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Can the Vatican Pull Venezuela Back from the Brink?
Can the Vatican Pull Venezuela Back from the Brink?
Maduro Finds a “New Opposition” to Negotiate With
Maduro Finds a “New Opposition” to Negotiate With
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”.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza looks at opposition member Javier Bertucci during the signing of the dialogue agreement between the government and the opposition in Caracas,18 September 2019. AFP/Matias Delacroix
Q&A / Latin America & Caribbean

Maduro Finds a “New Opposition” to Negotiate With

Talks to resolve Venezuela’s impasse collapsed on 15 September only for the government to announce a deal – with a different set of opponents. In this Q&A, Crisis Group Senior Andes Analyst Phil Gunson explains what these developments mean for the country’s political and socio-economic crisis.

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What happened?

On 15 September, Venezuela’s opposition leadership, under National Assembly chair Juan Guaidó, announced that it was pulling out of negotiations in Barbados with the government of President Nicolás Maduro. The government side had suspended its own participation over a month earlier, after Washington announced sweeping new sanctions. According to the opposition’s announcement, “the Barbados mechanism is exhausted”. Within hours, the government revealed that it had been negotiating in parallel with a group of small opposition parties that were not involved in the Barbados talks. The members of this National Dialogue (Mesa Nacional de Diálogo) immediately announced an agreement calling for government legislators to once again take up their seats in the National Assembly, which they have boycotted since mid-2017, and requesting release of an undetermined number of political prisoners and relaxation of the government’s grip on the electoral authority. The agreement also speaks of a potential “oil-for-food” program to alleviate Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis.

Why did the Barbados talks break down, and could they restart?

According to President Maduro, the opposition failed to fulfil its promise to persuade the U.S. government to relax sanctions. According to Guaidó, whom the U.S., most EU member states and numerous Latin American countries recognise as the legitimate acting president, the government was at fault, because it never responded to a detailed proposal from the opposition side. The key conditions put forward by Guaidó’s negotiating team were that both he and Maduro would step aside pending free and fair elections within nine months under international supervision. Meanwhile, a transitional Governing Council, comprising representatives of chavismo – the movement created by Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez – and the opposition, as well as the armed forces, would run the country. The Norwegian government, which was still sponsoring the Barbados talks after they had moved from Oslo, has indicated that it remains available if the parties decide to return to the table. Maduro has said the government will do so if the opportunity arises. And even the opposition appears only to have ruled out the format for talks applied in Barbados, rather than negotiations in general. A redesign of the process, perhaps to encompass a wider range of Venezuelan and foreign parties, would probably be required, however.

Who is involved in the National Dialogue?

So far, five small parties have signed the agreement with the government. Only two have seats in parliament. They are Avanzada Progresista, led by Henri Falcón, a former chavista state governor who broke with the government in 2007, and Cambiemos, led by Timoteo Zambrano, a one-time opposition negotiator who is close to the former Spanish premier (and one-time mediator in the Venezuelan crisis), José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. Between them they have eight seats in the 167-seat Assembly. The main opposition alliance expelled both Falcón and Zambrano in recent years, the former because he took part in the May 2018 presidential election despite the government’s refusal to accept opposition demands for a level playing field, and the latter for disagreeing in 2016 with the decision by the customs union Mercosur to take punitive action against Venezuela. Falcón obtained 21 per cent to Maduro’s 68 per cent in last year’s poll, but he refused to accept the result, saying the government had violated the electoral law.

Other leading figures who support the agreement are Claudio Fermín, a veteran social democrat and long-time presidential aspirant who now heads a party called Soluciones para Venezuela, and Javier Bertucci, an evangelical pastor who also stood against Maduro in 2018. The parties involved have expressed support for the seemingly defunct Norwegian initiative, as well as inviting other opposition forces to join them. “We are the new opposition”, declared Fermín.

What is the government trying to achieve?

Having failed for now to achieve sanctions relief, the government seems focused on achieving domestic political stability. Next year’s parliamentary elections, which will probably be brought forward to March or April (they are due in December), are an opportunity for chavismo to regain control of the only branch of government that remains independent. Although opinion polls suggest that over 80 per cent of Venezuelans disapprove of Maduro’s rule, the government can win back parliament by dissuading opposition voters from turning out and/or provoking the mainstream opposition under Guaidó into boycotting the election. Holding elections, however controversial, also helps it keep dissent under control within its own ranks, both civilian and military. By presenting at least a façade of pluralism and legitimacy, it promotes a narrative for supporters at home and abroad according to which the government is the victim of an international conspiracy abetted by domestic traitors.

Has implementation of the agreement begun?

Government parliamentarians did not take their seats the day after the agreement was announced, and it is not clear when they will do so or what other effect the deal will have. All the National Assembly’s acts will still be officially null and void unless the Supreme Court declares that the legislature is no longer in contempt. One political prisoner – Assembly vice-president Edgar Zambrano, arrested for his part in the failed 30 April uprising against Maduro’s rule – has been let go and more are supposedly due for release shortly. But close to 500 remain in jail, including another opposition MP and a top aide to Guaidó. In all, some two dozen opposition members of the Assembly are either in jail, in exile, in hiding or on the premises of foreign missions. The government has no majority in parliament with which to appoint a new electoral authority, meaning that any reform would remain in the hands of the government-controlled Supreme Court. And an oil-for-food program, as one of its principal advocates has pointed out, would require the assent of the opposition and its foreign allies.

Could this development lead to a resolution of the crisis?

There is no indication that the government is moving in the direction of Maduro’s departure followed by a genuinely competitive presidential election under international supervision, the conditions which Guaidó and his foreign allies define as the sine qua non for the lifting of sanctions. The breakdown of the Norwegian-sponsored talks is likely to bring more sanctions, rather than fewer, both from the EU and from Venezuela’s Latin American neighbours. With the exception of Panama, the latter have so far shied away from imposing sanctions, but signatories to the Rio Treaty of 1947 – also known as the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, a Cold War-era regional defence pact – recently agreed to take the first step toward activating it in Venezuela’s case, which could lead to a tougher stance in the region. But while the new agreement will neither placate the mainstream opposition and its foreign allies nor resolve the country’s colossal socio-economic crisis, it could allow Maduro to keep a lid on domestic challenges to his rule if the government succeeds in forcing its more confrontational opponents into exile, replacing them with a more compliant cast of politicians and claiming that it has restored constitutional normality.