No Deal: Venezuela Talks in ‘Indefinite Recess’

Yesterday, talks between the Venezuelan government and opposition taking place in Santo Domingo drew to a close, with no accord being reached between the parties. Despite coming under heavy pressure to sign an agreement that lacked specific concrete electoral guarantees, the opposition declined to do so. The government has moved full speed ahead without a deal regardless, with electoral authorities announcing that the vote will take place on April 22.

The talks began in December, continued in January and resumed on February 6, rumors circulated that the two sides would finally sign a deal regarding conditions in the presidential election. Appearing before reporters with pen in hand, Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez told reporters, “We came to sign today in the Dominican Republic.” The Dominican government, which facilitated the process, further fueled speculation when organizers set up a table outside the negotiation hall with official-looking pens.

Nevertheless, the opposition maintained that no deal had been signed. When the Feb. 6 session broke around midnight, Jorge Rodriguez made a public show of unilaterally signing a document, accusing the opposition of refusing to do so on the orders of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was visiting Bogota as part of his regional tour.

When the process resumed on the afternoon of February 7, it did so without the government delegation. In a statement to the press, Dominican President Danilo Medina claimed that the talks had entered a “kind of indefinite recess.” The document that the government had signed the day before, Medina clarified, was understood by the opposition to be a preliminary draft and the basis for further negotiations, and that the opposition had submitted a counterproposal.

In follow up remarks, Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) lawmaker Julio Borges said the MUD had refused to sign the document because it lacked specific commitments from the government. He said the opposition counterproposal contained much more specific electoral guarantees, and that the MUD would release all of the documents alongside their observations of the talks.

In a further indicator of the heavy pressure the opposition negotiating team fell under to sign an imperfect accord, it was revealed that negotiations mediator and former Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero had sent a letter to the Venezuelan opposition earlier on February 7 in which he exhorted them to concede to the document the government had agreed to, “thinking of peace and democracy.”

As it turns out, the talks focused around three versions of an accord: one submitted by the government, one submitted by the opposition, and one submitted in early December by the foreign ministers acting as observers of the process.

The Government Proposal

Upon examining the government’s six-point proposal, which has since been released and is available here, it is clear why the opposition refrained from signing it. It contains some milquetoast but positive language—for instance, a commitment to request that the UN Secretary General send an “electoral accompaniment and observation mission” to the elections.  The inclusion of “acompaniment” in this document speaks to ambiguity of the potential mission’s mandate. In previous elections Venezuelan authorities have allowed “accompaniment” but not “observation.” The latter implies unhindered access to raw voting data, to polling stations, and the entire voting process. “Accompaniment,” in contrast, amounts to being taken around by the CNE to see polling stations, and does not include autonomy of movement or access to the actual machines or vote counting process. The document lacks other concrete guarantees as well. For one, it maintains an Aprill 22 election date (since confirmed by electoral authorities), which electoral analysts have repeatedly said does not give authorities enough time to ensure a transparent audit infrastructure. It also allows for only a week-long process for Venezuelans at home and abroad to register, and does not lift the ban on opposition candidates and parties which the MUD has demanded. Perhaps most troublingly, the government’s document calls for the creation of a joint committee on “institutional coexistence” between the National Assembly and the Constituent Assembly (ANC), which would appear to be an attempt by the Maduro government to solidify de facto recognition of the illegitimate ANC.

Interestingly, Maduro has pledged that he will fulfill this accord even without the opposition’s signature. But it even as he claims to be willing to provide “all the necessary guarantees” including allowing international observers, it remains uncertain that the government will follow through with the concessions in the document.

The Opposition Proposal

The opposition proposal, like the official one, contains a section committing to working for the lifting of international sanctions. However, the opposition proposal does not imply recognition for the ANC, only suggesting that a joint committee be created to guarantee the “development of constitutional institutions.” The proposal also commits the government to lift a judicial ruling holding the National Assembly “in contempt,” which the government has used to justify circumventing the opposition-controlled legislature.

The biggest difference in the opposition proposal, however, lies in the section on electoral conditions. Whereas the government offered generalities about electoral guarantees, the opposition document commits electoral authorities to ensure that all of the constitutionally mandated checks are in place in the presidential election, with standards “not inferior to those used in the October 7, 2012 and December 6, 2015 elections.” It obliges the government to send a letter of invitation for a UN electoral observation mission in no more than 48 hours after signing, and to lift the bans on participation of all MUD leaders, including Henrique Capriles and Leopoldo Lopez. Additionally, while both documents agree on naming two new rectors to the National Electoral Committee (CNE) by consensus, the opposition document commits the government (through the Supreme Court) to doing so in no more than 48 hours.

The Proposal of the Foreign Ministers

While the opposition document left the date of elections to be determined, the proposal presented by the foreign ministers specifically calls for elections in the second half of 2018. Among other things, the document also calls for an entirely new CNE, with each side naming two rectors and mutually agreeing on another. It also would end the Supreme Court ruling holding the National Assembly in contempt, and would create a joint commission to “determine the mandate and temporality” of the Constituent Assembly.