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Can the Vatican Pull Venezuela Back from the Brink?
Can the Vatican Pull Venezuela Back from the Brink?
Venezuela Is Falling off the Map
Venezuela Is Falling off the Map
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”.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, pictured in the centre, attends a military parade in Campo de Carabobo, Venezuela, on 28 December 2016. Miraflores Palace/via Reuters.

Venezuela Is Falling off the Map

Beset by relentless hyperinflation, collapsing public services and increasingly dictatorial rule, Venezuela is at risk of becoming a failed state. The best hope for change lies with neighbouring countries, which must sustain pressure to find a solution.

Incoming U.S. President Donald Trump’s first foreign-policy surprise could pop up just a few hours’ flying time south of Miami. A tense political standoff between an increasingly desperate population and a dictatorial regime in Venezuela worsened in early January after the opposition-led parliament withdrew recognition from President Nicolás Maduro, who is ruling by decree. Talks between the government and opposition have broken down, and the regime is throwing yet more opposition leaders in jail and threatening to close down the legislature.

This week, the government began issuing bigger bank notes in response to hyperinflation – however even the largest of these, the 20,000-bolívar note, is worth only about US$5.30 on the black market. Many Venezuelans have to carry around stacks of cash for basic transactions.

People have been shouting about disaster in Venezuela for so long, it is difficult to know when the sky is actually falling. However, if the country continues to degenerate into a failed state, it will have serious implications for the region – including the spread of organised crime, uncontrolled epidemics and mass migration.

People have been shouting about disaster in Venezuela for so long, it is difficult to know when the sky is actually falling.

The crisis has been years in the making. Yet as recently as 2011, Venezuela had the second-highest per-capita GDP in Latin America. A decade-long oil boom, which ended in 2014, saw around US$1 trillion pass through the hands of its avowedly socialist government. As much as a quarter of that may simply have been stolen. Most of the rest was either given away to allied regimes or squandered on white elephants, populist programs and handouts with, at best, short-term impact.

Today, Venezuela is one the poorest countries in the region. Its economy may have shrunk by as much as 18 per cent in 2016 alone. Annual inflation, which the government has not even reported for the past year, is heading for four figures.

The consequences are stark. As many as one in twelve of its citizens admits to searching for food in the garbage. Public services, including hospitals, are collapsing and even basic antibiotics and blood-pressure pills are unavailable. As if that were not enough, violent crime kills over 20,000 people a year in this country of 30 million, and whole swathes of the countryside are effectively under the control of organised crime, often with the complicity of security forces.

I have been living in, and reporting on, Venezuela since Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999 and set about dismantling representative democracy, for which he had a deep disdain. A two-party system established after the end of the last dictatorship in 1958 had already crumbled. Poverty, inequality and corruption were rife. The former army officer, who had attempted a coup in 1992, went on to win election after election on a promise to put things right through “participatory democracy”. But today they are immeasurably worse for most Venezuelans. Many friends, especially young professionals, have left. A diaspora, estimated at a million-and-a-half people, is scattered across the globe. Almost everyone I know has been a victim of violent crime. Some friends and acquaintances have been kidnapped or murdered. Few people go out at night. Daily life is plagued by blackouts, water-shortages, bread queues and the nagging fear of being unable to get treatment if a family member falls ill.

The region – and that includes the U.S. – needs to hold the Maduro government to its international commitments on democracy and human rights.

Venezuela is falling off the map. Seven international airlines have pulled out altogether because of exchange controls, others have slashed flights and most tickets must now be paid in dollars. It’s virtually impossible to make an overseas call, except by internet. And the internet is among the slowest in the world. Just to pay its foreign debt the government is having to sell off or pawn state assets, and has cut imports by more than two-thirds.

Maduro blames the country’s woes on an “economic war” waged by his opponents, in collusion with the U.S. But independent economists have warned for years of the consequences of government profligacy, corruption and rigid price and exchange controls. A year ago, a disillusioned electorate handed control of the National Assembly – the country’s legislature – to the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance. But the Maduro government used its control of the Supreme Court to simply annul parliament’s constitutional powers. The electoral authority, also in the hands of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), has blocked an opposition attempt to trigger a recall referendum against Maduro – which would have been a democratic, constitutional solution.

Vatican-led talks, initiated in late October, broke down almost at once after the government reneged on commitments to free political prisoners, agree an electoral timetable, restore the powers of parliament and allow in humanitarian aid. When Vatican secretary-of-state Pietro Parolin demanded that Maduro keep his word, the government accused him of overstepping the terms of the Pope’s facilitation mission.

Venezuelans know they have to fix their own problems. But the region – and that includes the U.S. – needs to hold the Maduro government to its international commitments on democracy and human rights. Without a transition back to the rule of law, mediated by outsiders, the country is headed for collapse. Venezuela’s neighbours must provide greater support, as well as serious pressure, to find a solution to the crisis. The government shows no sign of being interested in genuine negotiations, but the region can no longer afford to look the other way.