Venezuela Needs a Better Endgame

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Spare a thought for the fate of Nicolas Maduro, the besieged Venezuelan president who presides over a cratering economy, a self-made humanitarian disaster and a hemisphere that’s turned its back on him. His foreign minister stepped up to plead Venezuela’s case at the United Nations last week and emptied the room. So where does the failing Bolivarian autocrat go from here?

Maduro isn’t done, of course. He’s kept his footing through nationwide protest and social upheaval, and finessed last month’s border lockdown with a despot’s brio. It takes a special kind of hubris to salsa while your National Guard fires tear gas at demonstrators and lets trucks laden with food for starving compatriots go up in smoke. Such ruthless survivalism has earned him comparisons to embattled Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Yet strongmen also fall, and that prospect brings on other problems, not least for the countries they leave behind.

Until just a few decades ago, exile was the pension plan of choice for cashiered supremos, who could escape recrimination or trial at home and retire pretty much hassle-free abroad. Since World War II, one in five dictators deposed worldwide fled to other countries, social scientist Abel Escriba-Folch, of Barcelona’s Universitat Pompeu Fabra, found in a 2015 study.

Authoritarian Argentina was a premier stop on the Elizabeth Arden circuit for out-of-work tyrants, playing host to six of them between 1946 and 2012, behind only the U.S. (which took in 11) and the USSR/Russia and the United Kingdom (seven each).

Distasteful as it was, packing off a dictator was often the way to avoid bloody backlash or civil war at home: Even rich nations defended exile as an endgame, so guaranteeing even the most reviled fallen strongmen a “golden parachute,” in Escriba-Folch’s words. In the half-century since World War II, only two exiled strongmen were sent home to face justice: former Venezuelan dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez, in 1963, and Bolivian generalissimo Luis Garcia Meza, in 1995.

Overthrown in a palace coup, Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner enjoyed an unfettered asylum in Brazil, often watching a popular children’s television show in his pajamas. So convinced was Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier of his unassailability that the former Haitian tyrant quit a peaceful 25-year exile in France to return to Port-au-Prince in 2011; he died before he could stand trial on charges of human rights abuses.

The good news is that the tyrant’s back door is closing. The advance of human rights laws and international agreements on bringing fugitives to trial has made tidy escapes increasingly difficult. The Rome Statute of 1998 essentially created a universal jurisdiction for the most heinous crimes.

“Since the Rome Statute, any domestically-granted amnesty is ultimately unenforceable internationally,” former visiting scholar at Boston College Law School Juan Carlos Portilla, who writes about international law and conflict resolution for the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, told me. “When it comes to crimes against humanity, human rights violations and war crimes, there’s no more immunity from prosecution.”

The legal ring-fencing, undoubtedly a huge advance for international justice, poses a dilemma for conflicted nations. Consider that Venezuela’s congressionally assigned interim President Juan Guaido has found few takers for his offer of forgiveness for senior officers in the armed forces who turn against Maduro.

And never mind dangling amnesty as an enticement for Maduro himself to step down, a proposal Guaido floated in a visit to Brazil last week. “It’s tricky to offer Maduro exile or leniency,” said Portilla. “The International Criminal Court could investigate and eventually prosecute him whether or not he’s in power. Amnesties don’t work for international law.”

That’s a complicating factor for Latin American democracies that have shed their customary indulge-thy-neighbor diplomacy to call out Maduro’s rogue regime and back Guaido as the constitutional leader, but are stymied over what comes next.

The Lima Group representing 14 Latin American nations wisely rejected military intervention. “Throwing yourself in the middle of a crisis is complex. We’re at the mercy of circumstances now, and that’s dangerous,” former Brazilian diplomat Marcos Azambuja, who advises the Brazilian Center for International Relations, said in an interview.

Nor have regional governments — Panama is the honorable exception — followed Washington’s lead by imposing fines or penalties on suspect Venezuelan officials or companies. Latin America has no tradition of sanctioning neighbors, according to Geoff Ramsey, assistant director for Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America. “This makes it hard for the Lima Group countries. They aren’t the agenda-setters here,” said Oliver Stuenkel, who teaches international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, Sao Paulo. “South America is mostly a bystander in the Venezuela crisis.”

Latin America doesn’t have to sit this one out. Its diplomats could help coax Venezuelan officials into a truth and reconciliation negotiation akin to what South Africa and Colombia did after decades of violence and upheaval. “You get a purist version that says you can’t negotiate with criminals,” said Ramsey. “You can, because people have self-interest and there’s always a trade-off between peace and justice. The baseline is that there can be no amnesty for human rights violations and crimes against humanity.”

That’s the new normal in international law. It also raises the question of who in Maduro’s inner circle would still be eligible for leniency, and what it would take to get the Boliviarian brass to submit to deals that international courts could conceivably strike down. “Venezuela’s armed forces has around 2,000 generals. They are going to need other guarantees,” said Cynthia Arnson, head of Latin American Program at the Wilson Center.

That’s not just some diplomatic speed bump. “It’s a paradox,” said Portilla. “On the one hand, the changes in international law are crucial to bringing a dictator to justice. On the other, ruling out amnesty is less likely to pacify a land in conflict.”

Portilla’s preferred solution? Forget armed invasion, an adventure that would require breaking international rules or else securing the imprimatur of the United Nations Security Council — where Venezuelan allies Russia and China hold veto power. Instead, the way to bring Maduro to account would be to petition the world’s highest tribunal, the ICC, to issue a warrant for Maduro’s arrest for human rights crimes — something it could do without the imprimatur of the UN Security Council — and demand he comply in say 90 days and report to The Hague or face arrest. “The ICC already has Venezuela under preliminary investigation. What’s keeping the court from prosecuting?” Portilla said.

The summons alone might not be enough to cause Maduro to resign, but his refusing a direct order from the highest court could steel diplomatic resolve and increase pressure on the Security Council. “If Maduro refuses, the U.S., Colombia, Brazil and other countries could ask the Security Council to execute the warrant,” said Portilla. “It would be more difficult for China and Russia to ignore an arrest order because this is a court. It’s the international rule of law, not a political decision to invade.”

The same initiative could also help improve the court’s standing. “This is a historical opportunity for the court to show its critics it’s not just a white elephant spending all its time prosecuting African dictators.” Maduro may not be impressed. But it is more likely to work than empty gringo saber-rattling.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”

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