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Crisis-hit Venezuela’s Political Rivals Stumble Towards Talks
Crisis-hit Venezuela’s Political Rivals Stumble Towards Talks
Venezuela: An Opportunity That Should Be Seized
Venezuela: An Opportunity That Should Be Seized
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.

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.