On Friday, December 15, delegations of the Venezuelan government and opposition will meet once again in the Dominican Republic, following an initial round of talks that took place on December 1-2. While international involvement in this process has distinguished it from previous attempts at negotiations this year, it remains unclear what will come of it.
The first round of talks ended with no announcement regarding the two parties’ six-point agenda. This time around, Dominican President Danilo Medina is expected to present both sides with a consensus document to sign, based on any overlap in their positions. Even if such a document were to be signed by both parties, there are doubts as to how substantial it would be.
Staking Out Positions
In the lead up to the first round of talks, there were suggestions that the Venezuelan government would be more compelled to make concessions than in previous encounters because of its desire to get out from under U.S. debt sanctions. The Treasury Department has said it would allow U.S. financial actors to trade in new debt if it were approved by the National Assembly, and some analysts suggested that this could provide an incentive for the Maduro government to hash out some kind of deal with the opposition parties participating in the Santo Domingo talks (which account for the bulk of parties in the legislature) to do so.
Indeed, the government has signaled that it is preoccupied with the issue of sanctions. On December 6, Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez (who heads the government delegation) said that the government would not sign an accord, or even hold elections, until the international community lifted sanctions against the government. In November, Maduro had previously called on the opposition to request that the U.S. “financial and economic persecution” be lifted.
However, since this round of talks began the government has given no indication that it is prepared to make the concessions that the opposition is demanding. These demands include better electoral conditions going into 2018 presidential elections (which will likely be held in early 2018), in addition to getting the government to accept offers of international aid, release political prisoners, and recognize the legitimate constitutional authority of the National Assembly.
Rather than signaling a willingness to engage on these issues, the government has given several signs that—as in previous rounds of talks—it is attempting to use these negotiations as political cover. On December 3, Maduro issued a public invitation for the opposition to “deepen formal dialogue” with his government by meeting with him in the presidential palace, but he did so without inviting the international foreign ministers participating in the Dominican Republic process. This invitation was turned down by National Assembly head Julio Borges, who called for the government to invite “families suffering from hunger and a lack of medication.” Following the December 10 municipal elections, which left the opposition holding less than 30 of the country’s 335 municipalities, Maduro further cast doubt on his government’s willingness to meet opposition demands by suggesting that the parties that had not participated in the vote would be banned from participating in eventual presidential elections.
On the humanitarian front the government has shown a similar lack of wiliness to engage. On the sidelines of the initial round of talks, Codevida, Accion Solidaria, and other health-focused NGOs presented a proposal to address the country’s public health crisis. Among other things, the civil society organizations suggest the creation of an independent task force (with some governmental participation) that would focus on accessing three separate funds that allow for the acquisition of cheaper medications from the Pan-American Health Organization, in addition to seeking other resources from the World Health Organization and UNICEF.
Despite the cause for skepticism, some of the international facilitators of the talks have voiced a more optimistic view of the negotiations. Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray, for instance, suggested on December 4 that the negotiations were “going in the right direction,” though he called on both parties to act in “moderation and seriousness.” Heraldo Muñoz, the Chilean Foreign Minister who has been particularly active in facilitating the demands of civil society at the Dominican Republic, said he and his colleagues were “moderately optimistic” about the potential for some kind of accord to be reached, even as he recognized a possibility for this round of talks to fall short of a deal.
Other analysts have echoed this moderate optimism, suggesting that because of the dual incentives of U.S. debt sanctions and the country’s continued economic deterioration, Venezuela’s government would be willing to make some kind of economic-focused deal, if not a political one that could threaten its hold on power.
The opposition, for its part, has suggested that the Maduro government may be willing to free certain political prisoners as a result of negotiations. Luis Florido on December 14 told Venezuelan media that 114 of 382 alleged political prisoners could be freed as a result of an accord. However, the Venezuelan Penal Forum—which has received international recognition for its work on political prisoners in the country—has pushed back on this claim, noting that its latest list of prisoners had fallen to 271 (apparently down from 380 since October 30), and accusing the MUD of attempting to misrepresent this figure for a political win.