposition is alone, divided, and without solid support from the international community,” Aveledo said.9
Mariano de Alba, a Venezuelan lawyer specializing in international law and a senior adviser at the International Crisis Group, believed that what makes the EU a relevant global actor is its market and geographic location. But de Alba and Aveledo agreed that the EU’s biggest strength is also its biggest handicap: the fact that the EU is composed of twenty-seven member states makes it strong but at the same time slow, as bureaucracy and the need to align many different views make it hard to create actionable items.
Betilde Muñoz-Pogossian, director of the Department of Social Inclusion at the Organization of American States, concurred with the view that Europe has a prominent role in the world because of geopolitics and a long history of policies that have paved the way for international agreements and conflict resolutions. But she also worried about the EU’s stance as a global leader. “Whereas in the past I saw the European Union . . . as a more strategic player, I don’t think that’s really the case anymore,” Muñoz-Pogossian explained. She went on,
The EU is ever more at risk of disintegrating (Brexit and similar sentiments in other European countries exemplify this), and because of these threats, the EU has lost power. European countries which used to be seen as leaders in most fields, and leading the conversation on human rights and economic prosperity, have so many internal problems that they have also lost some credibility.10
The Economy and Sanctions
Since 2018, the EU has escalated sanctions against Maduro and members of the government elite—a measure intended to encourage democratic solutions to bring political stability to the country and pressure the government to address the urgent needs of Venezuelans. The targeted economic sanctions are flexible, reversible, and intended not to harm the Venezuelan population. According to an EU press release in November 2020,
The decision [to extend sanctions] was taken in light of the ongoing political, economic, social and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, with persistent actions undermining democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights. The measures include an embargo on arms and on equipment for internal repression, as well as a travel ban and an asset freeze on 36 listed individuals in official positions who are responsible for human rights violations and/or for undermining democracy and the rule of law.11
Interviewees shared the opinion that Europe has been effective in imposing sanctions and measures to pressure the Maduro regime but ineffective in enforcing them. An example of this mixed performance is an episode in which Delcy Rodríguez, Maduro’s sanctioned vice president, was allowed to fly to Spain and meet a government official to discuss political matters. This type of inconsistency, which was heavily covered in the Venezuelan media, gives the EU an image of weakness.
Among the general population, sanctions seem to be fairly unpopular, even though the president’s popularity is below that of key opposition politicians, who have alarmingly low ratings as well, and even though many recognize the government as the main cause of Venezuela’s economic collapse. According to an August 2021 survey by consulting firm Datanálisis, 76.4 percent of respondents believed sanctions had a negative impact on their lives without effecting real political change.12 Although most Venezuelans identify sanctions with the U.S. government, this finding does not translate into anti-Americanism. EU sanctions, which target specific individuals, are rarely brought up in the public discourse.
Interlocutors highlighted in many instances how they view the EU as an important global economic actor. De Alba believed that Europe’s most important strategic advantage is its commercial role. In his opinion, through the EU’s regulatory capacity and the need of other actors to access that market, the union has been able to export standards in multiple areas. Muñoz-Pogossian concurred: “The European market is a precursor to most of the agreements that seek to encourage trade between nations. [The EU has] contributed greatly to governance on world trade issues, apart from being an open market and serving as a model [for the] exchange of goods, services, [and] products between countries that can be a win for all.”13
As for the Venezuelan economy, after the bolivar lost purchasing power in 2016 because of hyperinflation and a dramatic shortage of banknotes, the population started relying heavily on electronic transactions and foreign currency. Day-to-day purchases now depend mainly on people’s ability to access electronic bolivars or U.S. dollars in cash. This is fundamental because, as economist Henkel García explained, most local commercial transactions in Venezuela are handled in cash dollars, and the monetary mass of the bolivar—including the digital and physical currency—is equivalent to only $500 million.14
Although Venezuela has adopted other forms of electronic payment, just a small fraction of the population has access to them, since most people depend on integration into the international financial system—namely, a dollar account in the United States. These other forms include resources such as Zelle, Venmo, and PayPal. Also, the use of cryptocurrency to send remittances from abroad to people in Venezuela is not uncommon. That said, interviewees did not express any relevant comments about the European digital economy.
Migration and Humanitarian Aid
Since 2018, the EU has allocated €156 million ($169 million) in emergency humanitarian aid to help Venezuelans locally and in neighboring countries, especially Colombia.15 The aid targets the most vulnerable groups, such as children under five years of age, pregnant women and new mothers, the elderly, and indigenous communities. It usually focuses on the provision of vital healthcare, food and water, sanitation and hygiene, and education in emergency situations. The EU also supports humanitarian coordination and the improvement of local emergency response capacities. This assistance is facilitated by aid organizations and coordinated by the Humanitarian Logistics Network and the Red Cross.
Yet, although it has created more than 5.6 million refugees and migrants, Venezuela’s migration crisis remains one of the most underfunded emergencies globally.16 According to Feliciano Reyna, a humanitarian activist and director of anti-HIV/AIDS organization Acción Solidaria, underfunding is one of the biggest impediments to protecting a large and vulnerable population already fleeing a life-threatening humanitarian emergency. Reyna said,
When you study the global migration financing tracking service, of the thirty-four countries with humanitarian response plans submitted for funding, Venezuela ranked thirty-four as a funding recipient. There is a political situation that has not been handled properly by many international donors, and despite the contributions and donations mobilized, the money destined for the Venezuelan crisis is far below what is required.17
Despite Reyna’s criticism of international funding for Venezuelan migrants, he underlined the relevance of the work of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO). ECHO started documenting migration, hyperinflation, political persecution, and restrictions on economic liberties in 2013—a year before national and local NGOs began raising the alarm about Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis. Reyna said, “Acción Solidaria benefited from ECHO’s resources to study and record the economic, social, and political crisis in Venezuela. This task helped us summon the UN humanitarian system, which remained completely silent until 2016, stating that their research—based solely on official government information—did not reflect a humanitarian crisis.”18
However, humanitarian activists’ positive views of the EU’s work are not reflected in the Venezuelan media, where the bloc rarely makes the headlines. What is more, the EU’s late public acknowledgment of the crisis gave an initial impression of indifference on the part of the union.
Nevertheless, Jorge Guzmán, a political scientist and former adviser to the Colombian ambassador to Venezuela, thinks the EU is the global power with both the will and the capacity to promote peaceful and sustainable solutions for a population in critical conditions.19 EU institutions have reacted to events in Venezuela by increasing humanitarian aid and promoting dialogue among opposing political factions in the country. Borrell has highlighted the need to provide funding for the Venezuelan migrant crisis, which, before Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, was considered by many international organizations and cataloged by the EU as the worst displacement crisis the world had seen in recent history.
Indeed, in May 2020, Borrell said, “The European Union has never forgotten the Venezuelan people. Today we mobilized the international community to deliver further assistance to millions of displaced Venezuelans and those countries in Latin America that host them.”20 European Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič said that “the EU’s humanitarian support will help focus on getting emergency assistance to around 5 million Venezuelans who have been forced to leave their homes.”21
Overall, however, the EU commitment to Venezuela still pales in comparison with the responses to other migration crises of a similar magnitude. The Ukraine crisis is too recent to provide a comparison, but total global funding for Syrian refugees has been over ten times higher than that for Venezuelans in per capita terms.22 The union has the capacity to mobilize further assistance for Venezuela: even if it does not provide additional financial support itself, the EU could call for greater efforts from Canada and the United States.
Interviewees also highlighted the way in which the EU has handled fundamental aspects of the migration crisis faced by member states as recipient countries for migrants and refugees. Muñoz-Pogossian underlined that the EU has a strategic role in setting standards of respect for human rights and support for receiving countries: “I also think the EU has to acknowledge that the Americas are innovating much more in terms of responses to migration, and should support Latin American countries [financially and politically] in those responses and emulate many of the responses to migration.”23
Meanwhile, Reyna pointed to the efforts of countries like Germany, which has tried to handle the impacts of a growing migration crisis from the Middle East from a human rights angle rather than a security perspective. “Examples like Germany should lead as role models for other countries in the EU and [offer] important values to export to Latin American receiving countries,” he said.24
The Coronavirus Pandemic
In humanitarian terms, the EU has approved many resources to help Venezuela in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Yet, health journalist Luisa Salomón explained in an interview that at least in 2021, the country’s media coverage of the EU had little to do with the pandemic and was more focused on politics. However, this was not directly linked to the EU’s actions: although the coronavirus has had devastating effects on the Venezuelan population and the virus is far from under control, the pandemic has lost traction in the media because the political crisis grabs all the attention.
Only two months after Venezuela’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 in May 2020, the EU and the Spanish government convened the International Donors’ Conference in Solidarity with Venezuelan Refugees and Migrants with the support of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration. The EU and its member states donated €231.7 million ($251.7 million) in grant funding, while the European Commission pledged €144.2 million ($156.6 million) for immediate humanitarian assistance and conflict prevention—but with a focus on medium- and long-term development aid. The European Investment Bank announced €400 million ($434 million) in additional loans to the region to help battle the pandemic.25
Yet, despite the EU’s recognition of the effects of the pandemic on a hyperinflationary economy suffering from shortages of general public goods and services, food insecurity, and growing extreme poverty, Reyna questioned the effectiveness of the humanitarian aid provided to fight the pandemic: “The EU hasn’t achieved a common approach to provide the help needed. I’m not aware of changes in this matter during the pandemic. Funding has been mobilized for the humanitarian emergency, not for the coronavirus pandemic.”26
Looking ahead, Muñoz-Pogossian believes the EU’s global focus should be on “prioritizing the EU’s involvement in the fight against the coronavirus and working on the world’s economic recovery, migration as a common denominator for Europe and the Americas, and support for norms and values aligned with human rights, democracy, and protection of the environment.”27
Norms and Values
Interlocutors saw the EU as a positive force in the fight for democracy and admired the union’s efforts to balance its values between respect for individual rights and collective well-being. Most interviewees agreed that the EU is the embodiment of democratic, multicultural, and pluralist values and a trustworthy, respectful ally in the fight against dictatorship in Venezuela.
In this sense, the EU’s loss of credibility has to do mainly with its limited capability to put words into action. Interviewees did not dispute the EU’s place as a stalwart of human and civil rights. Aveledo put it simply: “Europe seems to be the most polished face of civilization: more finished societies, more open, anchored in traditions but not defined by them.” He also highlighted the EU’s importance as a developer of civil rights–based politics: “It’s hard to imagine [former German chancellor] Helmut Kohl discussing the rights of minorities, LGBTQ people, or ethnic[-minority] populations, because the nature of those political systems was different. But now we find an opening in democratic systems that leads in that direction.”28
On values, however, the research revealed that these could be seen as a handicap to the EU’s efforts to reach more conservative and traditional Venezuelans, who are predominantly Catholic. They see Europe as a promoter of progressive politics that does not connect well with the general Venezuelan population or with many politicians who have a strong political agenda focused on human rights but without a civil rights perspective. A point of agreement over the years between the government and the political opposition, for example, has been the lack of interest in legislative discussions of the LGBTQ community and women’s reproductive rights.
Regarding the climate crisis, interviewees perceived the EU as a positive force that has been more present than other international actors in the search for solutions. Muñoz-Pogossian stressed that she sees the EU’s role as more crucial in pushing for reform to combat climate change since the United States disappeared from this conversation in recent years.
At the same time, there was little awareness of the EU’s participation in promoting initiatives to address Venezuela’s significant environmental crisis. However, with climate change, the general public took a similar attitude to its position on civil rights: the population is so concerned with its day-to-day survival that these conversations have only secondary importance.
The EU and Other Global Actors
There is a sense among Venezuelans, as stated by political scientist and journalist José De Bastos in an interview, that the EU plays a secondary role to other international actors. Indeed, three players—the United States, China, and Russia—are key to the way Venezuelans view the world as they have been the main political, economic, and military stakeholders in Venezuela for the past fifteen years. The United States is deeply intertwined with Latin America, but the U.S. stance toward Venezuela is often tense because of the pressures of migration and the drugs trade. China tends to impose its economic interest in the region, especially when it comes to sources of raw materials. And Russia has become quite aggressive in its drive to increase its geopolitical influence.
Indeed, a repeated criticism of the EU has to do with its diminishing role amid the geopolitical strategies of Russia. It is too soon to say whether European support for Ukraine in its ongoing war with Russia will change that perception. Meanwhile, in economic terms, as Zambrano put it, Europe is a decaying global power that is losing influence to China—a view with which most interviewees agreed.
According to Rafael Osío Cabrices, a Venezuelan journalist based in Montreal, a key aspect of the EU’s image in Venezuela is the contrast between Europe’s moderate foreign policy and the foreign policies of other actors in the region. Given the consensual nature of EU positions and the political cultures of modern European states, the EU tends to appear more impartial toward Venezuela’s political actors, more cautious in its pronouncements, and more vehement about choosing dialogue and negotiation over confrontation. In this sense, the EU speaks to Venezuela more like the UN secretary general does than like other governments in the region, which could have political reasons to maintain a harder stance and explicitly support either the Maduro government or the opposition.
In Osío Cabrices’s opinion, Europe has lost influence to China, Russia, and the United States since the last decades of the twentieth century. Correspondingly, there has been a lack of European interest in Latin America, which is more worried about its relationships with regions that have more direct impacts on the continent: Africa and the Middle East. Osío Cabrices contrasted the United States’ geopolitical relationship with Venezuela with that of the EU, saying,
There’s a series of commercial and financial ties with the United States that are natural due to geography and history that resist even [geopolitical] isolation. Geography works in favor of the United States as a more influential actor in Latin America than Europe. By way of example, I give you Cuba: even with important European investment, in the end the transactional [currency] is the dollar.29
Perhaps the main difference between Venezuela’s views of the United States and of the EU was nailed down by Aveledo, who said that Washington may have more credibility than Brussels in Latin America because there is a sense among the Venezuelan population that the EU has significant international authority but limited space of execution: no one expects to see the EU leading an armed intervention in the region. And although the United States is suspected of having a more obscure agenda than the EU, possibly driven more by internal politics than by a real concern for the Venezuelan people, Venezuelans see the country as more credible in terms of execution. In general, interviewees gravitated toward the opinion that the EU sometimes follows the lead of the United States.
García saw Europe as an important commercial partner and a “huge market” for Venezuela.30 But he recognized how relations with Europe have been deteriorating in recent years. Turkey, Iran, Russia, and China have gained ground in their commercial ties with Venezuela, mostly for political reasons. Historically, however, both Europe and the United States were more natural markets and business partners for Venezuela. If there is a turn in the political tide, García believes the full potential of these relationships could be easily reestablished. He also noted that Spain is still very active in trade relations with Venezuela, including in the oil industry.
Commercially, the presence of China and the United States is deeply felt and recognized among the Venezuelan population. Venezuela has an economy that is highly dependent on imports, and Chinese and U.S. products have flooded the market in recent years. The Venezuelan economy is relatively new to digital purchases and services, which have sprouted quickly and aggressively because of the coronavirus pandemic. Still, Venezuelans’ buying habits remain focused on the local digital economy and U.S.-based entertainment services, such as streaming and education platforms.
In terms of security, De Bastos believes that internally, the EU is quite effective, but that externally, it relies too heavily on the United States, citing conflicts such as those in Syria, Libya, and even Bosnia and Herzegovina. Zambrano described a similar situation, where the EU’s actions are more symbolic than effective, which he believes is worrying because, as he said before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, “Europe remains the wall that contains Russian authoritarianism.”31
Future Priorities for EU-Venezuela Relations
In general, the experts interviewed hoped for more EU involvement in commerce, migration, values, the environment, security, and the fight against the coronavirus. Venezuelans see Europe as a positive influence, and if there is any criticism of the bloc’s role in these areas, it is that the EU should be more involved and more present.
For the general population, the EU’s influence is barely felt in Venezuela, and there is a belief that the union could help tip the balance in favor of promoting peace and democracy in the region, especially in Venezuela, and counteracting the nondemocratic influences of Russia, China, Cuba, and Iran.
Going forward, several actionable items emerged for the future of EU-Venezuela relations. The EU’s help on these items would not only be useful to tackle various aspects of Venezuela’s current crises but also provide good opportunities to bolster the union’s exposure in the country.
Regarding the union’s role in promoting democratic values in Venezuela, it would be interesting to see the EU working more closely with the United States, unifying efforts to act under a more organized agenda and with the same objectives. Some of the problems of the past relate to a lack of communication between Brussels and Washington, and the fact that the two capitals communicate with different Venezuelan interlocutors on the same side of the conflict. The Venezuelan opposition is divided into different groups that tend to look for pathways that may earn them more power or a more convenient position if any kind of transition occurs. These small moves within the Venezuelan political spectrum create great rifts that end in time-consuming internal negotiations. Both the EU and the United States could take a role in helping prevent these situations by adopting a unified strategy with which to approach these groups.
The EU should find ways to promote more commercial exchanges with Venezuela. European investment in the tourism sector could be well received as a source of employment and economic development. Quality employment is badly needed in Venezuela, and European companies that can provide it would see their efforts appreciated by the population, as long as European governments can negotiate with the Maduro administration to secure the necessary conditions to protect investments, repatriate dividends, and remain protected from expropriation.
It is also important for the EU to engage directly with the private sector, especially small companies and individual entrepreneurs. Any investment in Venezuela requires a plan to promote the financial independence of the Venezuelan population and oversee such investment to protect it from government corruption. It is key that European companies and governments do not repeat mistakes of the past, such as some of the deals with the regime in Cuba, where the EU made significant investment in a tourism industry that excludes Cubans from both the business successes and the enjoyment of those services. While a big part of the responsibility for successful economic relations depends on the good faith of the Venezuelan government, and Brussels should maintain cordial relations with the Maduro administration, engagement with private actors may produce effective short-term results.
Other forms of economic exchange are likely to return to Venezuela, as international actors, including the EU and the United States, have shown varying levels of openness to reviewing and relaxing their sanctions regimes. Observers can expect to see more engagement in the oil sector and other state-controlled industries, although relations in these areas will likely be influenced by the political crisis and have only an indirect effect on the Venezuelan population.
The EU should make greater use of its active diplomatic corps, which has established good relations with different sectors of Venezuelan civil society despite the recent impasse with the government. Cultural initiatives, such as the vast range of activities in which the French embassy is involved, are a relevant part of European influence and resonate with the communities they impact directly and with certain well-informed stakeholders who can amplify these activities in social media and the press. This sort of activity, in parallel with different forms of humanitarian aid, can provide significant visibility through actions that will get less pushback from the Maduro government.
Finally, the EU should promote the mobilization of funds to aid Venezuelans in critical conditions both in and outside the country. The union should also work on providing a more accurate classification of Venezuelan migrants to improve access to appropriate resources for such a large displaced population. As it stands, Venezuelan migrants are not protected under any special international classification, as many are seen as individual migrants pushed to the diaspora for economic reasons. Humanitarian categories such as “displaced person” or “refugee” do not usually apply to Venezuelan migrants because these labels have specific criteria. For example, the definition of “refugee” established in the 1951 Refugee Convention fits those who can prove they have been victims of political persecution: political prisoners and victims of repression who have obtained asylum in countries that have ratified the convention, including most Latin American states.
But as explained by Osío Cabrices and journalist Kaoru Yonekura, this concept “doesn’t fit the large majority of Venezuelans who left as a result of violent pressure that can’t be proven, or simply because they understood that if they didn’t leave to find work in another country, their kids would starve to death.”32
Overall, Venezuelans take a positive view of the EU as a global actor and a party to Venezuela’s political crisis, even if the general public’s knowledge of the bloc and its functions is lower than when it comes to other international actors. As a point of convergence, interviewees saw Europe as a positive force in the fight for democracy and admired its efforts to balance its values between respect for individual rights and collective well-being.
However, EU sanctions on Venezuela are hardly discussed in the country, where they are seen as less harmful than those imposed by the United States and in tune with a bigger diplomatic strategy by the EU to regain political stability in Venezuela. Most interviewees agreed that the union has been losing ground to China and Russia in the economic and political spheres. Some also highlighted that internally, the EU is quite effective, but that externally, it relies too heavily on the United States.
Venezuelans see European countries as leaders in most fields and in global conversations on human and civil rights and economic prosperity. Still, Brexit and nationalist sentiments in other European states create the perception that the EU is slowly losing its place as a strategic global player and that these internal problems are causing the bloc to lose credibility. Another handicap of the EU is its slow bureaucracy and its need to align many different views from member countries, making it hard to create actionable items.
In terms of the EU’s response to Venezuela’s humanitarian emergency and migration crisis, Venezuelans appreciate the work of ECHO in documenting the origins of the crisis in a timely manner and helping create a study basis, which contributed to pressuring the UN and other international organizations to recognize the humanitarian emergency. However, underfunding is highlighted as one of the most pressing matters in international aid for Venezuela.
Interviewees underscored the way EU member states have handled their own migration crises as recipient countries for migrants and refugees to set standards of respect for human rights and support for destination countries. But humanitarian workers claimed that even though the EU had mobilized special funding for aid during the coronavirus pandemic, they had seen no improvement in the EU’s humanitarian response during 2020.
In sum, Venezuelans regard the EU as an adequate partner and an important nonpolarizing force in their country’s political crisis. Looking ahead, Venezuelans hope for more EU involvement in all aspects of the relationship. It is now time for the bloc to go further in promoting peace and democracy in Latin America and countering illiberal influences in the region.
Raúl Stolk is a Venezuelan lawyer based in Miami and the general director of Caracas Chronicles.
Gabriela Mesones Rojo is a Venezuelan journalist living in Madrid, specializing in gender, migration, and human rights.
1 Interview with Omar Zambrano in Caracas, March 24, 2021.
2 “Jorge Rodríguez a Josep Borrell: ‘Si es así, mejor no venga’ a Venezuela” [Jorge Rodríguez to Josep Borrell: “If That’s the Case, Best Not to Come” to Venezuela], Deutsche Welle, October 10, 2021, https://www.dw.com/es/jorge-rodr%C3%ADguez-a-josep-borrell-si-es-as%C3%AD-mejor-no-venga-a-venezuela/a-59463511.
3 Michael Stott, “Josep Borrell Ignored Staff Advice Over EU Venezuela Election Mission,” Financial Times, October 12, 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/642fb7ef-01ed-438d-9a19-316423acc935.
4 Interview with María Virginia Marín in Caracas, May 2021.
5 Unpublished research.
6 Interview with Luisa Kislinger in Washington, DC, May 20, 2021.
7 Christian Freres, “The European Union as a Global ‘Civilian Power’: Development Cooperation in EU-Latin American Relations,” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 42, no. 2 (2000): 63–85, https://doi.org/10.2307/166282.
8 Liliana Rivas, “Los desplazados ambientales de Tovar” [The Environmental Displaced Persons of Tovar], Cinco8, September 2, 2021, https://www.cinco8.com/periodismo/los-desplazados-ambientales-de-tovar/.
9 Interview with Guillermo Tell Aveledo in Caracas, March 30, 2021.
10 Interview with Betilde Muñoz-Pogossian in Washington, DC, March 24, 2021.
11 “Council Extends Sanctions on Venezuela Until 14 November 2021,” Council of the European Union, November 12, 2020, https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2020/11/12/council-extends-sanctions-on-venezuela-until-14-november-2021/.
12 Luis Vicente Leon (@luisvicenteleon), “3) Se intenta concluir en redes sociales que los vzlanos aprueban las sanciones como vía para provocar los cambios políticos. La Omnibus Datanálisis Agosto indica que 76,4% rechaza las sanciones petroleras y cree que afectan su vida sin provocar cambios políticos relevantes,” Twitter, August 24, 2021, https://twitter.com/luisvicenteleon/status/1430204923166302212?s=20.
13 Interview with Betilde Muñoz-Pogossian.
14 Interview with Henkel García in Caracas, March 2021.
15 “Venezuela Factsheet,” European Commission, June 17, 2021, https://ec.europa.eu/echo/where/latin-america-and-caribbean/venezuela_en.
16 “Population Flows in Latin America & the Caribbean,” Interagency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela, https://rmrp.r4v.info/.
17 Interview with Feliciano Reyna in Caracas, March 22, 2021.
19 Jorge Guzmán and Mónica Rico Benítez, “A New Role for the EU in Venezuela,” Centre for European Policy Studies, December 4, 2020, https://www.ceps.eu/a-new-role-for-the-eu-in-venezuela/.
20 “EU Mobilises International Donors to Support Venezuelan Refugees and Migrants and Countries in the Region,” European Commission, May 26, 2020, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_20_922.
22 Dany Bahar and Meagan Dooley, “Venezuelan Refugees and Their Receiving Communities Need Funding, Not Sympathy,” Brookings Institution, February 26, 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2021/02/26/venezuelan-refugees-and-their-receiving-communities-need-funding-not-sympathy/.
23 Interview with Betilde Muñoz-Pogossian.
24 Interview with Feliciano Reyna.
25 “EU Mobilises,” European Commission.
26 Interview with Feliciano Reyna.
27 Interview with Betilde Muñoz-Pogossian.
28 Interview with Guillermo Tell Aveledo.
29 Interview with Rafael Osío Cabrices in Montreal, March 2021.
30 Interview with Henkel García.
31 Interview with Omar Zambrano.
32 Rafael Osío Cabrices and Kaoru Yonekura, “Those Who Leave Venezuela Carry a Stamp on Their Forehead,” Caracas Chronicles, March 31, 2022, https://www.caracaschronicles.com/2022/03/31/those-who-leave-venezuela-carry-a-stamp-on-their-forehead/.