Venezuela Negotiations Update: ‘Nothing is Agreed to Until Everything is Agreed to’

After the latest round of talks lasted a day longer than expected, Venezuela’s government and the opposition agree there have been important advances made in Santo Domingo. Nevertheless, both sides were unable to sign a final deal by Saturday night, and talks will resume once more on January 18 at 9:00am.

When this round began on Thursday in the office of the Foreign Ministry in Santo Domingo, they did not come to a promising start.  A “technical meeting” between both sides’ negotiating teams, alongside Dominican Foreign Minister Miguel Vargas and former Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, was supposed to take place at 9am local time, but was repeatedly postponed. Citing official memorial events for the murder of a member of a National Constituent Assembly (ANC), ANC President and government negotiating team member Delcy Rodriguez postponed the meeting by 11 hours.

During this delay, a group of technical advisors to the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) negotiators issued a statement providing an overview of the MUD’s view of the situation in the country. In it, the group noted the government’s decision to grant “alternative” sentences to 53 political prisoners around Christmas, while still calling for the release of 325 prisoners. This figure is roughly 100 higher than the political prisoners count used by Foro Penal, pointing to lingering disagreement among the opposition over who exactly constitutes a political prisoner in the country.

When the government delegation did arrive, talks began at around 8pm local time. The meeting lasted for nearly three hours before breaking, with no announcement about any progress made.

The first day was also accompanied by some less than hopeful signals on social media. As he was heading to Santo Domingo to serve as an opposition-selected observer of the talks, Chilean Foreign Minister Heraldo Muñoz Tweeted that unless there were “concrete and credible results” in the process, “it will not make any sense to go forward.” His skepticism about the process, which incidentally echoed comments made last week by Mexico’s Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray, met an almost immediate rebuke from Delcy Rodriguez. Replying with a Tweet storm of her own, she accused Muñoz of serving “low interests of the United States,” noted that he is soon retiring, and insinuated that he had violated his role in the talks, which was “facilitation in order to generate mutual trust  of the parties.” Muñoz, for his part, shot back that “no one was obliged to do the impossible,” and “we will not be part of something that is not a credible exit to the crisis.”

The process resumed Friday at 9am, this time with Dominican President Danilo Medina, alongside the foreign ministers of accompanying countries (Chile, Mexico, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines). The day’s talks dragged until late in the evening, once again with no confirmed information about what specifically was being discussed.

Around midnight local time Friday, some members of the opposition team insinuated via Twitter that no deal had been reached and the talks would draw to an end, but then swiftly deleted these statements.  Shortly thereafter, it was announced that the negotiations would unexpectedly extend into Saturday.

Saturday’s talks, once again, extended to later in the evening with no word of an agreement. Finally, around 8:30 local time, President Medina issued a statement saying that significant “advances” had been made, but that there remained serious matters to hammer out, and that “nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to.” He also announced that the talks would be resuming on Thursday, January 18th, once more in Santo Domingo. Following Medina came statements from Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez for the government and lawmaker Julio Borges for the opposition.

In his remarks, Rodriguez claimed that the most significant hurdles had already been cleared, and expressed confidence that some kind of accord would be reached on the 18th. He also criticized U.S. sanctions, referencing recent remarks from Undersecretary for Political Affairs Tom Shannon (who mentioned the administration’s willingness to work with international partners to continue to apply sanctions in a Friday El Pais interview).

In his remarks, Borges took a much more guarded perspective, echoing Medina’s comments about no particulars being finalized until a final deal was reached. While he acknowledged that there was some progress made on issues related to improved electoral conditions in this year’s presidential elections and in addressing the economic crisis, he noted that there was a “minority” of pending  issues to resolve. These matters he framed as part of the opposition’s “firm positions”, and urged Venezuelans to have faith that the MUD team would stay true to them.

This was very likely a response to recent reports—a version of which showed up recently in the Miami Herald—that suggested that the opposition was considering recognizing the ANC in exchange for the government agreeing to allow humanitarian aid. Such a deal had been roundly rejected by opposition negotiators, and for good reason. The vast majority of the international community has refused to recognize the ANC, and breaking from this norm would likely cost the opposition dearly in terms of international support.

If an eventual deal is in fact signed, it is unlikely to include the opposition’s recognition of the ANC. Moving into the talks, the MUD laid out four objectives. Their primary goal was to improve electoral conditions in this year’s presidential elections, which are widely expected to be held in the coming months. In addition, the MUD sought to pressure Maduro to 1.) accept international aid, 2.) release political prisoners, and 3.) recognize the legitimate constitutional authority of the National Assembly. The government, meanwhile, was believed to be seeking the easing of international sanctions, particularly U.S. debt sanctions, in addition to recognition of the ANC. While neither government objective appears imminent, it is possible that an announcement regarding electoral conditions in the 2018 presidential elections could produce a shift in the sanctions.