Government and Opposition Agree on One Big Thing: Vatican Participation in Dialogue

David Smilde and Hugo Pérez Hernáiz

In recent weeks, all parties to Venezuela´s political conflict have made moves to involve the Vatican in a still-incipient dialogue. This is not insignificant because while the Vatican´s potential to mediate in Venezuela is perhaps the only point the Maduro government and the opposition coalition agree on, previous efforts were unsuccessful. 

In April and May there was concrete talk of Vatican involvement, however, it stalled when the Maduro government apparently refused to authorize a visit by Vatican Secretary of Relations with States Paul Gallagher. Apparently Nicolás Maduro also never responded to a personal letter sent by the Pope.

A breakthrough occurred, however, at end of September, when PSUV leader Jorge Rodríguez said president Maduro sent a personal letter to the Apostolic Nuncio asking that “the Church add a representative to the dialogue.”

A couple of days later, Executive Secretary of the opposition coalition Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD), Jesús Torrealba personally delivered to the Nuncio, a letter directed to the Pope asking for Vatican mediation.

This week the Vatican confirmed its disposition to participate. It had stated as much in August in a letter to the Secretary General of the Union of Southern Nations (UNASUR) Ernesto Samper (which in turn was a response to Samper’s letter to the Vatican in July).

The agreement in intention immediately generated praise in the region. Upon news of the MUD’s formal petition, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos expressed optimism that Vatican involvement could advance the dialogue.

The Secretary General of UNASUR, Ernesto Samper, also suggested that the inclusion of the Vatican as mediator “opens a new space” for dialogue. Samper wrote a letter to ex-presidents Torrijos and Zapatero, informing them of the new mediation initiative and that the Vatican’s mediation had been petitioned by both parts in the conflict.  

However, even in their petitions, it is clear how far the two sides are from each other. In his statement, Jorge Rodriguez did not mention the possible recall referendum against Maduro as part of the dialogue agenda and instead said that dialogue would focus on “the economic war, the understanding between public powers and the establishment of a truth commission.”  

In contrast, Torrealba mentioned the Recall Referendum as the main issue of opposition’s dialogue agenda:

“Today most Venezuelans aspire to a change of model, system and government. But we aspire for peaceful change. The National Constitution clearly stablishes the democratic, peaceful, and electoral path for that change. It is by the right we have to hold a timely recall referendum on the presidential post.”

Of course many in the opposition are skeptical of any dialogue with the government portraying it as a way to delay change. Venezuelan political scientist Carlos Blanco, for example, list it as one of “three instruments the regime has to impede change.”

The Maduro government could, he says, “resuscitate the specter of Zapatero and company so that the misleading dialogue dance entertains, dressed up with a visit by Tom Shannon or the Vatican, so that Maduro could give the sensation that there are private, secret or hidden negotiations and thereby calm the desire for change.”

Columnist Marianella Salazar expressed her hope that the Pope would act with true neutrality, pointing out that he had exercised “questionable interference” in favor of the “Yes” vote in Colombia, but that the Colombian people had not allowed themselves to be influenced.