MEXICO CITY, Sept. 17 (IPS) – This is the third serious attempt to inject some momentum into negotiations between the Venezuelan government and the opposition. Negotiations have been taking place in Mexico since last Friday, with Norway acting as mediator.
The failure of previous attempts at negotiations hardened Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who tightened the noose on every occasion. Expectations are correspondingly low this time around, particularly among the Venezuelan population.
They also have other concerns: Covid-19 has led to the collapse of hospitals that were already in a completely desperate state, and the vaccination rate of 11 per cent (full vaccination) is one of the lowest on the continent, along with Haiti and Nicaragua.
The supply of medicine and food is unstable, and inflation, blackouts and fuel shortages are adding to the already existing problems. More than six million of the country’s 28 million people have left their country, shrinking the opposition base. Those left behind are struggling to survive and many have withdrawn from political life in disappointment.
According to opinion polls, support for Maduro stands at 21 percent – the number of government employees and military officers who directly depend on the system. The majority of Venezuelans support political change. Ironically, the opposition proves unable to capitalize on the societal mood.
Little euphoria was left when Juan Guaido declared himself president in January 2019, making life difficult for the ‘Maduro rapist’ with mass protests, a small military rebellion and widespread international recognition.
At the time, 80 percent supported him; Today, according to a poll conducted by the Meganalisis Institute, only 4% of the population still supports him, which means that he is no longer a direct threat in Maduro’s eyes. The head of state now wants to free himself from the shackles set by Guaido and the opposition thanks to their international support.
During the last general election in 2020, only 15 to 30 percent went to the polls.
Venezuela is struggling economically. What still operates, apart from the (floundering) oil sector, is a thriving underground economy consisting of extortion, gold, weapons, people and drug smuggling.
Criminal groups from all over the world are involved and control large parts of the country, protected by a network of corrupt military and parastatal militias. The productive apparatus is in ruins and cannot be started again without foreign investment.
But even Maduro allies like Russia and China are keeping their wallets closed for now, despite their geostrategic interest. The Western embargo, which slashed the country’s GDP by 80 percent, has made doing business with Venezuela more difficult and more expensive. Endemic corruption makes investments seem like an endless financial pit.
All of this has recently eroded Maduro’s legitimacy. During the last general election in 2020, only 15 to 30 percent went to the polls. “This is a sign of weakness and makes Maduro more dependent on alliances with the military and other partners who are not necessarily trustworthy partners,” says political expert Colette Capriles.
Therefore, Maduro’s options are limited: either flee forward, towards ever more authoritarian measures, similar to the development in socialist sister countries such as Nicaragua and Cuba. Or, at least, partial democratic openness and concessions to ease sanctions, stabilize the economy, and gain legitimacy.
Maduro chose the latter option. In the face of internal resistance, he recently made tepid concessions to the opposition. Two government critics now sit on the five-member electoral council. Opposition leader Freddy Guevara was released, and the opposition coalition MUD, which gave the ruling party PSUV a bitter defeat in the 2016 parliamentary elections, was also accepted into regional elections in the fall.
While two similarly powerful opponents faced off in the latest negotiations in 2019, this time around the opposition is in a weaker position. The 38-year-old Guaido has lost support within the opposition coalition due to his mistakes, but also thanks to the clever politics of division, propaganda and targeted repression by the regime.
Moderate opposition leaders such as Henrique Capriles criticized Guaido’s unfortunate involvement in military adventures such as the failed mercenary invasion of May 2020. Guaido also made unrealistic demands, such as Maduro’s resignation, a condition for negotiations. Capriles’ demand for an incremental strategy has recently won support in the business association as well as in Foro Civico, the most important civil society movement.
Despite its perceived weakness, the opposition also holds some trump cards. The first is US and European support for a return to democratic rule. After recovering from Trump’s empty military threats, the transatlantic bridge appears to have been repaired.
The United States has leverage in the form of sanctions. Without the approval of US diplomacy, Maduro will not achieve his goal.
The second trump card is timing. The elections in the fall, in which the opposition now wants to participate as a single body, present an unparalleled opportunity to seize power. The ruling Socialist Party PSUV cadres are unpopular. If the opposition succeeds in finding common candidates rooted in the people and in defeating voter indifference, this will be an important step in building a solid base.
Admittedly, Maduro controls the campaign machinery, the electoral council, and all the logistics of the ballot. But if he wanted to achieve sanctions relief, he wouldn’t be able to play these cards openly.
The mediators also learned lessons from the failure of previous negotiations, which kept the negotiations secret. Neither party is allowed to leak content to the press. The two sides also agreed to accept parts of the agreement, provided that it had been adequately discussed and its implementation urgent – even if the rest of the agenda was still open.
This opens the possibility of the delivery of humanitarian aid, the release of all political prisoners or the gradual re-institutionalization of the country and important key bodies such as the Electoral Council.
The Cubans have a tremendous influence on Maduro, and therefore they will sit obliquely at the negotiating table.
Leading the talks is veteran Danish diplomat Dag Nylander, who has brought the complex peace talks between the Colombian government and FARC fighters to a happy conclusion.
This experience inspired new ideas for negotiating points, such as the victims’ right to reparation and the involvement of civil society to develop an agreement on a broader basis of legitimacy.
Russia and the Netherlands act as observers. Phil Johnson, of the International Crisis Group, sees the fact that Russia could join the union a positive: “So far, Russia has tried to block the strategic advantages of the United States and its allies. But an agreement that preserves Russia’s economic interests in Venezuela would also benefit Moscow.
Negotiations will not be easy and they will not move quickly. Nor is it certain that the opposition can maintain its unity, nor is it certain that Maduro will be strong enough to push through major concessions toward vishis allies, especially with regard to those involved in organized crime who care little. Solve.
Another player in the shadows is Cuba. The Caribbean island is in the midst of the worst economic and legal crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1990s. Deals with Venezuela are one of the last lifeboats. The Cubans have a tremendous influence on Maduro, and therefore they will sit obliquely at the negotiating table.
However, there is justified hope. If the last negotiations in 2019 were all about “all or nothing,” this time politics has returned to the negotiating table as the art of compromise and moderation. At least the possibility of a transitional government in which power would be shared by the two camps looms, albeit still a long way off.
Sandra Weiss is a former political scientist and diplomat. Until 1999, she worked as an editor at Agence France-Presse. Freelance journalist, Sandra, has written articles on Latin America for several German newspapers, among them Die Zeit and Die Welt.
Source: International Politics and Society
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