On Nov. 16, a preparatory meeting took place for the new round of talks between the Venezuelan government and opposition scheduled for Dec 1-2 in the Dominican Republic. These are some of the relevant points in relation to this first meeting.
Delegations and accompanying mediators
Postponed for one day, the meeting took place without prior notification after President Nicolas Maduro met in the presidential residence at Miraflores with Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, one of the dialogue process mediators. A few hours after that meeting, the head of the Bolivarian delegation announced via his Twitter account his imminent arrival in the Dominican Republic, along with the president of Venezuela’s National Constituent Assembly, Delcy Rodríguez and Education Minister, Elias Jaua, members of the presidential delegation in charge of the dialogue process.
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Shortly afterward, the Democratic Unity Table opposition announced the arrival of their delegation consisting of Vicente Diaz, former head of the National Electoral Council, Gustavo Velazquez, the MUD’s strategic advisor and expert negotiator, and Jose Luis Cartaya, secretary of Venezuela’s legislature, the National Assembly. All three have a technical profile very different from that of most of the opposition leadership. This suggests the impossibility of participation by figures like Luis Florido, shortlisted for the MUD delegation after he stated a few days earlier that the MUD would not take part in the Dominican Republic talks without the presence of guarantor countries representatives.
According to statements afterward, it is clear this initial six-hour meeting on Nov. 16 dealt with methodological procedure and the main issues to discuss and also confirmed the participation of the guarantor countries, Paraguay, Chile and Mexico for the MUD and, for the government, Nicaragua, Bolivia and another country yet to be named. Almost at the very end of the day, Jorge Rodriguez asserted, “Contrary to what Luis Florido thinks, this is not an international negotiation, between our country and another, unless he feels he represents some other State, rather it is a dialogue between the government and the opposition, between our own Venezuelan people.”
Agendas and counterpoints
Among the points highlighted by the opposition, were the opening up of “a humanitarian channel, freedom for political prisoners and clean transparent presidential elections with a new National Electoral Council.” On this last point, the opposition have insistently demanded the same technical conditions that allowed them to win the legislative elections in 2015 (anyone unaware needs to know that these technical conditions are the same as those prevailing in the recent elections for the National Constituent Assembly and for the regional elections, both claimed by the MUD to be fraudulent).
On the other hand, Maduro insisted that the opposition offer “economic guarantees” by demanding the end of President Donald Trump’s economic sanctions. Together with this point, the Venezuelan government is also seeking a negotiated agreement of recognition and coexistence between the National Constituent Assembly and the opposition-controlled National Assembly so as to normalize the workings of the Venezuelan State on issues like investment agreements and foreign loans that are sensitive for Venezuela’s economy.
These two agendas will have to find a synthesis when the conversations scheduled for Dec. 1-2 finally start. A realistic view sees a precedent in the thematic tables organized for the failed attempt at dialogue in 2016. These were divided among: confidence building and a timetable for elections; peace, respect for Venezuela’s laws and national sovereignty; truth, justice and human rights; reparations to victims and national reconciliation; and economic and social issues. Thanks to that precedent, Jorge Rodriguez was able to note that this time around it was not difficult to establish a procedural methodology after having found common points of agreement from that earlier, albeit failed, experience
Strong points and objectives for each side
In a negotiation, it is important for each side to know what cards they hold and how strong their position is. In the context following the end of the street fighting and the holding of the regional elections, everyone knows that Chavismo is in a better position than the still bruised MUD opposition, with, in the words of Jesus Torrealba, one of the opposition leaders, its unity practically dissolved. But it is worth looking more deeply at the situation of each side.
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For the anti-Chavismo groups, their position is based on their control of the National Assembly to block foreign agreements that might help stabilize the economy. Assisted by the United States and the European Union they press for conditions leading to a change of government. But that fails to reflect the domestic context where, thanks to their own contradictions and disagreements, they have lost much of the support they had in the legislative elections of 2015.
For its part, Chavismo controls the National Constituent Assembly as a means to undo opposition efforts to make Venezuela ungovernable. But its political capital right now has increased after the regional elections and with the upcoming municipal elections, which Chavismo hopes will end with comprehensive electoral success across Venezuela. Given that, it is in Chavismo’s interests to ensure the political conflict remains firmly in a peaceful electoral context so as to normalize life in the country, above all in relation to the main problem for Venezuelans, which is the economy.
Some provisional conclusions
This dialogue should be seen in the light of the one held at the beginning of the century, after the attempted coup in 2002. Back then, the dialogue was mediated by the Organization of American States under its then secretary-general, former Colombian president Cesar Gaviria, whose job ended after Hugo Chavez triumphed in the recall referendum of 2004. Put another way, one side conceded its loss once the other side achieved a categorical triumph.
In the current context, that experience serves as a comparison, given that the potential agreements would set up a political, legal, institutional and economic scene for both sides allowing a disentanglement of the conflict via the only election yet to be scheduled, namely the presidential election. That is why Maduro’s statement, that he hopes the dialogue negotiations will take no longer than a year, makes sense.
Even so, the big problem for the dialogue negotiations is the inability of the anti-Chavismo forces to unite around a common position enabling them to comply with a possible agreement. This was obvious on Nov. 16 more from two snapshots than from the competing proposals. One is of the MUD delegation in the Dominican Republic and the other is of various opposition leaders in OAS meetings about how to take Venezuela to the International Criminal Court. This is one more example of the self-evident de facto split in Venezuela’s opposition bloc.
So it is hard to tell whether the way open to dialogue will make progress with a MUD opposition divided or united, or whether, as Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov put it “foreign pressures leading to irreconcilable positions aimed at provoking a deeper, more violent crisis” will prevail. Much remains to be seen. However, one thing is very clear, namely, Maduro’s government is closer than Venezuela’s opposition to closing the cycle of extreme instability following the death of Chavez. That is saying a great deal given the plague of difficulties throughout 2017.
First published in Misión Verdad on Nov. 17, 2017.
Translated by Tortilla con Sal.