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New stage in Venezuela negotiations: Maduro takes a step forward

The opposition has to find a formula to navigate to the presidential elections with a real chance of victory. Building that road is quite a challenge

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.Matias Delacroix (AP)

The negotiation channel between the U.S. administration of Joe Biden and the Venezuelan government of Nicolás Maduro has made progress in recent works. There is a possibility that there will be more, if Maduro agrees to make modest concessions to the Venezuelan opposition while benefiting from the easing of U.S. sanctions on the oil industry.

On October 5, the governments of both countries reported that they had reached an agreement for the direct deportation of Venezuelans who illegally enter U.S. territory.

Subsequently, it was learned that through the mediation of the United States, the Maduro government and the opposition — represented as the Unitary Platform — are preparing to resume negotiations in Mexico with an agenda focused on the 2024 presidential election. Likewise, Maduro would have committed to releasing about 100 political prisoners.

The Venezuelan opposition is arriving at this moment in a weak position. It has not yet built a unitary strategy to defeat Maduro. What’s more, the international context has also changed. Where before the international community was eager to support the reconstruction of Venezuelan democracy, now there is a climate of normalization of authoritarianism, due to the failure of the diplomatic freeze, among other reasons.

Both the European Union and the United States are seeking to rebuild relations with Venezuela, and this involves giving some legitimacy to the government of Maduro, who they have not recognized as president since his re-election in May 2018.

Héctor Briceño, an academic at the University of Rostock, explains that there is consensus that elections are the ideal scenario to resolve the Venezuelan crisis. He adds that the United States and the European Union are both interested in improving relations with Maduro due to the global context of the energy market, and because the crisis in Venezuela is impacting their own countries. An example of this is the flow of migrants.

Although progress in this normalization has been minimal, it has been constant since March 2022, when a high-level delegation, led by Juan González — special assistant to President Biden and senior director of the National Security Council for the Western Hemisphere — met with Maduro and his team in Caracas.

Between then and now, there have been gestures of understanding such as a prisoner exchange deal, a license that allows the oil company Chevron to operate with fewer obstacles, the lifting of sanctions against a relative of Maduro’s wife, a meeting this year in Qatar, and the recent agreement to the deportation flights of Venezuelans who enter illegally into the United States.

Furthermore, last July it was reported that the EU and Venezuela were exploring a $1.5 billion agreement to capture the South American country’s methane emissions and export them to EU countries, with the help of Eni Spa and Repsol. This is only possible because conditions with the United States improved.

To continue down this path, Maduro does not really have to make major concessions. What he is offering is to not move any further towards a worse scenario in which Venezuela’s authoritarian government looks more like Nicaragua. In fact, at this moment, the Maduro executive and the Venezuelan business elite are living a kind of honeymoon.

The Venezuelan opposition is keeping a close eye on developments. On the one hand, the Maduro and Biden governments are talking to advance their own interests. Maduro needs to gain international recognition, resources for public spending, and to improve the living conditions of Venezuelans. And in this way, to win over voters. Biden is also heading towards his re-election campaign. In addition to the global concerns regarding the fuel market, Biden’s adversaries are likely to point to America’s erratic immigration policy as one of his weaknesses. Added to this, Biden has to deal with the aftermath of accusations against Democrat Senator Bob Menendez for alleged bribery and corruption.

On the other hand, the impact of Henrique Capriles Radonski’s decision to withdraw from the race remains to be seen — with less than two weeks to go before the October 22 primary election. The former candidate argues that the fact he has been disqualified makes it difficult to move towards a strategy of real change in the country. Like him, the favorite to win the primaries, María Corina Machado, is also disqualified.

As a result, the opposition must address two crises at the same time. Firstly, advance negotiations with the Maduro government to achieve minimum electoral guarantees and secondly, deal with Capriles Radonski’s departure from the race.

However, the opportunity for change is there. Taking advantage of it requires a lot of political genius. If they are to have a real chance of winning, the political leaders in the opposition, especially the majority or most influential parties, have to find a formula to navigate until the presidential elections are held. Building that road is quite a challenge.

The last time the Venezuelan opposition achieved a major electoral victory was in 2015, when it swept the parliamentary elections and obtained a two-thirds qualified majority. That victory was quickly neutralized by the Maduro government, which stopped three opposition lawmakers from being sworn in, on the ground of an alleged fraud that was never proven, much less corrected. Afterwards, the opposition began a journey that led to the establishment of the so-called interim government, which was recognized by more than 60 countries.

Of the many lessons learned from that experience, two are key to any future efforts: first, unity is fundamental in the electoral opposition strategy; and second, the Maduro government, when under threat, will resort to anything to change the will of the people.

Héctor Briceño believes there are signs that foundations are being rebuilt in the bilateral relationship between the United States and Venezuela. And in the event that Maduro agrees to the 2024 election, with minimal guarantees, like the 2018 vote, that would be enough for the international community to look the other way in order to normalize the situation.

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