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Can the Vatican Pull Venezuela Back from the Brink?
Can the Vatican Pull Venezuela Back from the Brink?
Venezuela: An Opportunity That Should Be Seized
Venezuela: An Opportunity That Should Be Seized
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro attends a political meeting between government and opposition next to Claudio Maria Celli, Vatican's representative, and UNASUR Secretary General Ernesto Samper, in Caracas, Venezuela, on 30 October 2016. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Can the Vatican Pull Venezuela Back from the Brink?

Venezuela’s blocking of a recall referendum on ending the presidency of Nicolás Maduro has made a peaceful solution to the country’s festering conflict harder to achieve. Vatican mediation now offers one of the few hopes of progress.

“We were on the edge of the precipice”, runs a well-worn Venezuelan joke. “But now we have taken a great step forward”.

Until last month, Venezuela had one main constitutional route to resolving the deep political, economic and social crisis that has afflicted this nation of 30 million almost since President Nicolás Maduro came to power in 2013: a recall referendum that would open the way to new elections.

The opposition had obtained permission for a signature-gathering drive in late October to trigger the referendum. But on 20 October, the country’s government-controlled National Electoral Council (CNE) suspended the process. The flimsy pretext was a set of simultaneous rulings by regional criminal courts alleging fraud during a previous stage of the process. It appeared to be a victory for the hard-line faction within the government, an impression reinforced by the fact that the courts’ decisions were announced not by the judges that supposedly took them but by a group of state governors associated with the most intransigent wing of the ruling party.

The move left Venezuelans staring into the abyss. The suspension of the referendum weakened the moderates of the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance, exacerbated tensions within its multiparty leadership and increased the risk of a violent outcome. The government geared up to repress demonstrations likely to turn ever more confrontational.

The Vatican’s Rescue Mission

A flicker of hope emerged when the Vatican stepped in to reinforce a faltering effort at mediation that has been led since May by former Spanish Premier José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. This first formal intervention, called “facilitation” by its organisers and “accompaniment” by the Vatican, came in response to written requests made by both sides in September. With a fresh sense of urgency after the suspension of the referendum process, the Vatican sent in a special envoy – Mons. Emil Paul Tscherrig, nuncio to Argentina – who announced that the two sides would meet on 30 October for “the beginning of a dialogue”.

Tscherrig was a last-minute, temporary substitute for the designated mediator, Mons. Claudio Maria Celli, who was in China at the time. Events moved so rapidly that, in a rare departure from protocol, Pope Francis agreed to a hurriedly arranged, half-hour audience with President Maduro, who had been on a tour of the Middle East, and that coincided with Mons. Tscherrig’s 24 October announcement. The Pope apparently stressed the need for an electoral solution and for the release of political prisoners.

It is a sign of just how fraught the atmosphere is that, despite having pressed repeatedly for Vatican mediation, the MUD delegation only reached internal agreement on attending the talks half an hour before they were due to start on 30 October, and after wrestling with internal disagreements all day. Of the members of the so-called G4 (the MUD’s four biggest parties, who dominate the alliance), only three actually sat down at the table. Voluntad Popular (VP) said it would join only in exchange for further concessions from the government, while the other three committed themselves to walking away if they failed to obtain them.

The day after the talks, the government released five political prisoners, the first such gesture since the release of a single prisoner on 9 September. The immediate reaction from the opposition was that this, though important, was not enough. By their count, over 100 remain in jail or under house arrest, with thousands more enduring various kinds of restrictions, including a ban on leaving the country. Those released had all been detained in recent months and they included none of the most emblematic figures currently behind bars.

If substantive advances are not made very quickly, the talks may break down, and it could prove very difficult to restart them.

Much will depend on the Vatican, and on the other three facilitators, working under the auspices of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). Their efforts have received the backing of (among others) Washington, which immediately sent Under Secretary Thomas Shannon to Caracas for a round of meetings. But if substantive advances are not made very quickly, the talks may break down, and it could prove very difficult to restart them. If that were to happen, the Vatican has already indicated it might pull out altogether. The fracturing of the MUD, which is also a possibility, would no doubt delight the government but would further complicate a negotiated solution.

Government and opposition are next due to meet on 11 November. In the meantime, four working groups – each chaired by an external facilitator – will tackle some of the most pressing issues. Zapatero will take on rule-of-law issues; papal representative Claudio Maria Celli truth, justice and reconciliation; former president of the Dominican Republic Leonel Fernández the socio-economic crisis; and Martín Torrijos, ex-president of Panama, confidence building and elections. But several prominent opposition leaders have said the MUD will walk away if its conditions are not met by the time of the next meeting. These include a clear timetable for early elections and the release of prisoners, the lifting of restrictions on parliament and a neutral elections authority.

Even if successful, the negotiations will not lead to an immediate change of government, as demanded by the more confrontational wing of the MUD. The best the opposition can hope for is to agree a mechanism for bringing forward presidential elections (due, under the constitution, in December 2018); the replacement of pro-government members of the CNE board by more neutral figures; a functioning parliament; the release of all – or almost all – political prisoners; an agreement to allow humanitarian food and medical aid into the country to relieve the immediate suffering of the general population.

Heating up the Street

The Vatican’s initiative was not universally welcomed. It wrong-footed the opposition, some of whose members were only expecting talks about talks and called out the papal nuncio’s statement as premature. Opposition hardliners insisted that it was absurd to sit down to formal negotiations in the present climate, and without any signal from the government that it was prepared to reconsider the referendum issue or make other significant concessions.

Initially, the opposition had responded to the 20 October suspension of the referendum process with a three-pronged strategy.

Firstly, it began to pressure the government through what, in local parlance, is known as “heating up the street”.

At the same time, the MUD-led National Assembly began debating the president’s removal for having violated the constitution, for allegedly “abandoning his duties” or even for possessing Colombian nationality and therefore being constitutionally ineligible for the job. The catch is that, since the executive branch controls the remaining institutions of state, the process was in any event likely to end up being merely declamatory.

The third prong of the MUD plan was international. It intended to reiterate a demand that the Organization of American States (OAS) apply its Inter-American Democratic Charter, which could lead to the suspension of Venezuela’s membership of the organisation. In addition, it threatened to take action against the Supreme Court and the CNE at the International Criminal Court, a proposal which even sympathetic experts in international law regard as ill-advised.

Amid the confusion surrounding the suspension of the referendum and the announcement of the Vatican initiative, the MUD staged a large, nationwide demonstration on 26 October. In over a dozen provincial cities demonstrators were dispersed by police and National Guard riot squads, often accompanied by armed civilian thugs. Human rights monitors reported 140 arrests and dozens of injuries, including bullet wounds. In Caracas, tens of thousands blocked the main motorway through the capital.

Although the demonstration in Caracas passed off relatively peacefully, there were calls for an immediate march on the Miraflores palace, seat of the presidency. With difficulty, opposition leaders insisted on postponing the march until 3 November, and later – at the urging of the Vatican – suspended that too. It also postponed its largely symbolic debate in parliament to determine the president’s political responsibility for the crisis.

Opposition Splits

When he initially announced the MUD’s agreement to the Vatican-mediated talks, Secretary General Jesús “Chuo” Torrealba insisted that dialogue and demonstrations were complementary aspects of the opposition’s strategy. Both sides, indeed, say they are committed to lowering the political temperature. But opposition moderates are under extreme pressure from the hardliners to prove that dialogue is worth pursuing.

The MUD, like the government, is split. Some of its member parties, especially VP, are themselves divided, with pro-dialogue factions often dismissed as traitors, especially in heated exchanges on social media. The current standoff is making those splits worse.

With the Vatican now involved, it will nonetheless be difficult for the MUD to walk away from talks, even if the new process offers few immediately tangible benefits.

With the Vatican now involved, it will nonetheless be difficult for the MUD to walk away from talks, even if the new process offers few immediately tangible benefits. The other main price that the opposition has paid for agreeing to talks is that the third, international part of its plan will have to be shelved for now. As was obvious at the Iberoamerican Summit, held in Cartagena, Colombia, at the end of October, the promise of talks relieves pressure on the Maduro government.

At the back of everyone’s mind is the experience of 2003-2004, when internationally mediated negotiations led to an agreement to hold a recall referendum against then-President Hugo Chávez. The government succeeded in delaying the referendum until government social programs, funded by rising oil prices, raised his standing in the polls and allowed him to avoid recall. The fear of some in the opposition is that Washington, the Vatican and other foreign governments will favour stability over regime-change, if forced to choose, and that by agreeing to talks their campaign to oust Maduro will lose momentum.

An Existential Threat

The government’s focus on short-term preservation of power does not mean it feels invulnerable. It could have used its control of the Supreme Court and the CNE to block the referendum months ago. It has already postponed regional elections due in December. But it knew the risk implicit in shutting down the electoral safety-valve and so, up to now, preferred to use delaying tactics. Apparently confident of military support, it has now preferred to face social unrest and international opprobrium rather than the verdict of the ballot box. That’s because for the hardliners in government, any prospect of political transition represents an existential threat.

The government may well still be aiming to kick the ball down the road until 10 January, when Maduro begins the last two years of his presidency. Once that deadline has passed, Maduro’s departure would not lead to a change of government because the constitution allows him to be replaced by an appointed vice president. If that is its intention, the government will then count itself the victor. But none of the underlying issues will have been resolved and the prospects for Venezuela will look extremely uncertain.

If it fails, the Vatican’s intervention to restart dialogue will be remembered as yet another lost opportunity to halt the downward slide to greater conflict.

The crisis will continue, not only for ordinary Venezuelans but for the government itself, which – despite its apparent strength – faces an acute shortage of cash, a hostile public and internal rifts that may well deepen once the immediate threat passes. Just in terms of debt repayments, Venezuela is obliged to disburse more in the next year or so than it currently has in its foreign reserves. If the power struggle within the regime is won by hardliners determined to close down any avenues to a political transition or to institutional spaces for its critics, then it is highly likely that a similar dispute within the opposition would also be won by the most hawkish elements.

If it fails, the Vatican’s intervention to restart dialogue will be remembered as yet another lost opportunity to halt the downward slide to greater conflict. However, such is the moral authority of the Pope, especially in a Catholic country like Venezuela, that to walk away from Vatican mediation could prove too costly for both sides and an agreement may eventually be reached. In that case, the moderates will emerge empowered, and the mediation could lay the basis for a negotiated transition.

For many Venezuelans, the odds of that happening are in the hands of a higher power, and for that, Pope Francis has the best connections. Asked if there was any hidden factor that made the Vatican more optimistic than many ordinary mortals, a Church source pulled a face. “Anything hidden?” he said. “We believe in miracles”.

The president of the National Assembly, Jorge Rodriguez (C-top) swears in the new authorities of the National Electoral Council (CNE), during a special session at the National Assembly, in Caracas. 4 May 2021. Federico PARRA / AFP

Venezuela: An Opportunity That Should Be Seized

A series of gestures from Caracas suggests that President Nicolás Maduro’s government might be more willing to negotiate with rivals and enact partial reforms. Washington should respond in kind with phased sanctions relief and diplomatic gestures that can be reversed if Venezuela backslides.

On 4 May, Venezuela’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National Assembly, swore in a new electoral authority, two of whose five principal members are from the opposition. It was perhaps the most significant of a series of gestures by President Nicolás Maduro’s government over the past two weeks. While nothing suggests that Maduro is ready to make concessions that might threaten his grip on power, his recent moves do signal a willingness to negotiate and might provide a rare opportunity to temper a crisis that has brought the Venezuelan economy to its knees and caused Latin America’s worst humanitarian emergency. Reciprocal moves from foreign powers opposed to Maduro are necessary to ensure that this chance, however slim, is not missed. Washington is best placed to make comparably conciliatory moves by offering modest relief from the sanctions it has imposed and initiating low-profile diplomatic contacts to assess the odds of further progress.

These moves represent partial responses to demands laid down by the U.S.

Several other developments preceded the new election rectors’ appointment. The first came on 19 April, when Caracas finally signed a long-awaited agreement with the World Food Program, granting the agency access to the country to attend to the dire and growing child malnutrition crisis. The second occurred on 30 April, when the chavista government released six imprisoned oil executives from Venezuela’s Houston-based Citgo corporation – five of whom hold U.S. citizenship – into house arrest. A day later, the country’s chief prosecutor Tarek William Saab took a third step, announcing charges against low-ranking officials in three high-profile political killings for which the government had hitherto denied any responsibility. These moves represent partial responses to demands laid down by the U.S. and other external allies of the opposition movement led by former National Assembly chair Juan Guaidó, who since 2019 has asserted a claim to the “interim presidency” of the country.

The changes to Venezuela’s National Electoral Council, or CNE, by its Spanish acronym, were the most significant concession yet. Chavista domination of the CNE has been crucial to the government’s campaign to shut down any and all electoral threats. It ultimately led to the standoff with Guaidó and pushed many other opposition figures into exile. Opposition parties mostly boycotted parliamentary elections in early December 2020 – as they had the presidential contest in 2018 – and the small number that took part in the poll, some of them mere appendages of the government, obtained only twenty seats in a 277-seat Assembly. Even today, conditions for the opposition remain forbidding. Despite the new rectors, the electoral playing field remains deeply skewed in Maduro’s favour. Still, permitting a more balanced electoral authority marks a tentative step toward restoration of political competition.

For Maduro, greater opposition representation on the CNE could have benefits. First, this year’s elections, due in December, are local and regional, so there is less at stake for the president in any case. Moreover, he can sell the CNE deal to his own supporters as opposition recognition of government institutions and a strategy for reducing Venezuela’s international isolation. 

News of the reformed electoral board has divided opposition ranks. Even before Maduro announced the new CNE line-up, the alliance headed by Guaidó had rejected it as illegitimate. Its stance has not changed since, despite the two new opposition rectors’ strong credentials. (One is an experienced politician and former deputy chair of the Assembly; the other is a systems engineer whose role as an opposition elections expert was so important that the government jailed him for six months in 2017.) The opposition alliance maintains that the Guaidó-led parliament, a rump of which continues to meet, is the only body with the power to approve a new CNE. Guaidó himself, whom Washington recognises as the country’s legitimate president, blasted the appointment via Twitter, saying it would “drag the country toward a greater disaster”. 

Others take a different view. Notable among them is two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who, prior to the December elections, made fruitless efforts, with EU backing, to negotiate conditions that would allow his party to take part. Together with other opposition politicians, some of whom prefer for now to remain anonymous, Capriles rejects the “all-or-nothing” approach of Guaidó and his party, Voluntad Popular, which is led by the exiled Leopoldo López and has campaigned without success for Maduro’s immediate overthrow. Support for the new electoral board is also strong among regional and municipal politicians and party activists, especially those in opposition-held states and municipalities, who fear oblivion if the policy of boycotting elections is maintained. The issue threatens to fracture several parties, and could even lead to a formal split in the opposition coalition as a whole, which would also favour the government.

Venezuelan civil society is increasingly emerging as a significant, autonomous force.

Another important element in this complex equation is Venezuelan civil society, which is increasingly emerging as a significant, autonomous force, committed to a negotiated resolution of the country’s protracted political crisis. Four of the fifteen CNE members (the five principal rectors plus ten reserve members) appointed on 4 May were proposed by groups linked to the recently launched Foro Cívico, which brings together NGOs, trade unions, the main employers’ federation, professional syndicates, faith-based organisations and others. The Foro has played a role not only in the CNE negotiations but also in pushing for agreement between the government and opposition on importing COVID-19 vaccines, seeking economic reforms and setting up mechanisms for attending to the humanitarian emergency. Broadly speaking, the Foro leaders support a more conciliatory approach, along the lines of that promoted by Capriles, seeking areas where they can engage the government to alleviate ordinary Venezuelans’ suffering. 

Yet it is Washington’s response that is most keenly awaited. Under President Donald Trump the U.S. pursued a “maximum pressure” policy toward Venezuela, on the assumption that external action, particularly in the form of severe economic and financial sanctions and diplomatic isolation, would force the Maduro government to step down and accede to free elections. That approach failed. President Joe Biden came to office committed to a more pragmatic stance, but for various reasons related largely to the attention given to other pressing concerns – notably the pandemic and migrants at the southern U.S. border – little beyond the rhetoric has changed to date. Washington has demanded “concrete measures” from Maduro if it is to relax sanctions. It must now decide whether the gestures by Caracas merit a response in kind.

All the Venezuelan government’s steps thus far are political gambits; they are tentative and reversible; and, again, in themselves they do not create conditions for credible polls or in any way jeopardise Maduro’s hold on power. On the key question of election conditions, the opposition presence on the new CNE is only a start, albeit a promising one. Much more is needed. The government must legalise opposition parties, for example, most of which are barred from electoral participation and some of which have seen their names and assets transferred to minority, pro-government factions. The electoral authorities need to thoroughly audit voter lists. Most importantly, the Maduro government will also have to scale down its apparatus of state repression if it wishes to convince the U.S., the EU and its neighbours of its good faith.

Still, given the gridlock in Venezuela’s political standoff and the country’s appalling humanitarian suffering, outside powers should respond to and seek to encourage any signs of movement. Crisis Group has argued for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of sanctions that inflict humanitarian harm alongside a phased lifting of other punitive measures in response to the gradual restoration of civil and political rights. The most obvious and pressing humanitarian need is for a restoration of permits to allow Venezuela to swap crude oil for diesel, of which there is a critical shortage. Diesel is vital, among other things, for food production and distribution. The U.S. could also consider steps like renewing licences and lifting sanctions that prohibit certain activities by U.S. and other foreign oil companies, with the understanding that these steps could be reversed if Caracas backtracks or fails to make further progress.

Also important is that Washington and Caracas set up channels of communication, either direct or through third parties, so that each can correctly interpret the other’s moves. Biden will pay a political cost for any easing of pressure on Maduro, with no likely immediate return. U.S. politicians are naturally – and perhaps increasingly – reluctant to incur the hostility of the Venezuela lobby in their country. The Maduro government will have to factor in that reality, just as Washington will need to take into account the difficulty the Venezuelan president may have in selling any rapprochement to his own coalition. Contact would allow each side to feel its way with more confidence.

The worst thing the U.S. could do now is to sit on its hands and await further concessions without any corresponding move on its part.

The worst thing the U.S. could do now is to sit on its hands and await further concessions without any corresponding move on its part. Such a course would strengthen the hand of those in the Venezuelan government who argue that however much they concede, Washington is interested only in getting rid of Maduro. It may well be that the Venezuelan president has no intention of going further, but the only way to find out is to engage in a process of gradual, reciprocal change. The ball is in Washington’s court.