Apathy, sanctions, Biden: the stakes creating momentum in Venezuela’s long-running crisis

Nicolás Maduro and opposition leaders have opened up to the idea of negotiation to seek a path out of the country’s precarious situation with help from the international community

Opposition leader Juan Guaidó at a news conference in Caracas on Wednesday.
Opposition leader Juan Guaidó at a news conference in Caracas on Wednesday.RAYNER PENA R (EFE)

The possibility of a negotiation between the government of Venezuela and the opposition is growing ever stronger and none of the main players want to be left on the sidelines. The conviction that the current situation benefits nobody is gaining weight and has led all parties involved to reassess their strategies: the executive of Nicolás Maduro, suffocated by sanctions and cut off from the international community; the opposition, almost completely removed from domestic political life and with low popularity ratings; the Venezuelan people, who have been plunged into a devastating economic crisis by the coronavirus pandemic and the informal dollarization carried out over the past year; and the international community, in the realization that the policy of sanctions and a closing of ranks behind the leadership of Juan Guaidó, who they recognized as president-elect, has failed to make a dent in the power of the ruling administration.

The departure from office of former US president Donald Trump, who was at the heart of the strategy to break the Venezuelan government with economic sanctions, has opened a new window of opportunity for Chavism, the political movement that follows the ideas of former president Hugo Chávez. Maduro’s administration isn’t in terrible shape within its own borders. The opposition’s decision to not participate in the recent elections has allowed Chavism to tighten its grip on power, albeit with its hands and feet tied by an unsustainable economic situation. Michael Penfold, who teaches political economy and governance at the Wilson Center think tank, says that Guaidó's popularity has declined, as has the opposition’s ability to mobilize people, which has allowed Chavism to gain ground in terms of domestic and territorial control.

Maduro is not of a mind to take political risks but he is also cognizant of the fact there will be no lifting of sanctions without advances toward a process of democratization in Venezuela. “I am in agreement, with the help of the Norwegian government, the European Union, the [International] Contact Group, when they want, where they want, how they want, to meet with all of the opposition,” he said last Thursday.

That was not the first or the only surprise in a week that, in the view of several analysts, witnessed Chavism making the grandest gestures and concessions of the past few years. Several signals to the international community and toward internal affairs are paving the way for talks that up to now have always proved out of reach.

This most recent movement began with a knock on the door of the White House’s new resident, Joe Biden. Maduro permitted United Nations humanitarian aid into Venezuela after a year of negotiations and, among other gestures, he reduced prison sentences to house arrest for six petroleum executives with dual nationality who had been jailed for three years. “The big question is how the Biden administration will react,” says Geoff Ramsey, director for Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). “And whether there is some way to incentivize the Maduro regime to make more concessions to bring about the restoration of democracy. They have said they are watching developments closely and support a negotiated solution, but there is a risk that without some kind of signal or incentive [such as lifting some of Trump’s sanctions], Maduro may abandon this latest attempt at a possible opening up.”

People are starting to notice that this is an oppressive state, but also that there is no alternative for change, at least not unless there is a genuinely secret ballot and the opposition is united
José Gregorio Ochoa, activist

At the same time, the National Assembly, controlled by the regime, has named a new National Electoral Council – the CNE, the body responsible for overseeing transparency in electoral processes – consisting of three members with Chavist sympathies and two from the opposition. “It is the best CNE from the opposition’s point of view in 22 years,” says former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles. The Foreign Ministry of Spain, which keeps a close and active eye on all movements in Venezuela, has called it “a first step.” A few days after its new members were sworn in, the CNE called local and regional elections for November 21.

All eyes are now on the opposition. Images of all the leaders of the opposition united around the figure of Guaidó, when he was named acting president of Venezuela in 2019, cheered by throngs in the streets of Caracas and with significant international backing, are now a thing of the past. At that time, 77% of Venezuelans said they would have voted for Guaidó in an election, a number that polling company Datanalisis reported in March has plummeted to 11.4%. “The average Venezuelan is politically disengaged, people are trying to survive, the pieces on the board have moved,” says Penfold.

José Gregorio Ochoa, an activist in Carapita, an area in the west of Caracas that was once a bastion of Chavism, lays out the current priorities of the population. “Putting food on the table and surviving the Covid-19 pandemic are the primary concerns of the people,” he says. Accelerated hyperinflation and its rebound through the dollarization process has widened the inequality gap. Added to the daily struggle to make money to feed families is the pandemic and, for the first time in a country with the world’s largest oil reserves, a scarcity of gas for vehicles and for cooking.

The all-or-nothing strategy employed by the opposition and the international community against Maduro to date could be set to change. Guaidó, for example, has opened himself up to a negotiation with the regime. “This has to be attempted, but with all necessary skepticism and mistrust of the dictatorship,” says Freddy Guevara, a member of Guaidó's inner circle and who last week threw up the first bridge toward dialogue with representatives of the government when he met with Francisco Torrealba, the head of the ruling party’s parliamentary faction in the National Assembly.

Maduro is not of a mind to take political risks but he is also cognizant of the fact there will be no lifting of sanctions without advances toward a process of democratization in Venezuela

“Just as our starting point is that under the current circumstances we cannot overthrow Maduro, their starting point is the reality that their current plan will not solve their problems. We are obliged to find an urgent solution to the crisis for the people, which is the National Salvation Agreement, because at the end of the day the current situation is the worst of all worlds for everyone,” says Guevara. This agreement was put forward by Guaidó earlier on May 12 and calls for a pact to bring about free elections, not only at local and regional level but also parliamentary and presidential votes that could pave the way for a transition mediated by the international community. “We are ready,” the opposition leader said in a press conference.

The strategy of returning to the electoral trail, driven above all by the influence of Capriles, is also what is desired by various sectors within Venezuela, who are eager to recover the political roles they have ceded since 2019, say sources consulted by this newspaper. The idea that the regime can be defeated with a single blow has been reduced over the past two years and the feeling now in Venezuela and among the international community is that a return to the political path to gain ground against Chavism step by step is the better blueprint.

The unity of the opposition, divided around various leaderships, is the great unknown element heading into any potential elections. Ochoa, who is also a member of the Frente Amplio, a coalition of opposition organizations and labor unions that support Guaidó, says that “in the neighborhoods the opposition has a silent majority, because there is a total fear over the levels of repression and the ability to bribe and blackmail over access to food, over people’s homes, and in daily life in general. People are starting to notice that this is an oppressive state, but also that there is no alternative for change, at least not unless there is a genuinely secret ballot and the opposition is united. Otherwise, it’s really not worth going to the trouble to vote.”

The participation of the international community as mediators in any negotiation between the government and the opposition and as electoral observers are key factors. “The role of the international community was one of pressure. The dilemma now is not whether they will apply more pressure or less, but if they will get on board with this process,” says Penfold. In the legislative elections held last December, the European Union pushed for a postponement of the ballot over a lack of guarantees, but the Maduro government blocked the move. The elections, in which the opposition did not participate, were not internationally recognized. Abstention stood at 70%. Some voices in Europe are now acknowledging that a new opportunity has been presented.

English version by Rob Train.

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