Talk about Talks: the Latest Push for Dialogue in Venezuela

The Venezuelan government and opposition have signaled that they are participating in exploratory talks to establish formal negotiations on a number of important issues. While the mechanisms and specific agenda for dialogue have yet to be announced, this week’s exploratory talks have been endorsed by European governments as well as UN Secretary General António Guterres.

Information is limited because the opposition paid heavy political costs for failed dialogue processes in 2014 and 2016.

After two days of exploratory talks on September 13 and 14 in the Dominican Republic, the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition issued a statement updating the public on the process, as well as laying out what the MUD described as “indispensable” conditions for its participation in dialogue. These include:

  1. A “balanced renewal” of the National Electoral Council; the establishment of a clear electoral timetable in which its members who face bans from public office can participate and international observation is guaranteed;
  2. The release of political prisoners, the return of exiles and the cessation of political persecution;
  3. The “constitutional normalization of the country,” likely alluding to the Constituent Assembly as well as the government’s use of the judiciary to sideline the legislative branch; and
  4. Immediate attention to the current humanitarian emergency.

The MUD also stated its support for any eventual agreement to be approved by popular referendum. They suggested that talks were “advancing” on matters like: choosing  a neutral country in which to hold negotiations, the creation of a timeframe and agenda for talks, and mutually agreeing to a group of six countries to serve as guarantors of eventual dialogue.

Separately, Voluntad Popular national director and lawmaker Luis Florido revealed that four of these countries would be Mexico, Chile, Bolivia and Nicaragua (with the first two chosen by the opposition, and the second two by the government). Dominican President Danilo Medina, who oversaw the initial talks, told local press that it was “very possible” that another two countries would be announced in the coming days. A third series of talks is set to take place on September 27, though Florido has signaled that the MUD could back out if it believes the talks are no longer productive.

The government, for its part, has not revealed the specifics of its approach to dialogue. Libertador Mayor Jorge Rodríguez was selected to represent the government, but gave few details in a subsequent press conference on September 14. He participated in the talks in Santo Domingo alongside his sister and Constituent Assembly President Delcy Rodriguez.

Upon their arrival on September 13, Jorge Rodriguez conveyed optimism, telling reporters “we are in a stellar moment to reach a definitive agreement.” The day prior, President Nicolas Maduro was similarly tight-lipped about the process. In a national broadcast on the evening of September 12, President Nicolas Maduro confirmed that Rodríguez would be representing the government, but gave few details. “I accept this new stage of dialogue. I do not say any more, because we must be prudent in order for these talks to be successful,” said Maduro.

The initial announcement of these exploratory talks came from a relatively unexpected source. On September 12, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian issued a statement  after meeting with his Venezuelan counterpart Jorge Arreaza, in which he claimed that representatives of the Venezuelan government and opposition would “resume dialogue” in the Dominican Republic.

The announcement was followed by a statement from the Dominican Republic and former Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who has long coordinated efforts to promote negotiations.  In the latter statement, the two issued a formal invitation to both the government and opposition to begin “a process of negotiation and political agreement,” suggesting that the process was more exploratory than initially portrayed by Le Drian. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres also expressed his support for the talks via social media.

In response to the announcement, the MUD was careful to stress the premature nature of talks, and its leadership insisted that there would be no direct contact with the government (although Dominican media outlets have reported that both sides did in fact meet, in talks facilitated by Dominican President Danilo Medina). While the opposition coalition acknowledged that it would send representatives (National Assembly President Julio Borges reportedly headed the delegation along with other opposition lawmakers and a conflict resolution advisor) to the Dominican Republic, its leaders stressed their objective was merely to explore the eventual possibility of dialogue and outline their demands.

MUD figures have insisted that this does not mean the start of formal talks, which they will not enter into unless certain conditions are met. Interestingly, the MUD’s initial statement was more specific than the September 14 communique on its “conditions.” While the latter statement referred vaguely to “constitutional normalization,” the former specifically called for presidential elections next year as the Constitution mandates, as well as for institutional respect for the National Assembly’s authority.

Since the announcement, various media reports have offered further glimpses behind the scenes. The current exploratory talks reportedly come out of meetings that Zapatero had  separately with members of the opposition and Maduro on August 31 to begin hashing out a potential agenda for talks.

Ultimately, any process of formal dialogue or negotiations will be compared to previous dialogue processes in mid-2014 and in late 2016. In both cases talks were jeopardized by deep internal divisions within the opposition, as well as the failure of the government to offer meaningful concessions or fulfill those that were reached. To have more success this time around, mediators will have to move from a more passive model of dialogue to a more assertive model of negotiation.

Whether the Maduro government’s motivations have changed significantly from previous rounds in which they clearly saw them as a means to buy time and demobilize the opposition is unclear. It has clearly come under pressure from European governments to participate in dialogue in good faith. In remarks to reporters, Le Drian said that in his meeting with Arreaza he “reminded him of the risk of European sanctions and the need to quickly see evidence that Venezuela is ready to relaunch negotiations with the opposition and participate in a credible and sincere process,”

El Pais reports that Arreaza, who had been meeting with European leaders all week, was attempting to dissuade them from imposing sanctions by pointing out that exploratory talks were underway. According to the Spanish paper, Le Drian’s public statement was an effort to hold the Venezuelan government to its claim. The prospect of European sanctions has taken on added significance for Venezuela in recent weeks, as state oil company PDVSA has reacted to U.S. sanctions by telling private joint venture partners to convert existing cash holdings into euros and to open accounts in the currency.