Venezuela Negotiations Update: Talks Paused for Consultation

After an extended 72-hour round of negotiations that took place in the aftermath of the National Constituent Assembly’s (ANC) decree that presidential elections take place before the end of April 2018, an accord between the Venezuelan government and opposition remains elusive. However, a scheduled February 5 meeting between the negotiating teams in the Dominican Republic may provide more clarity on the state of talks and what kind of accord—if anything—will emerge from them.

When the ANC issued its decree last week calling for presidential elections to be held before April 30, many assumed it signaled the end of the negotiating process sponsored by the Dominican Republic. The announcement was widely criticized by international governments and civil society (including by WOLA and partners in Colombia, Argentina, and Brazil) alike, and caused the Mexican government to pull out of participation in the talks, leaving Chile as the sole remaining opposition-designated observer.

But on Sunday, January 28, the Dominican government announced that both sides would resume the Santo Domingo talks the following day. As in previous rounds, both the opposition and government characterized the talks as nearing their end. In public remarks the day the talks began again, President Nicolas Maduro said “Venezuela is ready to sign an accord of mutual understanding and peace with the opposition,” and that such an accord would be ready to sign “very soon.” The opposition issued a statement describing the latest round as a “definitive meeting,” even as the Voluntad Popular (VP) party said it would not be participating in the process.

Despite this, the talks did not, in fact, prove conclusive. After three days, on January 31 the negotiating teams broke in what Dominican President Danilo Medina characterized as a process of internal consultation. Both the MUD and the government negotiating teams will be holding meetings with their respective decision makers in Caracas before meeting again in Santo Domingo in “three to five days.” It is unclear whether the two sides will meet in the interim in Caracas. According to Medina, the tentative date for the subsequent meeting is Monday, February 5.

Following the break in the talks, the Venezuelan government’s Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez publicly claimed that a “pre-accord” had been signed, a move that instantly fueled criticism from opposition sectors opposed to the talks. The MUD delegation denied Rodriguez’s claim. Instead, Medina has confirmed that both parties had acknowledged an overview of advances made in the process so far, and that the sole copy of this document lay in his government’s possession.

What exactly these advances are remains unclear, but several of the main negotiating points have been made public after an AFP photographer was able to snap a picture of the first page of a draft negotiating document in Rodriguez’s hands on January 18. The document appeared to suggest that the government is flexible on the specific date of elections, and may in fact agree to hold them in late 2018—a key opposition demand, as electoral analysts like Edgar Martinez note that more time is needed in order for a credible vote to be organized by the National Electoral Committee (CNE). Advisors to the MUD delegation have thrown some cold water on the prospects for such a a deal following the pause in talks, telling Efecto Cocuyo that the government is insisting on elections no later than April 28.

The document also indicates that the opposition is also seeking to replace the five rectors on the CNE, suggesting that both sides select two new members each, and agree to a fifth. Notes visible in the margins of the leaked document show that Rodriguez has rejected this, and instead proposed to replace two rectors whose terms have expired with mutually agreed upon representatives.

Assuming both sides meet again as planned on February 5, it appears unlikely that the Santo Domingo process can continue much longer without a reaching a formal and public accord.  Following the pause in talks, Chile’s Foreign Ministry announced that it would join Mexico in pulling out as an observer “unless the necessary conditions between the parties are soon reached to allow for presidential elections that are democratic, transparent, and in line with international standards.” As the opposition has clearly stated it will not participate in talks without designated observers present, Chile’s withdrawal could pull the plug on the process.