Fragile and tense talks taking place in Venezuela this week between the opposition and the Nicolás Maduro administration represent the country’s best chance of peacefully overcoming a political crisis that has crippled the nation, said U.S. envoy Thomas Shannon.
Speaking in Washington, D.C., on Friday after a three-day trip to Caracas, Shannon, the U.S. under secretary of state for political affairs, said he could understand why factions within the opposition have little faith in the talks, but he said there are few other options.
“At this point, it’s the only game in town,” he said of the meetings that began Sunday. “Absent this dialogue process, Venezuela will find itself in a state in which both the government and the opposition will have to measure themselves through their ability to put people onto the streets.”
Without open lines of communication, “mobilization is unpredictable and can be very dangerous,” he said.
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At the urging of the Vatican, the Union of South American Nations and others, members of the opposition and the administration began “exploratory” talks last weekend.
Many have little faith in the socialist administration that touts social justice abroad but has a track record of jailing dissenters and cracking down on protests at home. And some fear the talks are outright dangerous, giving the government cover to stall as it squashes a recall referendum and cracks down on civil society.
“In many ways, the government holds the key to the success of this dialogue,” Shannon said, “because they’re the ones who hold the prisoners, they’re the ones who control the electoral organization that will make decisions about elections, and they are the ones that have to agree to sit down with members of civil society and the opposition to determine what next steps Venezuela can take.”
The opposition has given the administration until Friday to make concrete concessions.
Venezuela has been lurching from crisis to crisis for years, but the latest one was ignited last month when the Supreme Court indefinitely delayed a presidential recall. The administration contends the process is plagued by fraud but the opposition and many observers believe Maduro is trying to derail a vote he knows he will lose.
Asked if the recall was effectively dead, Shannon said, “No, it’s not.”
“Both sides have decided that they need to address the issue of elections and they need to establish some kind of electoral agenda going forward that will send a very clear message to Venezuelans that they will have a right to vote,” he said. “The question is what that electoral agenda looks like.”
Some have suggested holding early elections across the board next year, which would also put the opposition-controlled congress in play.
Despite long-running tensions between Caracas and Washington (the two nations haven’t exchanged ambassadors since 2010), Shannon said that the U.S. and the Vatican are two of the “few groups out there” that can talk to both the opposition and the administration.
Shannon, who was invited to Caracas by Maduro, said he also used the trip to address the case of Joshua Holt, a Utah man who has been detained in Caracas since June. Venezuela authorities say Holt, a one-time Mormon missionary, was armed and bent on destabilizing the administration. Eyewitnesses to his arrest told the Miami Herald that he was set up and that police planted weapons at his house.
“We were very clear in terms of our intentions [for Holt], but this is a process that is still in a delicate phase of Venezuela’s legal system,” Shannon said. “But it is our hope that, as we have in other cases, that we will have a successful outcome of that case, which means his safe return to the United States.”