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Political dialogue in Venezuela: Naïve or inevitable?

Moises Naim

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Moisés Naím / El País

Iran wants peace talks in Venezuela. “Chaos and violence can, by no means, be a solution to political differences,” said Abbas Mousavi, spokesman for the Islamic republic’s Foreign Ministry. The Chinese government has also insisted that “Venezuela’s affairs should be resolved… through peaceful dialogue and political means.” These sentiments have been echoed by Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, the UN, and many other countries, agencies and political pundits.

So it appears that just about everyone wants Venezuelans to engage in political dialogue. “Everyone,” that is, except Venezuelans who already have two decades of experience with “dialogue.” First they participated in dialogues with Hugo Chávez and now with Nicolás Maduro.

The result? “Dialogue” ends up strengthening the government and weakening the opposition.

Between October 2002 and May 2003, for example, César Gaviria, Colombia’s former president and then-Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), devoted himself almost full-time to fostering a dialogue between the government of Hugo Chávez and the representatives of the opposition. Former US President Jimmy Carter was also actively involved. The result? While the opposition negotiated with the government and the media focused on reporting these “talks,” the Cuban government surreptitiously consolidated its power over Venezuela.

In 2014, the Maduro government faced strong street protests, mainly involving students. The government responded with its two favorite weapons: repression and... dialogue. This time the dialogue took place in the presidential palace and was televised and a few opposition leaders were allowed to speak to the cameras thus having the rare opportunity of being heard without the stifling censorship that was the hallmark of the regime. Maduro even invited Cardinal Pietro Parolin to act as a “good-faith witness” of the talks. The Cardinal had been the Vatican’s ambassador in Caracas for four years and Pope Francis had just named him Cardinal Secretary of State, the number-two office in the Roman Curia. The result? The street protests were quashed, thousands of students were arrested, many of them tortured and others killed. Leopoldo López, the most popular political leader in the opposition, was arrested and sentenced to 14 years in prison. Maduro consolidated his power.

Two years later, it happened again. Feeling weak, Maduro called for a dialogue, this time in Dominican Republic. It was chaos: numerous and unruly delegations, confusion, improvisation, and many promises on the part of the government that were broken almost immediately after the meeting ended.

It is not surprising, then, that dialogue has a bad reputation among Maduro’s opponents. So far, talks have only served to strengthen the government, divide the opposition, and defuse popular protests.

Ideally, it would be great if there were no need for dialogue or negotiation. In fact, it would be fantastic if Maduro and his henchmen would just implode under the weight of their unpopularity, their internal quarrels, the deepening humanitarian crisis, the discontent within the military, international pressure, and the consolidation of Juan Guaidó’s government. Wouldn’t that be nice? But, as we know, sometimes the ideal solution is neither practical nor realistic. It is likely that the current situation is going to drag on and that the only way to get rid of Maduro and to move toward free elections and begin new policies that mitigate the lethal crisis that is currently annihilating so many Venezuelans is through negotiations.

Understandably, this idea is revolting to many Venezuelans. But, unfortunately, it may also be inevitable. A prolonged status quo means the deaths of tens of thousands of people, millions of Venezuelan refugees joining their compatriots in other countries, and the deepening of what already is one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

The good news is that societies, and their leaders, learn. Venezuelan society has already learned that talks, up until now, have been a ruse and should not be naïvely accepted. The democratic international community does not believe Maduro either, and demands concrete actions to reduce the distrust they have good reason to have in him.

It is also true that in previous dialogues the opposition was weaker and more disorganized. It did not have the support of 54 countries, and the Maduro regime was not as vulnerable as it is now. It also lacked a national leader like acting president Juan Guaidó. What Venezuelans have learned – coupled with the current weakness of the regime – allows the opposition to refuse any negotiation if the regime does not first show that it intends to make important concessions. For example, the government could – unilaterally, and before starting any dialogue or negotiation – push up the date of the presidential elections or release political prisoners or allow the entry of humanitarian aid. Again, these confidence-building actions would have to happen before the opposition sits down to negotiate with the regime.

Expecting Maduro and his cronies to participate in talks without lying and trying to trick the opposition and the world into believing in promises that they don’t intend to keep may be naïve. But perhaps even more naïve is to expect that, in Venezuela, it is possible to avoid political dialogue indefinitely.