Next week, Venezuela’s cornered opposition will open up three fronts against the Nicolás Maduro administration that range from the conciliatory — dialogue — to the provocative, a march on the presidential palace.
The strategies share the same goal: cut Maduro’s tenure short in hopes of saving the country from a deepening economic, social and humanitarian crisis. But it remains far from clear whether any tactic will work against a socialist regime accused of trampling the constitution to cling to power.
The struggle kicks off Sunday on Margarita Island, off Venezuela’s northeastern coast, with a meeting between factions of the opposition and the government. Mediated by the Vatican, it will be the first time the warring parties have met publicly since 2014.
But even before talks begin, they’re generating unease. Prominent members of the MUD opposition coalition say they’re unwilling to participate unless the government takes immediate actions.
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In a letter to Pope Francis, Human Rights Watch said the administration needs to free political prisoners, allow a recall referendum and acknowledge that there’s a humanitarian crisis in the country for the talks to have any meaning.
“Otherwise, it will only serve as yet another excuse for Venezuelan authorities to delay measures that are desperately needed to protect human rights and restore minimum democratic standards in Venezuela,” the organization wrote.
People close to the conversations say MUD Executive Secretary Jesús Torrealba will demand that the presidential recall, which was indefinitely suspended last week, move forward. The government says the process was plagued by fraud, but critics say Maduro wants to shut down a recall he knows he’ll lose.
Failing that concession, Torrealba may push for early general elections, which would also put the opposition-controlled National Assembly into play.
We can either stay home and starve to death or have someone shoot at us on the streets. … What difference does it make?
Jose Gómez, public accountant
For his part, Maduro has suggested that his term, which runs through 2019, isn’t negotiable. He and his allies are likely to use the talks to try to dissuade the opposition from holding more protests.
The fact that the talks are taking place at all is a good sign in polarized Venezuela, said Carlos Romero, a political science professor at Venezuela’s Central University in Caracas. But they also have a major drawback: they’re predicated on trust, which is in short supply. While the opposition accuses Maduro of being a dictator by suspending elections and stifling congress, Maduro claims the opposition is working with his enemies abroad, including Washington, to topple his socialist administration.
And then there’s precedent. Attempts at dialogue in 2002 — under then-President Hugo Chávez — led to a recall referendum, which he won. Talks in 2014, after national demonstrations left more than 43 dead, never led anywhere.
“Deep down, Venezuelans don’t have any confidence in dialogues because the government always ends up winning,” Romero said. “The [administration’s] position, that they should stay in power, always prevails.”
Two days after the talks begin, on Tuesday, Venezuela’s opposition-controlled congress will continue its “political trial” against Maduro. In theory, the body has the duty and right to hold Maduro responsible for the country’s economic, social and humanitarian problems, said Jose Vicente Haro, a constitutional expert.
And if congress finds him guilty, it could ask the attorney general’s office and high courts to press charges.
But the reality is that law enforcement and the courts are firmly in the government’s hands, and Maduro already has a track record of running roughshod over congress. (Earlier this month, he unilaterally passed the 2017 budget without going to congress — a first in more than 150 years.)
Already, the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, PSUV, has petitioned the courts to nullify any decision the congress might make against Maduro. Since the new congress came into power in January, the combative Supreme Court has ruled against it 34 times, Haro said. And he isn’t hopeful it will let congress do its job this time.
“The court is a political tool and there is the real risk that they will shut down any congressional decision,” Haro said.
With institutional routes to change seemingly blocked, many in the opposition believe the only way out of the morass is on the streets. On Wednesday, the opposition held the “taking of Venezuela,” a massive national march that left at least one dead, 140 detained and dozens injured.
On Friday, much of the country was running at half throttle after the opposition called for a general strike. The administration hoped to dampen the measure with carrots and sticks: On Thursday Maduro announced a 40 percent combined increase in the minimum wage and food subsidy, called “Cesta Ticket,” and he also warned that companies participating in the strike would be subject to expropriation.
Late Friday, the government said the strike had failed, even as social media circulated pictures of abandoned streets and shuttered markets.
But the real test will come Thursday when the opposition has called for a march on the Miraflores presidential palace. The last time the opposition did that was in 2002, and the ensuing clashes left at least 19 dead and led to the brief ouster of Chávez.
While opposition members say Thursday’s event will be peaceful, Maduro is accusing them of trying to stage a coup. The administration is likely to pack the streets with security forces to block the march, and there are fears that pro-government gangs, or collectivos, could clash with the protesters.
Jose Gómez, a 58-year-old public accountant, was on the streets of Caracas Friday on looking for bread. He said rampant inflation (expected to be in excess of 700 percent this year) and shortages of even the most basic food and medicine have people feeling desperate.
He said he had little faith that congress or the proposed talks could make a difference in Venezuela, but he said the marches just might. Despite the risks of violence, he said he was determined to take to the streets Thursday.
“We can either stay home and starve to death or have someone shoot at us on the streets,” he said. “What difference does it make?”