Opposition Reaffirms Disposition to Dialogue

David Smilde and Hugo Pérez Hernáiz

This week several opposition leaders reaffirmed their interest in restarting dialogue with the government. Though it is not clear yet whether they will get a response.

The Governor of Lara, Henry Falcón, asked the government to convene the Federal Government Council (which includes State governors) as a first step in the “reestablishment of political dialogue.” Falcón also declared this week that the opposition should work “for the governability of the country, not for anarchy.” Opposition’s Acción Democrática deputy Edgar Zambrano also asked president Maduro to call for renewed dialogue. And COPEI’s deputy Pedro Pablo Fernández optimistically suggested that “there seem to be good signals of a restart of dialogue.”

The general secretary of the opposition coalition Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD), Jesús Torrealba said “if there is [willingness] among the actors, if our friends at Unasur and the Vatican are supporting, and the process is characterized by a clear and constructive agenda, then it is a process that would be useful for the country.” However he emphasized that the opposition would not participate in anything “that looks like a parody or attempt to buy time.”

So far there has been no response from the government side. As we suggested recently, the government’s histrionic response to legislator Robert Serra’s murder has hurt the possibilities of dialogue. In the days following Serra’s murder the government suggested it was part of a far-reaching conspiracy involving Colombian paramilitaries connected to Alvaro Uribe, right wing sectors in Miami and members of the opposition in Venezuela. Yet repeated promises to reveal evidence of this conspiracy have not been fulfilled. Indeed the most recent information suggests the crime was not political but a revenge robbery.

Perhaps more ominously, the new Secretary General of UNASUR, Ernesto Samper, seemed to back part of the government’s theory by agreeing that the crime was evidence of “paramilitary infiltration” in Venezuela. This will likely hurt his possibilities for serving as a dialogue mediator. In fact none of the opposition leaders speaking about the possible dialogue this week even mentioned Samper, although they did mention UNASUR. 

In our first post on the possibility of dialogue restart we suggested that voices from the international community were both encouraging and discouraging dialogue. Over the past month the national context has been much the same with moderate actors on both sides pushing for dialogue and more radical voices arguing against it.

In late September, the granting of temporary domiciliary arrest benefits for health reasons to the ex-police chief Iván Simonovis led to renewed talk about dialogue. In fact, one of the events that precipitated the opposition’s withdrawal from the dialogue sessions back in May was Caracas Mayor Jorge Rodriguez’s statement that the government had no intention of releasing Simonovis.

Opposition leaders reacted cautiously to the Simonovis releasee. Roberto Enríquez, president of the opposition party COPEI, declared that dialogue is only possible if the government “fulfils its promise” to revise the case of all political prisoners. Enríquez is skeptical about dialogue, but believes it will become inevitable because of the “economic collapse and social catastrophe” of the country.

Edgar Zambrano was also cautious and declared that the dialogue should have a “concrete agenda,” including a follow-up of the political agreements and a clear date for the end of the dialogue sessions. Like Enríquez, Zambrano said the cases of all political prisoners should be looked at as well as the cases of “political exiles, many of whom are suffering from health problems.”

However, Antonio Ledezma, one of the opposition leaders of the la salida faction, insisted that all political prisoners should be released as a precondition of future dialogue: “If the regime wants to restart the dialogue, then it has to pay what it has owed since April 10. It must free all the persecuted: Leopoldo López, Enzo Scarano, Daniel Ceballos, the students, and all the rest of the political prisoners.”

Henri Falcón, reacted in a positive tone to Simonovis’ house arrest: “We have been insisting on a dialogue with results as the valid mechanism in democracy to solve differences.” On September 30 he urged the parties to “immediately restart the dialogue, the economic dialogue to increase productivity in the country, and the political dialogue for governability.” 

Striking a surprisingly moderate tone, the wife of Leopolodo López, Lilian Tintori has declared that she considers the restart of dialogue as positive if the release of her husband is set as part of the negotiation agenda. However she did provide a warning about the first rounds of dialogue: “There were no previous conditions and nothing was achieved, it only gave rise to more street pressure. I think we all learned that without conditions, we cannot sit down in a roundtable with a government that has behaved in an absolutely antidemocratic manner and has violated human rights.”     

Shortly after being named secretary general of the MUD Jesus Torrealba stressed his willingness to reassume dialogue, but under certain conditions. “We [the MUD] will remove from the dialogue the divisionism that the government has tried to put into it, because the notion of dialogue has been used by the government to divide the opposition, and we will not allow this to happen.”

On the government side, the conditional release of Ivan Simonovis provides only a tenuous base for dialogue since the government is receiving pressure from its own bases critical of the move. The pro-government militant group Association of Victims of the April 11 Coup (ASOVIC) reacted negatively to Simonovis’ house arrest, expressing doubt about Simonovis’ illness and claiming that the measure was driven by “class conciliation.” They demanded “explanations” from the government for the measure.

National Assembly president and PSUV vice-president Diosdado Cabello refused to frame Simonovis’ house arrest as having anything to do with the possible renewal of dialogue. He denied that the move Simonovis was an attempt at restarting dialogue: “They [the opposition] are making a fuss about getting back to dialogue because we freed this gentleman that murdered a bunch of people. We did not free him at all, he has been sent home because he is sick. I don’t know what they are talking about if they are the ones that walked out from the dialogue.” Indeed the benefits for Simonovis were granted on a provisional basis until his health improves, at which time he would have to return to prison.

An influential voice within chavismo, ex-minister and journalist José Vicente Rangel provided a more optimistic opinion about the possibilities of dialogue. Two weeks ago he argued that the decision to grant Simonovis house arrest were courageous and suggested that a move towards dialogue was gaining steam. “The conditions are favorable to reinitiate the dialogue and they need to be strengthened. To waste this opportunity would be a big blunder,” he wrote.