Is Venezuela’s Dialogue Dead?

Hugo Pérez Hernáiz  

Since early November, when we last covered the dialogue between government and opposition, the Vatican-sponsored initiative has been all but suspended among mutual accusations that the agreements reached at the first round of meetings have not been honored. The next round of face-to-face meetings is scheduled for January 13, but on January 4 Jesús Alberto Torrealba suggested that the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) would not attend.

On January 6 the government seemed to be making last minute efforts to revive the dialogue. On that day the Venezuelan Foreign Minister, Delcy Rodríguez, and Socialist Party (PSUV) leader Jorge Rodriguez, met the Vatican’s appointed intermediary Claudio Maria Celli in Rome. As yet there has been no publicized information on what was discussed in the meeting. On January 8, President Nicolas Maduro announced that Spanish ex-president and dialogue mediator José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero would travel to Caracas “in the next few weeks,” to “promote” the dialogue.

But on January 7 the Vatican Nuncio in Venezuela, Aldo Giordano, declared after a meeting with the Venezuelan Episcopal Council that “with respect to the dialogue, there is a lot of obscurity today.” Diego Padrón, president of the Venezuelan Episcopal Council, was more direct in blaming the government for the potential failure of the dialogue initiative, saying: “In Venezuela’s history no other government has made the people suffer so much as the current government.”

International pressure for dialogue was strong during the month of December. The Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, insisted that the dialogue is an ongoing affair, but declared on December 17 that so far the process has seen a lack of results. According to Almagro: “The main thing is that we need to keep denouncing the things that are going wrong[…] We will continue to denounce the existence of political prisoners, the lack of respect for human rights, the indifference on the part of the government for the social and humanitarian crisis.”

Also on December 17, the Chilean daily El Mercurio published an interview with U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Thomas Shannon, in which he declared his hope for the dialogue process, but stressed that its success depended mainly on the Venezuelan government’s political will. Shannon said that it is up to the government to establish a viable “electoral agenda” for 2017 to end the crisis.

But despite international calls for dialogue and the deepening of the economic crisis in December, dialogue seems unlikely to resume in the next few weeks.   

A Look at Events Since November

The dialogue process had been faltering since immediately after the first joint agreement in October 30. In a confusing incident in November 23, the MUD said the government had decided to “freeze” the dialogue. Meanwhile President Maduro declared that same day that while the government would not continue to participate in the talks, he personally would vow to do anything in his power to “force the opposition to stay in the dialogue round-table.” He also said that he wanted the dialogue process to be “institutionalized” so that it would become a permanent feature of the political system.

On December 1 the Vatican Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, sent a confidential letter, soon made public, to the representatives of both parties in the round-table. In his letter Parolin express his concern for the delay in the fulfilment of the agreements reached in the first round of talks. The letter did not directly accuse the government of failing to fulfill its part, but it did ask for the “restitution of the role of the National Assembly,” and the establishment of an electoral timetable for 2017.

PSUV leader Diosdado Cabello took the letter as an affront against the government. “Pietro Parolin is offensive and irresponsible…He believes that Venezuela can be tutored from the Vatican. We accept no tutelage form no one,” declared Cabello.

The first week of December saw attempts by mediators to save the dialogue. The mediators, Vatican representative Claudio María Celli, and the ex-presidents of Spain (José Luis Zapatero), Panamá (Martín Torrijos), and the Dominican Republic (Leonel Fernández), met separately with the two parties on December 6, the day the second round of talks were due to start.

But after the meeting the MUD announced it would not attend the scheduled December 6 second round of talks, as the government had failed to fulfill its side of the agreements. “Forget about our participation in the round table,” wrote on Twitter the MUD negotiator Carlo Ocariz (@CarlosOcariz), “not the 13th of January nor any other date, unless the government fulfills the agreements we will not attend!”

On December 17 however, President Maduro insisted that the dialogue representatives would meet again on January 13, 2017, despite “attempts by national and international right-wing sectors to sabotage the dialogue.” 

The media largely lost interest in dialogue after December 11 after the surprise announcement by President Maduro that the highest denomination bills would be speedily retired from circulation severely restricted the availability of cash and generated episodes of protest and looting, especially in the southern city of Ciudad Bolívar. President Maduro has blamed the crisis on the actions of external agents and internal opposition parties.

Parolin’s letter was publicly answered by the MUD on December 24. The MUD stated that minimal conditions for dialogue to re-start on January 13 –including an electoral timetable, the “restitution of the legitimate role of the National Assembly, and the establishment of a “humanitarian channels” to aid Venezuela- have not been met by the government. However the MUD also leaves open the possibility of future meetings with the government if the Vatican and the mediators are able to “verify” the fulfillment of the accords.

Will Dialogue Continue?

The MUD has repeatedly this past month that conditions have not been met for direct meetings with the government to continue in January, but also accepted the possibility dialogue if those conditions are verified. The government has always insisted that it is willing to continue with the dialogue process, but President Maduro has said he wants to “institutionalize dialogue”, which would make it ineffectual to solve the current crisis.

The dialogue seems unlikely to restart soon. It is not however a dead process, as both parties could decide to come back to the round-table if certain conditions are met in January.  

Particularly sensitive for the opposition was the point of the agreement which spoke of “the release of detained persons,” presumably–but never really explicitly stated- referring to political prisoners. Some political prisoners were actually released, but none of the high profile detainees, such as the prominent opposition leader Leopoldo López. Another seven political prisoners were set free on December 31 2016, including the prominent opposition ex-presidential candidate Manuel Rosales. But in early January opposition leader Ramos Allup declared that this fell short of the opposition’s expectations and was not enough to revive the dialogue initiative.

Another sensitive issue for the opposition was the return of legislative powers to the National Assembly (AN), after Venezuela’s highest court, the pro-government Tribunal Supremo de Justicia (TSJ), had consistently blocked all the AN’s legislative initiatives. The TSJ had finally ruled that the AN was in contempt (desacato), and therefore all its proceedings were null, because it had sworn in three legislators from the State of Amazonas, whose election has been contended and nullified by lower courts.

Part of the agreement called for these three legislators to be removed from the Assembly. The AN said it had done so, but the government contended that it had failed to do so during an “ordinary session,” and therefore the TSJ ruled that the AN remained in desacato. The MUD’s position was repeated almost verbatim in its letter to Parolin of December 25.

Public support for dialogue is strong but complex. A flash poll conducted by DATANALISIS during December 9-12, shows that 58.1% of those interviewed think dialogue is beneficial for all Venezuelans. However, when asked if the opposition should remain in the dialogue round-table until the agreements are honored, 68.5% of pro-government respondent, but only 37.3% of opposition supporter, believe that they should.

Carlos Ocariz, one of the opposition leaders who reached the agreements with the government in the first round of dialogue, and who had been strongly criticized by the radical wing of the opposition for “giving in” during the negotiations, seems to have gained approval in public perceptions. 62.2% of those interviewed view him positively, second only to Leopoldo López (64.8% positive assessment) among opposition leaders, and ahead of Henrique Capriles (58.1%) and Henry Ramos Allup (58.3%). Most importantly, 75.5% of opposition supporters think thank Ocariz handled the negotiations well. DATANALISIS director, Luis Vicente León suggests that, contrary to what some public opinion commentators have been arguing, these numbers show that most Venezuelans back a dialogue process to solve the current crisis.