USA: Venezuela-Negotiation crisis
Venezuela’s clashing factions will hold a high-stakes meeting in Barbados this week in hope of ending a political crisis that has gripped the country for more than five months.
The negotiations, sponsored by the Norwegian government, are both an opportunity and a serious risk for opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who has repeatedly said that the only solution to the impasse is the ouster of Nicolás Maduro and fresh elections.
While talks are supported by factions of the international community, many Venezuelans remain deeply skeptical of negotiations, which the Maduro regime has used in the past to buy time and consolidate power.
“When you talk about negotiations, dialogue, mediation — they’re terms that in the Venezuelan psyche are synonymous with treason, complicity and betrayal,” said Ruben Chirino Leanez, a political analyst with the Caracas-based firm Meganalisis. “They [the opposition] would have to extract gold from this meeting in order to make Venezuelans happy.”
Preliminary talks began in May in Europe and a formal meeting was expected to begin last week, but Guaidó called it off after it came to light that a Venezuelan navy official was tortured to death while in state custody.
Guaidó, considered the country’s legitimate president by Washington and more than 50 other nations, called the new round of meetings necessary to avoid more bloodshed.
“We don’t have unlimited time. Each day that passes the situation grows worse,” he said in a statement. “The deep crisis that we’re living in ... underscores the sense of urgency that we have. We need a solution now.”
During an anti-Maduro march on Friday, he tried to assuage fears that negotiations might be used by Maduro as a stalling tactic.
“Do you think I’m a pendejo?” he asked the crowd, using Spanish slang for fool or idiot. “Do you think we would go into any venue and confront the dictatorship and let them buy time so that they could make fools of us? Each venue we go to is to confront them.”
He also said that any talks would be focused on forcing Maduro to step down and holding free and fair elections.
On Monday, well-respected Venezuelan journalist Nelson Bocaranda said the country’s powerful military was pushing for new elections within nine months and without Maduro as a candidate.
Without citing his sources, Bocaranda said National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello and Miranda Gov. Héctor Rodríguez — who at age 37 is seen as part of the new guard — might be possible representatives for the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela.
A source close to Guaidó, who asked for anonymity because she wasn’t authorized to talk about the negotiations, said the regime had agreed, in theory, to new elections without Maduro in the running.
The ruling party is “so screwed that it’s agreeing that it won’t be Maduro,” she said. “That has been one of the sticking points in the past.”
She said that Gov. Rodríguez and Communications Minister Jorge Rodríguez had both been mentioned as potential ruling party candidates.
Although calling for new elections would be a huge step, it might not leave everyone satisfied.
Chirino said deep reforms were needed — including overhauling the National Electoral Council and defanging the courts, which are often used as a political bludgeon — before people believed their vote would count.
Voting without such guarantees “isn’t going to be well received by anyone” and would raise the spectre of another opposition boycott that would play into the ruling party’s hands, he said.
Guaidó, 35, rose to prominence in January when he said it was his constitutional duty, as the head of congress, to assume the presidency because Maduro had clung to power through fraud. Despite having broad international support, Guaidó has very little real power in a nation where the military has largely sided with Maduro.
Maduro, 57, claims last year’s vote gives him the right to rule through 2025 and accuses Guaidó of trying to illegally seize power with Washington’s help.
But the Maduro regime is under increased pressure. Last week, the United Nations’ Human Rights division released a damning report saying that at least 5,287 people had been murdered in 2018 by Maduro’s security forces, calling it a “shockingly high” number of extrajudicial killings.
In addition, Venezuela’s grinding political, economic and humanitarian crises have forced more than 5 million people to flee the country in recent years, and some studies suggest that number could exceed 8 million by the end of 2020.
But Guaidó is also running out of options. In April he called for a military uprising that fizzled out, and the international community — despite repeated threats from Washington — doesn’t appear willing to use military force to tilt the balance.
The opposition and the Maduro regime have held open and well publicized negotiations on at least four occasions since 2016, although there have been secret talks as well.
The last round of serious talks took place in 2018 in the Dominican Republic, and eventually collapsed when Venezuela’s National Constituent Assembly called for new presidential elections that Maduro won amid an opposition boycott and accusations of fraud.
But Barbados could be a fresh start. Venezuela has traditionally had close ties with the Caribbean and much of the region benefited from Caracas’ subsidized fuel program called PetroCaribe. But Barbados, a former British colony, didn’t sign on to that 2005 framework agreement and is more likely to be seen as neutral territory for the negotiating parties.
In addition, the heads of Barbados, St. Kitts and Nevis, and Trinidad and Tobago were tasked by the Caribbean Community to engage Caracas in hopes of slowing the Venezuelan migration that’s affecting much of the region.
And Norway has a long history of brokering impossible deals. The country was key to bringing the Colombian government and that country’s largest guerrilla group, the FARC, together for talks in Cuba that led to a 2016 peace agreement.
Even so, for Guaidó to engage in negotiations after insisting on Maduro’s ouster might provoke whiplash among some of his followers, Chirino said.
“It’s like Venezuela is trapped in a pinball machine getting bounced around and the [opposition] doesn’t seem to have a clear direction,” he said. “At the end of the day, that allows Maduro to choose the direction.”
El Nuevo Herald writer Antonio Maria Delgado, Miami Herald writer Jacqueline Charles and Caracas-based freelancer Carlos Camacho contributed to this report.