Friday, June 08, 2018

The Boston Group in Venezuela

David Smilde and Hugo Pérez-Hernáiz look at some of the important issues in post-election Venezuela. One merits special attention because of how much we can generalize it. It's the sometimes hidden importance of informal diplomatic relationships.

However, the Joshua Holt release shows the potential of cross-national, back-channel networks among politicians (see a stellar series of articles by AP’s Josh Goodman who reported on this development in March, and as the Holt release evolved here and here). 
All parties agree that the key player in the Holt release was Senator Bob Corker’s chief of staff Caleb McCarry. McCarry was a member of the Boston Group, a network of US and Venezuelan legislators who engaged each other back during the 2002-04 period. This group included Maduro, then a legislator, his wife Cilia Flores, as well as then politician and now businessman Pedro Díaz Blum. Díaz Blum brought Lacava into the network which brokered Holt’s release. Senator Orin Hatch of Holt’s home state of Utah was also involved in the dialogue and described his experiences in Time Magazine. 
The entire experience shows the power this type of cross-national back channels can have to broker deals. More broadly, the Boston Group and other efforts to open networks with members of the Maduro government could become fundamental conduits for channeling pressure into a transition back to democracy.
This is why the dismantling of diplomacy these days is so devastating. The Boston Group was a legislative initiative intended to promote dialogue and had bipartisan support from the U.S. Congress and the Venezuelan government. It involved difficult discussions and was careful not to do anything that might jeopardize its existence. From a leaked cable:

In response to a request from Ortega, McCarry explained the mechanics of NED project funding, emphasizing the organization's bipartisan support within the U.S. After debating the topic, the group members agreed to refrain from making any public statements about GOV accusations that the USG is spending millions of dollars to assist opposition groups since it might affect the Boston Group's own existence. In response to McCarry's outline of the proposed Boston Group television project, Rangel promised support and resources.

These below-the-surface interactions, which really need support from the involved governments to work, can pay enormous dividends. I hope the Trump administration is open to such arrangements in the future, but the treatment of the State Department does not currently offer optimism.

In an interview, former Ambassador Patrick Duddy talks about how the Boston Group's connections persisted well after its members ceased meeting.

Shortly after the April 14 election and Maduro’s investiture as president, the foreign ministry announced that former Chavista legislator Calixto Ortega would be heading to Washington to become Venezuela’s new chargé d’affaires. Ortega had been a part of what was once known as “The Boston Group” which was founded in 2000 to try to promote improved understanding between Venezuelan legislators and their U.S. congressional counterparts. 
So this was formed during the Clinton administration and those relationships resolved a problem 18 years later. Are we building anything now to help solve crises in the future?


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