Venezuela Dialogue Briefing: Negotiations to Resume on December 1

AP Photo/Fernando Llano

On December 1, representatives of Venezuela’s government and opposition will meet in the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo to kick off two days of negotiations related to the country’s political crisis. It is the third such attempt in the past year, and occurs amid much skepticism over whether talks will prove meaningful.

The Negotiating Teams

The government, for its part, has remained relatively tight-lipped about the negotiations, at least compared to the opposition. Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez, who Maduro named to oversee the most recent attempt at talks in September, has warned that U.S. sanctions were an effort to undermine the talks. Most recently, on November 28 he also confirmed St. Vincent and the Grenadines as Venezuela’s third choice of “accompanying” countries to the talks, joining Bolivia and Nicaragua. The opposition had selected Chile, Mexico, and Paraguay, though the Paraguayan Foreign Minister has confirmed that he will not be able to sit in on the talks. Rodriguez is again presiding over the government’s delegation to Santo Domingo, and he will be joined by high-profile figures close to Maduro, including his sister and Constituent Assembly President Delcy Rodriguez, Education Minister Elias Jaua, and former OAS Ambassador Roy Chaderton Matos.

The internal divisions within the opposition have extended to the negotiations, but only to a degree. The most critical voices have been former political prisoner Antonio Ledezma and Maria Corina Machado, who are maneuvering to present their new political platform, Soy Venezuela, as an alternative to the main opposition parties participating in the talks. Despite this, a majority of the opposition-controlled National Assembly voted in support of the negotiations on November 28, with 82 lawmakers supporting the talks and only 3 voting against them.

Most importantly, the talks have the backing of the four largest parties in the opposition MUD coalition: the Voluntad Popular, Acción Democrática, Un Nuevo Tiempo, and Primero Justicia parties. In recent months, these four groups—known as the “G4”—have assumed leadership of the MUD. While the MUD’s smaller parties have frequently complained about this dynamic (its leadership used to involve nine political parties until the beginning of this year), many of them support the negotiations as well. In addition to the G-4, Efecto Cocuyo reports that Avanzada Progresista, Causa R and Movimiento Progresista are also in favor of negotiations.

The opposition’s participation in these latest talks is far more robust than in previous efforts.  During the most recent round of talks, which occurred in September, the opposition delegation reportedly consisted of four lawmakers and one technical advisor, and the exact makeup of the delegation was not publicly broadcasted. This time around, the MUD issued a statement claiming that 22 individuals from various sectors would be participating in Santo Domingo. While one of these has withdrawn over concerns that talks could legitimize the Constituent Assembly and another is holed up in the Chilean embassy to escape charges of treason, this is the broadest and most serious team the opposition has sent to engage with the Venezuelan government. Other members include academics and civil society representatives such as Colette Capriles and Feliciano Reyna.

The Agenda

Going into talks, the opposition has laid out four clear objectives. Their primary goal is to establish conditions for free and fair elections ahead of a presidential vote scheduled for 2018, which most analysts predict will be moved up (perhaps as soon as February or March). In addition, the MUD is seeking to get the government to accept offers of international aid, release political prisoners, and recognize the legitimate constitutional authority of the National Assembly.

While the government has not laid out its goals as publicly, it is assumed that the Maduro administration is seeking two main outcomes: 1.) the easing of international sanctions, particularly U.S. debt sanctions, and 2.) recognition of the Constituent Assembly. The opposition has maintained that its rejection of the Constituent Assembly is non-negotiable, so the government may have more success on the first point.

Almagro’s Criticism

On November 27, the division within the MUD was fueled by OAS Secretary Luis Almagro, who has adopted a position of direct confrontation with the Venezuelan government. Almagro, who in October criticized the opposition for participating in that month’s contested regional elections, once more weighed in on the state of the opposition. After a meeting with Ledezma, Almagro remarked to reporters that, “We know that there are other sectors of the MUD that do not represent the Venezuelan opposition, that are not directly Venezuelan opposition.” This, and his claims that MUD should “separate the wheat from the chaff”, was clearly a jab at the opposition’s decision to enter into talks, and the timing suggests it was an implicit nod to Ledezma’s Soy Venezuela. The MUD replied to this with a politely worded statement reminding the OAS Secretary General of the 82-3 vote in the democratically elected chamber. It will likely be hard for the OAS leader to coordinate with the MUD in the future.

A U.S. Role?

As the beginning of these talks approaches, a key question that remains unanswered is the involvement of the United States government. A number of analysts, like Luis Vicente Leon and others, have suggested that the Venezuelan government has serious incentives to make concessions to the opposition as a result of the debt sanctions. Because the Treasury Department has said that it would only approve of new debt deals that pass the National Assembly, the government has a genuine motive to engage with the MUD. There has been some speculation that the United States government may thus be willing to use the debt sanctions as a tool to support meaningful negotiations between the government and the opposition.

However, the position of the United States on these negotiations remains unclear. In August, it was reported that Under Secretary for Political Affairs Tom Shannon was pushing for talks in Venezuela to receive a budget of between $500,000 to $1 million from the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict Stabilization Operations (CSO). Whether these efforts were successful is unclear. What is known is that Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Francisco L. Palmieri will be in the Dominican Republic from November 29-30 for a meeting related to the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI). Venezuela is not a matter that appears on any official agenda, but if the United States were to offer resources, or its good offices, to these negotiations, this would be an ideal moment to do so.