A Crucial Moment for Venezuela

Venezuelan flag María Alejandra Mora / CC BY-SA 3.0
It is tempting to believe Venezuela is at a turning point. Led by students and segments of the opposition, protests over the past two months have resulted in 41 deaths, over 650 injured, and hundreds more imprisoned. Since most of the violence and repression has come at the hands of the government and its supporters, it is encouraging that they have agreed to a dialogue with opposition figures. Yet, despite such developments, it is not clear whether one should expect a departure from the status quo – polarization and mistrust, as economic and security conditions deteriorate – in the near term. Unfortunately, continued impasse and descent seems the most likely scenario. Still, the current phase of the country’s crisis is characterized by new dynamics in the opposition, the government, and Venezuela’s neighbors that could be important for the country’s short and long-term future. One faction of the divided opposition favors a more moderate stance, while another has joined with the student movement and taken to the streets. The moderates are now at the table talking with the government. Those backing the protesters are skeptical that such an approach will work and have refused to participate. While there are differences in tactics and timing, it would be a mistake to ignore the opposition’s broad unity. Both factions share a similar view of the regime led by Nicolas Maduro and the political and economic changes that need to take place in Venezuela. With the protests, the more combative faction, led by Leopoldo Lopez, gained the upper hand. Now, with Lopez in jail and a dialogue underway, two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who is more accommodating, is back in center stage. But if the “dialogue” does not lead to an agreement that includes the release of political prisoners (such as Lopez), then Capriles’s credibility within the opposition could suffer. He is betting that talks with the government – so far both sides have agreed on a “truth commission” to investigate recent violence -- will eventually result in meaningful progress that Venezuelans embrace. Maduro, who so far has contained government infighting more than expected and apparently retains support of the armed forces, is taking a risk by having talks with the opposition. Chavista hardliners are likely to insist that he not give in to key opposition demands such as release of political prisoners.

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