Imagining a way out in Venezuela

At first glance, the gap between the two sides appears unbridgeable. De facto power and control of almost all the country’s institutions are in the hands of Maduro, whose claim to legitimacy is based on a controversial re-election in May 2018, regarded by the opposition and its international allies as a sham perpetrated by a criminal dictator.

The opposition – led by Juan Guaidó, who is recognised as acting president by 59 countries – insists that an early, credible presidential election be held under international observation and demands that Maduro step down before then. But what the opposition sees as the restoration of democracy, the government regards as a foreign-backed coup. It is adamant that the opposition wishes to erase chavismo from the political scene and is using outside (mainly U.S.) support to ensure that the movement created by late President Hugo Chávez, which has ruled Venezuela for 21 years, cannot stage a comeback.

Efforts to reach a peaceful resolution have so far proved fitful and largely fruitless. Several rounds of negotiations have taken place since 2014 but all were marred by mutual suspicion, with the opposition convinced that the government misled it. Over the last year, both camps have flirted with a negotiated solution but have also banked on gaining the upper hand over their rival through the passage of time and the assistance of powerful foreign allies.

The opposition felt that tightening sanctions and the government’s increased international isolation would trigger a rupture within chavista ranks, notably among the military or, alternatively, that the U.S. might forcefully step in; the government hoped that the longer it resisted sanctions with the help of Russia, China and others, the more opposition credibility and unity would erode, the more public support for the opposition would dissipate, and the more Guaidó’s external allies would lose interest.

Time has been particularly unkind to the opposition. Despite earlier hints of U.S. military intervention – and an abortive military uprising on 30 April – as well as ever more draconian sanctions and a domestic economic crash that has spurred the exodus of over 4.8 million Venezuelans, Maduro has not budged. Opposition and U.S. predictions that the armed forces would defect from the government under external pressure have proven false.

As chavismo’s position strengthened, its bid to dislodge Guaidó from his formal post as National Assembly chair, and thus his claim to the interim presidency, climaxed on 5 January when the government placed a military and para-police cordon around the parliament and staged a highly dubious vote to change the leadership.

The opposition is now embroiled in fierce internal debate over whether to take part in parliamentary elections later this year even in the absence of conditions for fair polls.

Yet if the government and chavismo in general now feel more sanguine after weathering the storm of 2019, they hardly have reason to be at ease. The government’s room for manoeuvre, both political and economic, is severely restricted by sanctions; it is regarded as illegitimate by dozens of countries; it faces constant efforts – both open and covert – to oust it from power; and even within its own ranks there are rumblings of discontent over its increasingly authoritarian demeanour. It has achieved undeniable tactical victories, but it has left the core of the problem unaddressed. If it intends to bring back political normalcy and stability, something needs to change.

The most promising effort to date at brokering a negotiated solution has been a series of talks between the two sides, facilitated by the Norwegian government between May and August 2019. But these have broken down, a victim of these headwinds, half-hearted engagement by both sides and, in particular, government obduracy.

Prospects for their resumption are now dim. As described in a previous report, after seven rounds of talks, most recently in Barbados, the government walked away in the wake of newly imposed U.S. sanctions, and the opposition pronounced the format “exhausted” on 15 September 2019. The talks had produced some movement: shortly before they were suspended, the opposition had proposed that power pass temporarily to a ruling council whose members would be appointed by mutual agreement.

The Maduro government did not explicitly reject this latter proposal, and offered to improve electoral conditions, but its negotiators said the president would not quit and that early elections would be possible only one year after the U.S. and others lift sanctions. Its seizure of parliament clearly suggests that at the highest levels of power, willingness to strike a deal is negligible.

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