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Can the Vatican Pull Venezuela Back from the Brink?
Can the Vatican Pull Venezuela Back from the Brink?

Venezuela: A House Divided

Legal challenges to the close 14 April presidential election and the government’s reluctance to commit to a full review cast a shadow over the sustainability of the new administration in an already deeply polarised Venezuela.

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I. Overview

The death from cancer on 5 March of President Hugo Chávez triggered a snap presidential election just 40 days later that his anointed successor, Nicolás Maduro, won by a margin of less than 1.5 per cent over Henrique Capriles of the Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance. But the tight result and legal challenges to the validity of the vote cast a shadow over the sustainability of the new administration. A country already deeply polarised is now clearly divided into two almost equal halves that appear irreconcilable. The validity of the election result remains to be clarified and the full independence of the electoral authorities, judiciary, and other key institutions restored. But to address the governance crisis and allow Venezuela to tackle its serious economic and social problems, national dialogue must prevail over confrontation and consensus over partisan violence.

With institutions weakened by the Chávez government’s long-term policy of presidential co-optation, the MUD may ultimately have little practical recourse at the domestic legal level, leaving – it believes – few options but a policy of peaceful street demonstrations and other forms of political pressure, including appeal to international public opinion. When political discourse takes the form of large-scale street protest, there is always a risk of violence. There have already been several deaths and numerous injuries, often in confused circumstances, that the government seems keen to exploit so as to discredit the opposition.

The power vacuum produced by Chávez’s death is a fundamental source of potential instability. His personal authority over his movement, the armed forces and the state bureaucracy is irreplaceable for the regime, certainly in the short term. This vacuum is particularly grave because the country is on the brink of a recession, has a large public-sector deficit and suffers from a growing scarcity of basic goods and one of the world’s highest inflation rates.

An extremely personalised political regime has been replaced by an unpredictable collection of group and even individual interests. The costs of having dismantled important elements of democracy and the rule of law over the past fourteen years are being paid by both the regime and the political opposition. Venezuela is ill-prepared for the post-Chávez transition and urgently needs to reconstruct its social and political fabric. The immediate efforts need to focus on avoiding escalation of extreme polarisation into political violence, complemented by a strong push for a basic understanding on how to coexist without Chávez.

Short-sighted behaviour by either side could propel the country into a political and economic crisis from which it would be difficult to recover. It is encouraging that the opposition leadership has emphasised non-violent forms of dissent. There have also been indications from the government that some of its members understand the need for dialogue and consensus, though this has not yet been followed by corresponding actions. Ideally Maduro would appoint some opposition figures to his government, but at the very least those in position to do so on both sides need to initiate dialogue and consensus building now.

Most of the international community, particularly regional partners and neighbours, have tended to look the other way when assessing democracy and human rights in Venezuela. This must change. Instability would at the least further undermine the regional consensus on democratic norms. Multilateral organisations, such as the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Organisation of American States (OAS), and regional powers, such as Brazil, need to make clear that they will not tolerate further destruction of the rule of law and democratic values.

To avoid unpredictable escalation of the polarisation and political violence:

  • Government and opposition must express commitment publicly to peaceful means of resolving the political crisis, instructing followers that violence – and confrontational rhetoric that could incite violence – is not permissible, and those who engage in it will be treated in full accordance with the law.
     
  • The government should recognise that the sharp division of the electorate necessitates consensus building, not a partisan agenda. It should build bridges to the opposition, the private sector and civil society, conducting a dialogue to reduce tensions and find common ground. The Catholic Church, regional partners and the international community in general should support this approach and be ready, if asked, to provide mediation at an appropriate point.
     
  • To clear the way for dialogue, doubts surrounding the election must be clarified. The Supreme Court’s electoral chamber should deal fully and transparently with all complaints of violence, intimidation and irregularities, if necessary ordering a re-vote in centres where such incidents cast substantial doubt on the original. The government should make clear that it supports such measures, and, if they are taken, all sides should immediately recognise the election’s validity.
     
  • The government should provide guarantees for lawful exercise of the right to protest and freedom of expression, abstaining from threats and legal proceedings against the independent media and reprisals against public employees suspected of opposition sympathies; and the armed forces must act fully within the constitution, which prohibits their participation in partisan politics.
     
  • The international community, in particular neighbours such as Brazil, the OAS and UNASUR, should encourage a non-violent solution of the political crisis and offer themselves as facilitators and mediators.

None of this will be easy, not least because there is a potentially dangerous gulf between the regime’s insistence that the election result be recognised as a condition for accepting the opposition as a force with which to do business and the opposition’s understandable insistence that it can accept the election result only after a full and transparent review shows that any irregularities that occurred did not alter the final outcome. If the worst is to be avoided, the moderates (or pragmatists) on both sides need to find a way to bridge that chasm.

Caracas/Bogotá/Brussels, 16 May 2013

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”.