Venezuela’s opposition struggles with strategy. Dialogue or demonstrations?

University students protest against President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016. The students are demanding that Maduro respect the constitution and allow an electoral solution to the country's political crisis.
University students protest against President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016. The students are demanding that Maduro respect the constitution and allow an electoral solution to the country's political crisis. AP

Thursday in this capital city might have been historic. Just last week, the opposition was calling for a massive march on the Miraflores presidential palace demanding the ouster of Nicolás Maduro. If they had pulled it off, it would have been the first time since 2002 that they had reached the seat of executive power.

Instead, just a few thousand people took to the streets, and steered clear of downtown, as the bulk of the opposition was asking the nation to give incipient talks with the socialist administration a chance.

Agustín Rojas, a 60-year-old community leader who joined the student-led demonstration, worried that opposition leaders were falling into a government trap by agreeing to suspend protests and congressional action against Maduro.

“We can’t leave the streets,” he said. “People in my community are very angry with opposition leaders, and they say they’re willing to do anything because they don’t have anything left to lose.”

Trapped in an economic, social and political crisis, Venezuela’s opposition has been trying to cut Maduro’s term short through a presidential recall. Last month, when the courts indefinitely suspended that measure, it galvanized the often bickering opposition, said María Corina Machado, the head of the Vente Venezuela party.

“There was an enormous amount of agreement around the idea of removing [Maduro] through the congress, the march and pushing for the recall referendum,” said Machado, who’s considered an opposition hardliner.

But over the weekend, under international pressure — including from the Vatican and U.S. envoy Thomas Shannon — the administration and factions of the opposition began closed door meetings.

Machado said the talks threaten to sap the momentum that was building in Venezuela and abroad for Maduro’s ouster.

“I don’t want to say that the pressure on the government has deflated, but it has been put on hold,” she said. “And I don’t think we have a single moment to waste.”

Opposition demands

On Thursday, the MUD opposition coalition defended the dialogue, saying they would give the administration until Nov. 11 to take concrete measures including reactivating the presidential recall or calling early elections, releasing political prisoners and guaranteeing the balance of powers.

But even those who are betting on talks are guarded.

Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, a one-time presidential candidate, said the nation needed to be prepared to retake the streets if the administration fails to negotiate in good faith.

“Venezuelans don’t believe in the government or Maduro’s word,” he said. “But we’re going to give them a few hours more to see if this is just another one of their lies like so many they’ve already told us.”

Government rally

In preparation for the march that never materialized, Maduro had called on supporters to surround the presidential palace. State-run TV showed Diosdado Cabello, a congressman and Maduro ally, rallying thousands of red-clad, banner-waving supporters.

“Here are the people telling the bourgeoisie and the imperialists that Nicolás Maduro isn’t going anywhere,” Cabello said. “Nicolás Maduro is here to stay.”

Maduro himself seems torn about whether to play the heavy or the peacemaker. On one hand, he’s asked the nation to rally around the talks and, as a sign of goodwill, he released a handful of detainees that the opposition considers political prisoners; in the next breath, he’s called his critics “terrorists” and threatened to jail more opposition leaders.

On Thursday, in a speech from the Miraflores presidential palace, he was once again defiant.

“Neither with ballots nor with bullets will they ever enter Miraflores again,” he taunted the opposition. “They should allow themselves to be governed democratically by the Bolivarian Revolution.”

In downtown Caracas, workers for the state-run PDVSA oil company had gathered outside the company’s headquarters in a show of support.

Luis Prieto, 37, said the fact that the streets were so quiet was a sign that the negotiations were having an effect.

“We work at the most important company in the country and if we were in the middle of a hostile environment, it would be impossible for us to get anything done,” he said. “That’s why we need this dialogue.”

Foot-dragging fears

Polls show Maduro is deeply unpopular and more than two-thirds of the electorate would choose to oust him before his term ends in 2019. But he still holds almost all of the levers of power — most crucially, the Supreme Court and the military. While congress is controlled by the opposition, the administration has used the judiciary to neuter it.

In that sense, the administration has much to gain at the negotiating table and has few reasons to give in to opposition demands, said Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst with the New York-based Eurasia Group.

“The government has strong incentives to drag out this process for as long as possible, which means that it will likely strike a more conciliatory stance at the outset in the hopes of keeping the opposition engaged and keeping international pressure at bay,” she said in a statement. “However, once it becomes clear that the government is not willing to genuinely entertain any of the opposition’s demands, the focus will once again return to the streets as the only potential avenue to force change.”

Street pressure 

Eugenia Salazar, 67, a community leader who works in a slum on the outskirts of Caracas, agreed that the only thing the administration understands is street pressure. Even so, she said that because the dialogue was being brokered by the Catholic Church, it had to be given a chance.

“I’m here to keep fighting against this government. They’ve taken everything from us including the referendum [and] food,” she said. “When the opposition announced the march on Miraflores, I was thrilled. However, we have to accept what the pope and [the opposition] say.” 

But Machado said that every day that Maduro stays in power is tantamount to a crime. The grinding economic crisis has spawned deadly shortages of food and medicine, and the socialist administration seems unwilling or unable to fix it, she said.

“While we’re talking, newborn babies are dying and a generation is growing up without milk, vaccines or education,” she said. “Those who are saying we need to wait must have full stomachs and empty hearts.”

Special correspondent Mariana Zuñiga contributed to this article from Caracas; staff writer Jim Wyss is in Bogotá.