Analyzing Venezuela’s Dialogue Process

Perhaps because of the fatigue generated by the opposition’s latest dysfunction or the multiple failed rounds of dialogue in the past, there has been a dearth of realistic and detailed analysis of Venezuela’s current process of negotiation in the international media and blogosphere. Thus, I would like to highlight a couple of superb pieces of commentary that were published last week in Venezuela. Each provides some nuance to our understandings of the strategic situations of the actors involved, and points to potential directions for agreement. Negotiations have been put on hold until January, but these analyses will continue to be relevant in the coming weeks and months.

Michael Penfold is a professor of political science at the Instituto de Estudios Superiores en Administración in Caracas, Global Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Latin America Program and frequent columnist for the Venezuelan news analysis portal Prodavinci.com. He starts his analysis by breaking with the general assumption that nothing will become of the dialogue process, suggesting some agreements could well be signed.

He flatly assumes that the government is going to the Dominican Republic as a way to stay in power–it seeks to gain some legitimacy vis-a-vis the international community while maintaining enough control over the system to reelect Nicolás Maduro for president. He points out that the viability of the Maduro government now and in the future is seriously jeopardized by sanctions. The latter impede the government’s ability to restructure or refinance the debt as well as its ability to get credit for CITGO and PDVSA operations. Even if Chavismo were able to get Maduro reelected, in the current circumstances of international isolation, it would be impossible to govern. Thus, “the incentives for Maduro to accept an agreement are much higher than most people realize.”

Penfold suggests that another path being discussed within Chavismo is a transition to an alternative presidential candidate that could change the economic model and show a new face of Chavismo in hopes of gaining international recognition. If this were to happen it could allow the domestic stabilization and international normalization of a pseudo-democratic, revolutionary state. Thus the opposition is faced with the fact that if they don’t negotiate, Chavismo could succeed in permanently marginalize them.

But, Penfold suggests, the key to the success of the negotiations lies in something that neither side controls: sanctions. Penfold suggests that “the international community, and especially the United States and the European Union, should be willing to define, unilaterally the conditions under which they would be willing to lift sanctions in the near future.”

What is more, reaching an agreement would be easier than implementing it, largely because of the “holdouts” on each side. These groups are going to try to impede any implementation. They will try to increase the costs of agreement in terms of public opinion in Venezuela. “The implementation will also be complex because the diverse actors that resist negotiation will actively lobby in the US and Europe to impede any loosening of sanctions even if central parts of any agreement are verified.” He suggests that one way to ameliorate these actors would be to include a general amnesty that would benefit enough of them that they would assent to an agreement.

Penfold ends by suggesting that the most urgent problem is economic. In the past four years Venezuela has lost forty precent of its economy and has now entered into hyperinflation. Any successful negotiation will need to address these terms. “Without addressing these factors, the negotiation process will be weaker and Venezuelans will see it as irrelevant and will be skeptical. “

In an interview published in Contrapunto, Pedro Nikken, longtime activist and former president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, emphasizes the same issue. He points out that the most significant short term challenge of the dialogue is to establish some credibility among the population and mutual confidence among the participants. Past dialogue efforts have seemed to be more about participants trying to trip each other up, than reach agreements. When asked by the journalist if each side is equally to blame, Nikken says “I think it has been much more the government than the opposition but sometimes I think within the opposition they try to trip each other up and that is not constructive.”

Nikken suggest that it is precisely regarding socio-economic issues that the dialogue effort could establish a success to build upon. But he suggests moving away from the discourse of a “humanitarian channel.” “The government is suspicious of the concept of a humanitarian channel because it looks like it could be a preamble to a declaration of a failed state which could bring foreign intervention…I share this concern and don’t think there should be a declaration of this type because if there is one thing that could worsen the situation in Venezuela it would be a foreign military intervention. That is why calling [foreign aid] a ‘humanitarian channel’ should not be a point of honor.”

Instead the opposition and government should achieve some minimal level of cooperation and seek international aid that could address some urgent needs. “That doesn’t convert Venezuela in a failed state but into a country that is passing through a tough situation but prioritizes the needs of its people.” An immediate, direct and perceptible benefit for the majority would provide some credibility to the negotiation process that could in turn generate a virtuous circle of negotiation leading to political agreements.

Nikken confesses that there is not much room for optimism in the current context. “But that does not mean that it is not important to keep searching for an agreement as the least bad alternative. That will require a dose of seriousness, commitment, good faith and generosity among those involved.”