Maduro may allow food aid into Venezuela if opposition recognizes assembly as legitimate

A client looks for something to buy from the almost empty shelves of a supermarket in Caracas in July 2017.
A client looks for something to buy from the almost empty shelves of a supermarket in Caracas in July 2017. Bloomberg

Facing an explosive crisis, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is considering allowing international food donations to enter his country, but wants the opposition to recognize the legitimacy of the controversial National Constituent Assembly (NCA).

Maduro also wants to control the distribution of the food donations — so far denied entry by the government despite growing food shortages and looting — according to sources close to the situation.

The proposal has been under consideration during negotiations between the government and opposition this week in the Dominican Republic, said three sources. Two of the sources are diplomats who have been briefed on the conversations, and the third is an opposition official.

The sources agreed that the arrival of humanitarian aid and the legitimacy of the NCA are two of the key issues under negotiation behind closed doors. Also on the agenda are the U.S. sanctions on the Maduro government and early presidential elections.

But the legitimacy of the Constituent Assembly would be difficult for the opposition to accept. The umbrella Democratic Unity Roundtable — known as MUD — has repeatedly called it a fraud organized by Maduro to seize total and unchallenged control of the nation.

“Accepting the Constituent Assembly means surrendering the country. It is legitimizing the regime’s staying in power and driving the final nail into the casket of freedom in Venezuela,” said Diego Arias, a former Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations who lives in New York.

Opposition leader Maria Corina Machado agreed. “Any decision taken in the Dominican Republic to accept [the NCA] or even ignore it would be absolutely unacceptable to us,” she said.

The Constituent Assembly is a fraudulent entity that could reverse any government decisions, including any agreement reached in the Dominican Republic, Machado added, by phone from Venezuela.

Police and protesters clashed in the streets of Caracas on Saturday, July 29, 2017, ahead of Sunday's controversial vote.

That’s why any agreement reached by the negotiators must start with the dismantling of the NCA, so that the final terms can be accepted by the Venezuelan people, Machado said.

The Maduro government disagrees, according to the sources.

The government would be willing to allow the entry of humanitarian aid from the World Food Program, a branch of the United Nations, in exchange for the opposition’s promise to stop challenging the NCA’s legitimacy, the sources said.

The government also would be willing to allow the opposition to appoint two members to the five-member National Electoral Council, according to the sources. The opposition now holds only one seat on the council.

Hoping to sweeten the deal, the government also has offered to release some political prisoners and agree to legally register some political parties previously abolished.

Opening the way for the food assistance might be initially portrayed as a victory for the opposition, whose popularity has been pummeled by its agreement to negotiate with the unpopular government.

But the arrival of the humanitarian aid would also resolve a serious problem for the government, which has been roundly criticized for economic policies that sparked the unprecedented food shortages.

Caracas’s Palacio Federal Legislativo building was evacuated after pro-government protesters stormed the building on July 5, Venezuela’s Independence Day. El Nacional reported that a group of armed government supporters brushed past security aroun

“Right now, Maduro is desperate because of the food situation. The country is burning up with looting, and he understands that the situation could spin out of control,” said Esteban Gerbasi, a Miami political consultant.

But allowing the government to control the distribution of the food would clearly be very risky for the Venezuelans’ efforts to return to a democratic system of government.

“If they get control of the food and recognition of the NCA, they would go on to control everything. That would be very grave. With those two things, Maduro will be in a position to control the Venezuelan people,” said Gerbasi.

Government and opposition delegates met again Thursday in the Dominican Republic for a third round of negotiations amid a crisis marked by looting of supermarkets and thefts from delivery trucks.

Helping with the talks are former Spanish President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and the foreign ministers of Chile and Mexico, invited by the opposition, and Bolivia, Nicaragua and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, invited by the Maduro government.

Follow Antonio María Delgado on Twitter:@DelgadoAntonioM