The Barbados agreements are hanging by a thread. Nicolás Maduro’s maneuvers over the last few months seem to have reduced to mere paper the letter of good intentions signed by representatives of the opposition Unitary Platform and the government on October 16, six days before the opposition primaries that selected María Corina Machado as the candidate to go up against Chavismo in the presidential elections slated for 2024. Maduro’s referendum on Essequibo, a territory disputed with Guyana, crossed several red lines set in the commitments, which are considered by the international community and the parties involved as a significant step toward the realization of democratic guarantees for free and fair elections.
One of these is the judicial persecution against Machado’s team and allies. Roberto Abdul, the director of Súmate, the organization in which Machado took her first steps in activism for the political rights of Venezuelans, and a member of the National Primary Commission, has been arrested. Abdul’s lawyers have stated that they still do not know where he is being held following his detention by the National Intelligence Service.
Arrest warrants have also been issued against Machado’s closest collaborators — political scientist Pedro Urruchurtu and journalist Claudia Macero, young activists who have been on Sebin’s radar for some time — and Henry Alviárez, national coordinator of Machado’s political party, Vente Venezuela. Yon Goicochea, a former political prisoner, and David Smolansky, in exile since 2017 and has been the subject of three arrest warrants during Maduro’s presidency, have also been targeted. Both were student leaders from Juan Guaidó's generation, who are now supporting Machado. Prosecutor Tarek William Saab has denounced an alleged conspiracy surrounding oil company ExxonMobil to sabotage the referendum in which the annexation of Essequibo was approved.
The list also includes the names of those who have become the usual suspects for dozens of Chavist conspiracy theories: a group of exiled opposition leaders including Leopoldo López, Guaidó, Carlos Vecchio, and Julio Borges, whose parties Voluntad Popular and Primero Justicia were at the forefront of the opposition strategy but who find themselves cornered by imprisonments, the prosecution of their organizations, and the eventual exile of a yet undetermined number of leaders.
At least three points of the Barbados agreement have been shelved during the past few weeks of heavy-handedness: respect for the mechanisms of choice of the candidates of each sector, access to the media for all candidates, and the promotion of a public discourse and a political and social climate favorable to the development of a peaceful and participatory electoral process. Immediately after the primaries, in which — despite all the obstacles — more than two million people were mobilized, the government opened investigations against the organizers and summoned them to testify before the Prosecutor’s Office. This week, the head of the Chavista delegation and president of the National Assembly, Jorge Rodríguez, called the opposition a “damned caste.”
The signing of the Barbados agreements was followed by a partial lifting of oil sanctions which will mean at least for six months — in principle until April 2024 — an improvement in the government’s revenue flow, as it will not have to sell oil at a discount. The détente has also raised the interest of a handful of oil companies from all over the world, which have begun talks on investments in the country. Maduro was satisfied with this granting of licenses, but the United States gave an ultimatum to present a procedure for the qualification of electoral candidates, which was achieved in the final hours of the given deadline of November 30.
The mechanism presented by the Norwegian mediators imposes another deadline of one week for those disqualified to file an appeal before the Supreme Court of Justice for their cases to be reviewed. Machado has said that, for now, she will not attend. “The events of the last few hours are really very serious,” said the opposition candidate in relation to the arrest of Abdul and the persecution of her allies.
Machado spoke Thursday at a hearing of the European Parliament’s subcommittee in charge of relations with Mercosur countries and warned that Chavismo is seeking a way out of the electoral path. The Joe Biden administration has also reiterated its demand for the release of political prisoners, particularly those of U.S. nationality.
“This agreement has been at risk since it was born, because it is likely that the Maduro government will take advantage of it to receive funds, but nothing guarantees that the sanctions will not be rolled back and we will return to the situation as it was before,” notes Mariano De Alba, a senior advisor at the NGO International Crisis Group. “What we have seen in the last few hours, in a way, goes against the spirit of the agreement. The expectations that there were on the U.S. side have not been fulfilled either.”
The government, argues De Alba, is in serious trouble in the electoral field. With the referendum on Essequibo, Maduro attempted to measure his mobilization capacity in the face of presidential elections, something that was not apparent at polling stations despite the electoral authorities stating that 10.4 million Venezuelans turned out to vote. “One of the reasons was to test its electoral capacity and it did not work as strongly as they expected on an issue that, in theory, would unite everybody. Now it is deploying a strategy to tempt the opposition, given the conditions, to opt for saying that they are going to abandon the electoral route and ask for more international pressure.” A move that would also affect Biden, who will face calls for the reimposition of sanctions if there are no substantial improvements in terms of democratic guarantees.
Despite the stridencies of the last few days in the conflict with Guyana — which is taking advantage of the circumstances to increase its military cooperation with Washington — De Alba points out that Guyana’s allies the United States, the United Kingdom and Brazil, are moving to try to lower tensions and return to negotiations through diplomatic channels.
There have already been calls between the foreign ministers of Venezuela and Guyana, and between U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Guyanese President Mohamed Irfaan Ali. On Friday, informal consultations are scheduled at the United Nations Security Council, in which the parties will present their positions in the international dispute. For Venezuela, however, the front is within its borders.
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