“We were on the edge of the precipice”, runs a well-worn Venezuelan joke. “But now we have taken a great step forward”.
Until last month, Venezuela had one main constitutional route to resolving the deep political, economic and social crisis that has afflicted this nation of 30 million almost since President Nicolás Maduro came to power in 2013: a recall referendum that would open the way to new elections.
The opposition had obtained permission for a signature-gathering drive in late October to trigger the referendum. But on 20 October, the country’s government-controlled National Electoral Council (CNE) suspended the process. The flimsy pretext was a set of simultaneous rulings by regional criminal courts alleging fraud during a previous stage of the process. It appeared to be a victory for the hard-line faction within the government, an impression reinforced by the fact that the courts’ decisions were announced not by the judges that supposedly took them but by a group of state governors associated with the most intransigent wing of the ruling party.
The move left Venezuelans staring into the abyss. The suspension of the referendum weakened the moderates of the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance, exacerbated tensions within its multiparty leadership and increased the risk of a violent outcome. The government geared up to repress demonstrations likely to turn ever more confrontational.
The Vatican’s Rescue Mission
A flicker of hope emerged when the Vatican stepped in to reinforce a faltering effort at mediation that has been led since May by former Spanish Premier José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. This first formal intervention, called “facilitation” by its organisers and “accompaniment” by the Vatican, came in response to written requests made by both sides in September. With a fresh sense of urgency after the suspension of the referendum process, the Vatican sent in a special envoy – Mons. Emil Paul Tscherrig, nuncio to Argentina – who announced that the two sides would meet on 30 October for “the beginning of a dialogue”.
Tscherrig was a last-minute, temporary substitute for the designated mediator, Mons. Claudio Maria Celli, who was in China at the time. Events moved so rapidly that, in a rare departure from protocol, Pope Francis agreed to a hurriedly arranged, half-hour audience with President Maduro, who had been on a tour of the Middle East, and that coincided with Mons. Tscherrig’s 24 October announcement. The Pope apparently stressed the need for an electoral solution and for the release of political prisoners.
It is a sign of just how fraught the atmosphere is that, despite having pressed repeatedly for Vatican mediation, the MUD delegation only reached internal agreement on attending the talks half an hour before they were due to start on 30 October, and after wrestling with internal disagreements all day. Of the members of the so-called G4 (the MUD’s four biggest parties, who dominate the alliance), only three actually sat down at the table. Voluntad Popular (VP) said it would join only in exchange for further concessions from the government, while the other three committed themselves to walking away if they failed to obtain them.
The day after the talks, the government released five political prisoners, the first such gesture since the release of a single prisoner on 9 September. The immediate reaction from the opposition was that this, though important, was not enough. By their count, over 100 remain in jail or under house arrest, with thousands more enduring various kinds of restrictions, including a ban on leaving the country. Those released had all been detained in recent months and they included none of the most emblematic figures currently behind bars.
Much will depend on the Vatican, and on the other three facilitators, working under the auspices of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). Their efforts have received the backing of (among others) Washington, which immediately sent Under Secretary Thomas Shannon to Caracas for a round of meetings. But if substantive advances are not made very quickly, the talks may break down, and it could prove very difficult to restart them. If that were to happen, the Vatican has already indicated it might pull out altogether. The fracturing of the MUD, which is also a possibility, would no doubt delight the government but would further complicate a negotiated solution.
Government and opposition are next due to meet on 11 November. In the meantime, four working groups – each chaired by an external facilitator – will tackle some of the most pressing issues. Zapatero will take on rule-of-law issues; papal representative Claudio Maria Celli truth, justice and reconciliation; former president of the Dominican Republic Leonel Fernández the socio-economic crisis; and Martín Torrijos, ex-president of Panama, confidence building and elections. But several prominent opposition leaders have said the MUD will walk away if its conditions are not met by the time of the next meeting. These include a clear timetable for early elections and the release of prisoners, the lifting of restrictions on parliament and a neutral elections authority.
Even if successful, the negotiations will not lead to an immediate change of government, as demanded by the more confrontational wing of the MUD. The best the opposition can hope for is to agree a mechanism for bringing forward presidential elections (due, under the constitution, in December 2018); the replacement of pro-government members of the CNE board by more neutral figures; a functioning parliament; the release of all – or almost all – political prisoners; an agreement to allow humanitarian food and medical aid into the country to relieve the immediate suffering of the general population.
Heating up the Street
The Vatican’s initiative was not universally welcomed. It wrong-footed the opposition, some of whose members were only expecting talks about talks and called out the papal nuncio’s statement as premature. Opposition hardliners insisted that it was absurd to sit down to formal negotiations in the present climate, and without any signal from the government that it was prepared to reconsider the referendum issue or make other significant concessions.
Initially, the opposition had responded to the 20 October suspension of the referendum process with a three-pronged strategy.
Firstly, it began to pressure the government through what, in local parlance, is known as “heating up the street”.
At the same time, the MUD-led National Assembly began debating the president’s removal for having violated the constitution, for allegedly “abandoning his duties” or even for possessing Colombian nationality and therefore being constitutionally ineligible for the job. The catch is that, since the executive branch controls the remaining institutions of state, the process was in any event likely to end up being merely declamatory.
The third prong of the MUD plan was international. It intended to reiterate a demand that the Organization of American States (OAS) apply its Inter-American Democratic Charter, which could lead to the suspension of Venezuela’s membership of the organisation. In addition, it threatened to take action against the Supreme Court and the CNE at the International Criminal Court, a proposal which even sympathetic experts in international law regard as ill-advised.
Amid the confusion surrounding the suspension of the referendum and the announcement of the Vatican initiative, the MUD staged a large, nationwide demonstration on 26 October. In over a dozen provincial cities demonstrators were dispersed by police and National Guard riot squads, often accompanied by armed civilian thugs. Human rights monitors reported 140 arrests and dozens of injuries, including bullet wounds. In Caracas, tens of thousands blocked the main motorway through the capital.
Although the demonstration in Caracas passed off relatively peacefully, there were calls for an immediate march on the Miraflores palace, seat of the presidency. With difficulty, opposition leaders insisted on postponing the march until 3 November, and later – at the urging of the Vatican – suspended that too. It also postponed its largely symbolic debate in parliament to determine the president’s political responsibility for the crisis.
When he initially announced the MUD’s agreement to the Vatican-mediated talks, Secretary General Jesús “Chuo” Torrealba insisted that dialogue and demonstrations were complementary aspects of the opposition’s strategy. Both sides, indeed, say they are committed to lowering the political temperature. But opposition moderates are under extreme pressure from the hardliners to prove that dialogue is worth pursuing.
The MUD, like the government, is split. Some of its member parties, especially VP, are themselves divided, with pro-dialogue factions often dismissed as traitors, especially in heated exchanges on social media. The current standoff is making those splits worse.
With the Vatican now involved, it will nonetheless be difficult for the MUD to walk away from talks, even if the new process offers few immediately tangible benefits. The other main price that the opposition has paid for agreeing to talks is that the third, international part of its plan will have to be shelved for now. As was obvious at the Iberoamerican Summit, held in Cartagena, Colombia, at the end of October, the promise of talks relieves pressure on the Maduro government.
At the back of everyone’s mind is the experience of 2003-2004, when internationally mediated negotiations led to an agreement to hold a recall referendum against then-President Hugo Chávez. The government succeeded in delaying the referendum until government social programs, funded by rising oil prices, raised his standing in the polls and allowed him to avoid recall. The fear of some in the opposition is that Washington, the Vatican and other foreign governments will favour stability over regime-change, if forced to choose, and that by agreeing to talks their campaign to oust Maduro will lose momentum.
An Existential Threat
The government’s focus on short-term preservation of power does not mean it feels invulnerable. It could have used its control of the Supreme Court and the CNE to block the referendum months ago. It has already postponed regional elections due in December. But it knew the risk implicit in shutting down the electoral safety-valve and so, up to now, preferred to use delaying tactics. Apparently confident of military support, it has now preferred to face social unrest and international opprobrium rather than the verdict of the ballot box. That’s because for the hardliners in government, any prospect of political transition represents an existential threat.
The government may well still be aiming to kick the ball down the road until 10 January, when Maduro begins the last two years of his presidency. Once that deadline has passed, Maduro’s departure would not lead to a change of government because the constitution allows him to be replaced by an appointed vice president. If that is its intention, the government will then count itself the victor. But none of the underlying issues will have been resolved and the prospects for Venezuela will look extremely uncertain.
The crisis will continue, not only for ordinary Venezuelans but for the government itself, which – despite its apparent strength – faces an acute shortage of cash, a hostile public and internal rifts that may well deepen once the immediate threat passes. Just in terms of debt repayments, Venezuela is obliged to disburse more in the next year or so than it currently has in its foreign reserves. If the power struggle within the regime is won by hardliners determined to close down any avenues to a political transition or to institutional spaces for its critics, then it is highly likely that a similar dispute within the opposition would also be won by the most hawkish elements.
If it fails, the Vatican’s intervention to restart dialogue will be remembered as yet another lost opportunity to halt the downward slide to greater conflict. However, such is the moral authority of the Pope, especially in a Catholic country like Venezuela, that to walk away from Vatican mediation could prove too costly for both sides and an agreement may eventually be reached. In that case, the moderates will emerge empowered, and the mediation could lay the basis for a negotiated transition.
For many Venezuelans, the odds of that happening are in the hands of a higher power, and for that, Pope Francis has the best connections. Asked if there was any hidden factor that made the Vatican more optimistic than many ordinary mortals, a Church source pulled a face. “Anything hidden?” he said. “We believe in miracles”.
Phil Gunson, Senior Analyst, Andes.