As dialogue fails in Venezuela, cracks show in the opposition

Venezuela’s self-proclaimed interim President Juan Guaidó speaks during a protest in Caracas, Venezuela, on July 5, 2019.
Venezuela’s self-proclaimed interim President Juan Guaidó speaks during a protest in Caracas, Venezuela, on July 5, 2019. AP

Juan Guaidó, the man that Washington and more than 50 other nations recognize as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, said he offered to step down and make way for a transitional government that would include the armed forces and members of the ruling party as a way to escape a grinding social, political and economic crisis.

But he said that proposal was thwarted when leader Nicolás Maduro “abandoned” negotiations that were taking place in Barbados under the auspices of Norway.

In a press conference Monday, Guaidó said his offer — which would have required both men to resign and for the country to hold free, fair and pluralistic elections — would resolve the crisis that has forced more than 4 million people to flee the country.

“The regime abandoned the talks,” Guaidó said. “We’ve exhausted the dialogue format.”

As Guaidó was holding his press conference, Maduro officials were holding meetings with smaller opposition parties, saying they’d reached a series of agreements. Among them is a deal to reform the National Electoral Council and for the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) to begin participating in the National Assembly again. That legislative body has been in the hands of the opposition since 2015 and is seen by many in the international community as the last bastion of democracy in the South American nation.

Those announcements are likely a precursor to early legislative elections that might further complicate Guaidó’s ability to force Maduro out of office.

Guaidó seized the international spotlight in January when he announced that he was constitutionally bound, as head of the Venezuelan congress, to assume the presidency. If new legislative elections sideline him from that role, many of his international backers may lose their legal rationale for supporting him.

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It’s unclear what Guaidó’s next moves might be. During the first part of the year, the charismatic 35-year-old was able to draw massive crowds, but his ability to rally the masses is waning. And there are signs that the opposition, which had marched behind him, is growing weary.

“The opposition tends to separate into its component parts, and we are seeing clearly again the divisions,” said Phil Gunson, an analyst with the Crisis Group, an international policy think tank.

On one side are the hardliners who reject all forms of dialogue. On the other are the moderates who support talks. Then there are smaller opposition groups making side deals with the government and that seem to favor new elections in exchange for “some very nominal concessions,” Gunson said.

On Monday, the government said it had begun the “National Dialogue for Peace” with three minor political groups: Soluciones para Venezuela, Cambiemos and Avanzada Progresista.

Henri Falcón, the head of Avanzada Progresista, ran for president in 2018 against Maduro in a race that the international community dismissed as fraudulent and that most major opposition parties boycotted.

In a press release, Venezuela’s vice president’s office said the parties had also agreed to study the cases of some detainees — perhaps signaling the release of some political prisoners. In addition, the two sides agreed to study the creation of an “oil for food and medicine” program under the United Nations. Venezuela has seen its oil exports squeezed by U.S. sanctions and blames the measures for limiting its ability to import essential goods. Washington, in turn, says that regime corruption is driving hunger and scarcity.

The Barbados talks had progressed in fits and spurts since May, and they were always a risky proposition for Guaidó. Many worried that Maduro would use the venue to stall, buy time and ease the pressure on his regime.

“These were fake talks,” said Maria Corina Machado, a former presidential candidate and a longtime critic of dialogue. “That road is definitively closed.”

She also dismissed the meetings taking place with factions of the opposition.

“That’s not the opposition,” she said. “We all know that.”

Washington has struggled with how to deal with the crisis. President Donald Trump and his security advisers have often warned that “all options” are on the table in dealing with Maduro, but the likelihood of a military intervention seems further away than ever — particularly after National Security Advisor John Bolton, a hawk on Venezuela, was forced out of office last week.

Washington’s “only alternative is to exert more and more pressure, more sanctions and more diplomatic isolation — and so far that hasn’t worked,” Gunson said.

Guaidó said it was up to Maduro to explain to his supporters and the armed forces why he was rejecting a deal that would have guaranteed everyone a seat at the table. Monday was the first day of school in Venezuela and the military was called out to quell teacher protests.

Maduro “needs to explain to those soldiers, whom he ordered to repress the teachers of their very own children, why that’s a real solution to this conflict,” Guaidó said. “How is that a solution to this nation’s hunger?”