Give dialogue a chance in Venezuela

The opposition sat down with President Nicolás Maduro in Vatican-led talks, leading to much criticism from observers. But there is a chance the move could lead to a peaceful resolution.

Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters
A supporter of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez shouts slogans during a protest calling for the government of Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro to order the release of political prisoners, in Caracas, Venezuela, Dec. 6.

A version of this post ran on LatinAmericaGoesGlobal. The views expressed are the author's own.

In the last days of October, after it was announced that the recall referendum against Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro had been blocked and the governor elections (due to be held in December) cancelled, Venezuela’s opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD, by its unfortunate Spanish acronym) started a process to demonstrate Mr. Maduro’s political responsibility for the rupture of the constitutional order. The opposition coalition denounced Maduro’s government as a dictatorship and called for mass street demonstrations, including a protest march to Miraflores Palace, the seat of the Venezuelan president.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., international pressure increased as Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, seemed to be ready to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter in Venezuela.

Unusually for a coalition, especially one that spans the political spectrum, members of the opposition MUD, are focused on the same goal: to put pressure on Maduro across multiple fronts to force a recall referendum or, alternatively, to call to general elections in Venezuela, for all branches of government. (The recall referendum is a part of the Venezuelan constitution, but snap general elections are not.)

Even though, in private, some of the opposition’s leaders admit the unlikelihood of democratically removing Maduro (who still has strong military support) in the short term, the opposition’s strategy aims to increase the political cost to the regime: If Maduro continues to lead the government, despite massive unrest and democratic attempts to remove him, it must be assumed, domestically and internationally, that Venezuela is, in effect, under a dictatorship.

However, October finished with a surprise change in tactics by MUD, and little explanation. In an about-face decision, they chose to sit down to a Vatican-led dialogue with the government and, at the same time, pause the mass street demonstrations. Beginning a dialogue reduced the pressure on the government, both domestically by the opposition-controlled National Assembly and internationally, by Mr. Almagro’s actions at the OAS.

On the night of Oct. 30, a new dialogue began between the government and opposition, but it was unbalanced: the two sides were not led by international (neutral or impartial) mediators, but in terms of media, by the man who made it look like he was making a concession coming to the table, President Maduro himself.

On that opening day of dialogue, the speeches from the MUD’s representatives were not broadcast on television, while the speeches by Maduro and the Vatican’s representative were. This communications imbalance is the result of years of tactics by the chavistas to control the press, a tool they weren’t about to relinquish with this dialogue.

The chain of events that followed this incipient dialogue process has favored the government: The regime has been able to control the message that the dialogue was held because they (the chavistas) promoted it, the Catholic Church seems divided (given differences between the Venezuelan bishops and Pope Francisco messengers’ speeches), and the opposition has taken to using chavista rhetoric (for example, now they do not talk about “political prisoners”, but about “people deprived of freedom”).

Did the Venezuelan opposition fall into a trap? Is it possible that these experienced political leaders, such as Jesús Torrealba, Henry Ramos Allup or Julio Borges, were misled?

The opposition leaders, who bet on dialogue, were not misled. Rather they made a calculated political decision: They bet on a slow motion transition. They decided to reach an agreement with Maduro and the chavistas, with negotiated solutions in different fields, instead of pushing the regime and to try to corner it.

It is premature to know whether that was a mistake. Meanwhile, the chavista regime, and especially Maduro, won this first round: He will finish 2016 without any elections or referendums threatening his administration. And I doubt there will be any elections in 2017 either, because, just like in 2016, chavismo would lose.

And what are the possible solutions if the electoral path continues to be closed off? One possible option is for Maduro to step down in 2017, under an agreement between the chavistas and the opposition, with another chavista leader besides Maduro completing his term in an interim presidency. If Maduro leaves office, it would lower the temperature, allow the government to seek international funding, and give the chavista movement time to reorganize itself before fresh elections in 2018.

This is only one possible scenario to lead out of the current impasse. But it is just this kind of scenario that could become a real possibility at the negotiating table. It is too early to know where the dialogue process is going in Venezuela. But before becoming resigned to the seeming lack of options, let’s wait and see what long-term possibilities come out of dialogue.

Andrés Cañizález is a senior researcher at Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in Venezuela. His weekly analysis articles are published in five Venezuelan newspapers and a news portal. He cooperates with projects of the People in Need NGO in Venezuela.

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