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Crisis-hit Venezuela’s Political Rivals Stumble Towards Talks
Crisis-hit Venezuela’s Political Rivals Stumble Towards Talks
Maduro Finds a “New Opposition” to Negotiate With
Maduro Finds a “New Opposition” to Negotiate With
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro looks to the Secretary General of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) Ernesto Samper while he speaks during a meeting at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela, on 21 July 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins.

Crisis-hit Venezuela’s Political Rivals Stumble Towards Talks

Faced with crushing economic stress, a weakening president, a constitutional stalemate and popular unrest, Venezuela’s “Chavista” government and the opposition are feeling their way towards compromise.

High on the slopes of the mountain that separates Caracas from the Caribbean, three capital letters, vertically arranged, have recently lit up at night. From most parts of the Venezuelan capital you need binoculars to pick out the word PAZ – “peace” in Spanish. Few people bother to do so. Unlike their neighbours in Colombia, most Venezuelans are more concerned with how to obtain food, medicines and other basic goods. Even if they peer upwards, they might be puzzled by what the government (which put up the sign a month ago) means by “peace”.

If offered relief from the violent crime that has left Venezuela with one of the world’s highest murder rates (around 20,000 homicides a year in a country of 30 million), they would no doubt eagerly embrace the offering.

But what the government of Nicolas Maduro means by “peace” is for the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance to give up on its attempts to trigger a mid-term recall referendum against him. On 1 September, the MUD put hundreds of thousands of nonviolent demonstrators on the streets of the capital in support of its referendum demand, a constitutional right. Maduro called a counter-demonstration, asking supporters, “Are we going to allow [the opposition] to maintain a permanent threat to the peace of Caracas?”

If the referendum were to be held before 10 January next year, a “yes” vote would produce an immediate presidential election, which the government would almost certainly lose. This would put an end to the seventeen-year-old “revolution” launched by the late President Hugo Chávez, who championed the mid-term referendum clause in the constitution in exchange for lengthening the presidential term and allowing reelection.

In polls, almost 70 per cent of voters say they would vote Maduro out. But the government controls the National Electoral Council(CNE) and the Supreme Court. It has used every trick at its disposal to delay the referendum until after 10 January, the day on which Maduro enters the final two years of his six-year term. Once that happens, his departure for any reason would lead to his vice president (an appointed, not elected figure) serving out the term. Already, factions within the ruling party are engaged in public wrangling over who should succeed Maduro under those circumstances.

Most analysts agree that the only way the MUD can force a recall referendum this year, shifting the contest back to the electoral arena where its strength lies, is to put enough people on the streets for long enough to convince the army that continuing to back Maduro would involve shooting large numbers of unarmed demonstrators. If the military were to withdraw support, the president might resign, rather than face the humiliation of being voted out halfway through his term. Constitutionally, either option would trigger fresh presidential elections. This would almost certainly be preceded by intensive negotiations, in which a peaceful transition might be exchanged for a degree of impunity for prominent government figures, some of whom are accused of serious crimes and/or human rights violations.  

However, the chances of a referendum before 10 January seem small. The Supreme Court has even been asked to declare the whole process fraudulent and ban the MUD. But factional struggles in the regime mean that Maduro may well be replaced anyway by his current vice president or another figure. If the referendum bid fails, the government will still need to seek some kind of deal in order to ensure governability between now and the next presidential elections in December 2018. Talks on compromise are likely. Even now, as the two sides trade insults and prepare for a showdown, there continue to be discussions behind the scenes. The four leading parties in the opposition alliance all have their contacts on the government side, and last month representatives of each of the four sat down for private talks with four leading representatives of the ruling Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV).

There will be a need for carrots as well as sticks, if those in the government who fear for their future if they lose power are to accept the terms of any transition.

These talks-about-talks predictably fell apart over the issue of the referendum. MUD delegates wanted to negotiate fairer conditions but the government refused even to contemplate a vote in 2016. Various sources told Crisis Group there was an offer to hold a general election next year, in exchange for abandonment of the referendum and approval by the (opposition controlled) parliament of a fresh debt plan to ease the government’s acute cashflow crisis. But without cast-iron guarantees such as a constitutional change in the election date – approved by parliamentary majority, upheld by the government controlled Supreme Court, ratified in a referendum and monitored by a credible third party – such a promise would be worthless, even if the MUD were in a position to negotiate away the right to a recall referendum this year.

When the talks’ existence was leaked, the MUD was accused by its own hardliners of betrayal. It was the second time in four months that the opposition alliance had found itself having to explain why it was in closed-door conversations with the government. Back in May, the two sides held indirect talks in the Dominican Republic, at which former Spanish premier José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero acted as an intermediary.

The Zapatero initiative, at the behest of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and with the involvement of two former Latin American presidents, is viewed askance by the MUD because those involved are all seen as sympathetic to the government. Crisis Group has repeatedly stressed the need for the wider region to help facilitate a dialogue. In particular, it is vital that both sides feel adequately represented.

Four months ago, Zapatero summarised the main points on the dialogue agenda as:

  • Resolution of the conflict of powers between the opposition-held National Assembly, the Executive, and the executive-controlled Supreme Court;

  • Political reconciliation  (including the issue of political prisoners and restorative justice for victims);

  • The humanitarian crisis;

  • Respect for the electoral timetable and;

  • Disarmament (an initiative of the mediation team, who point to the large number of guns in civilian hands as a source of conflict).

Apart from the release of one prisoner (who has dual Spanish-Venezuelan nationality), Zapatero has failed to obtain concessions from the government on the issue of political prisoners. The human rights group, Venezuelan Penal Forum, says repression has worsened considerably since the mediation effort was launched. Forum Director Alfredo Romero said the number of political prisoners had increased by 31 and there had been over 2,000 politically-inspired arrests in the period.

As for the electoral timetable – described by Zapatero as the “passport of democracy” – President Maduro announced on 5 October that, due to the economic crisis, “elections are not a priority”. Ruling out a recall referendum, not to mention elections for state governors due in December, Maduro said the next elections would be in 2018 – a reference to the presidential election due at the end of that year.

But while the latest fiasco has all but buried the Zapatero initiative, polls suggest a large majority of Venezuelans favour dialogue – the more so if there is international mediation. And there is some light at the end of the tunnel. On 28 September the MUD formally requested the involvement of the Vatican, which has been following the Venezuelan crisis closely. This followed a similar invitation by the government earlier in the month. The Pope, however, while accepting the idea in principle, has made it clear that any participation by the Vatican would come only after the two sides have sat down to serious talks. Until there is some clarity regarding the referendum and the future of the Maduro presidency, that will not happen.

It is not only in Venezuela itself that the political situation is in flux.

UNASUR Secretary-General Ernesto Samper, a figure closely identified with the Venezuelan government and its regional allies, is due to be replaced early in the new year. His successor is bound to reflect the new political reality in the region and could potentially play a role in helping to resolve the crisis. As of January, there will also be a new president in the White House. Under Obama the policy has been to work behind the scenes with other regional powers, but some governments feel Washington should take a more proactive role. There will be a need for carrots as well as sticks, if those in the government who fear for their future if they lose power are to accept the terms of any transition.

Meanwhile, both sides are bracing themselves for a turbulent October, with demonstrations, counterdemonstrations and a tense three days of signature-gathering for the referendum. With Venezuela’s crisis deepening, even the lights spelling out peace on the mountain were no longer visible a month after they were put there – with or without binoculars. Whether the government switched them off, or whether they succumbed to a power cut, is not clear. But with peace hanging by a thread, the omens are not good.

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.