Venezuelan authorities on Sept. 17 released prominent opposition figure Édgar Zambrano, who had been imprisoned since May. President Nicolás Maduro’s government said the release was an attempt at “peaceful coexistence” with opponents, though opposition leader Juan Guaidó called the release the result of popular pressure against Maduro’s government. Just a day earlier, Maduro’s party and small opposition parties reached a deal on reviewing the cases of other prisoners and on reforming the National Electoral Council. Are the two sides getting nearer to a negotiated peace? How cohesive is the opposition, and what negotiating power does it have? What role have international talks led by Norway and Barbados had in the process? Is Maduro closer to the beginning or the end of his term as president?
Gustavo Roosen, member of the Advisor board and president of IESA in Caracas: “On the eve of the U.N. General Assembly, when the international community would address Venezuela, Maduro’s government considered it necessary to show a more positive face. That is why he set up a negotiation with small groups from the left that do not represent the opposition or the government of Juan Guaidó. The release of Édgar Zambrano is another publicity show for international observers. There are more than 500 political prisoners at this time. Those who follow the Venezuelan crisis closely are aware of the number of occasions in which Maduro’s regime has decided to buy time to perpetuate itself in power. It has frequently agreed to participate in talks with the opposition that have led to no agreement. Recently, the personal U.S. sanctions against the regime have forced it to seek a way out through a negotiated route. The restrictions that the United States has imposed on Venezuela’s foreign trade and the Maduro government’s money flow—and the actions this week by the Lima Group and by the TIAR signatory countries—are also weakening the regime’s ability to administer a country in a serious crisis. The organized opposition representing Guaidó’s transitional government had accepted the negotiations within the framework that Norway suggested as the only way to agree to the cessation of usurpation, a transition process and free elections, which is the only way to restore democracy in the country. Due to the sanctions, these negotiations may pay off.”
Beatrice Rangel, member of the Advisor board and director of AMLA Consulting in Miami Beach: “Politics is the art of the possible. It is now quite clear that bringing down a regime penetrated by transnational organized crime is a tough act when you have no power resources (such as territorial control and weapons). It is also clear that the Venezuelan regime is subject to enormous pressures that will ultimately provoke its collapse. The name of the game for the regime thus is to buy time while keeping enough power to secure temporary well-being through what will probably be a short-lived impunity. For the opposition, the name of the game is to be there to profit from the regime’s collapse. Under such circumstances, a modus vivendi becomes essential, and this is what we currently have in Venezuela: an understanding among the warring parties that both need to survive in order to keep or seize power. We will thus see a lot of confidence-building measures exchanged among the parties. Meanwhile, nobody is addressing the humanitarian crisis, and people are dying in the streets or on the road trying to escape the worst human-made tragedy ever to fall upon the Western Hemisphere.”
Steve Ellner, retired professor of the Universidad de Oriente in Venezuela and associate managing editor of Latin American Perspectives: “The agreement reached between the Maduro government and anti-government moderates on Sept. 16 demonstrates the degree to which the Venezuelan opposition is divided. The media long ignored these internal differences, while Washington granted Juan Guaidó unconditional support, even though his Voluntad Popular party represents a relatively small and radical fringe of the opposition. The radicals have consistently opposed anything resembling ‘coexistence with the regime’ and now (along with Washington, but not our European allies) insist that the only item up for negotiations is the terms under which Maduro will leave office. In contrast, opposition moderate Timoteo Zambrano has long supported focusing discussions on the revamping of the National Electoral Council and the release of political prisoners, two demands that were tentatively met on Sept. 16. Another key negotiator on that day, former presidential candidate Claudio Fermín, staunchly opposes the government’s statist economic policies, but criticizes Guaidó for supporting sanctions and military intervention and argues Venezuelans can resolve their conflicts without intervention by ‘external factors.’ These latest developments were predictable given Guaidó’s erosion of active support, as shown by his loss of mobilization capacity, beginning with his failed call for a general strike in May. Many government opponents recall the five times the opposition has announced a ‘final offensive’ against Maduro and, as Zambrano states, they would rather concentrate on pressing economic problems. Nevertheless, without the support of non-radicals such as Acción Democrática and two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, the moderates’ chances of success are limited. But the Sept. 16 initiative is the only hope for beginning to ease the extreme polarization that has done much damage to Venezuela since the early years of Hugo Chávez’s rule.”
Peter DeShazo, visiting professor of Latin American, Latino and Caribbean Studies at Dartmouth College and former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs: “Talks between the opposition and the regime of Nicolás Maduro have been largely fruitless and are unlikely to resolve the deadlock in Venezuela. Maduro engages in the talks to buy time and to encourage and exploit disunity in the ranks of the opposition. Using political prisoners as pawns only underscores the authoritarian grip of the regime. It is hard to imagine that Maduro would negotiate away his hold on power by reforming institutions or allowing free and fair elections. For a negotiated settlement to the deadlock to happen, the current dynamic must change. Maduro needs to be shown the exit but also incentivized to take it. A number of factors could influence a political breakthrough. For one, the opposition needs to be united. Venezuelan civil society can also play an important role. Internationally, countries supportive of a transition to democracy should redouble their efforts to persuade Maduro’s key foreign patrons—China and Cuba above all—that continued support for an economically moribund and deeply isolated regime in Latin America is not in their best interest. More creative efforts to promote dialogue between sectors of chavismo, including the armed forces, and the opposition are needed. Targeted sanctions and incentives focused on individuals may help. While Maduro may think time is on his side, the horrific status quo of suffering in Venezuela further reduces his support base. With Venezuela’s crisis worsening and threatening regional stability, the international community must give higher priority to promoting a peaceful transition to democracy.”
David Smilde, senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America and professor of sociology at Tulane University: “The parties and leaders currently negotiating with the Maduro government represent only a small number of the opposition seats in the National Assembly (AN), were not elected to leadership positions in that body, nor were they designated by the leaders that were. As such they do not represent the opposition coalition more broadly and cannot negotiate on its behalf. There are some positive aspects of the agreements they have reached—the reincorporation of Socialist deputies into the AN, the release of political prisoners and the designation of new rectors in the National Electoral Council can only be applauded. But there has been no mention of the elephant in the room: presidential power. The origin of the current crisis is that Maduro was not legitimately elected, and allowing Venezuelans to choose their leadership in fair elections has to be at the center of any accord. The recent agreements are related to the Barbados talks in a perverse way. The Norwegian diplomats did what expert mediators do: cut through the noise, focus on the central issue and put the two sides in a situation in which they either make a deal or have to reveal they do not want one. It was precisely because of the success of the Barbados talks that Maduro wanted out. The United States ramping up sanctions in early August, just as the parties were set to resume talks, gave Maduro a great excuse to withdraw. Guaidó’s pulling out on Sept. 15 gave Maduro some breathing room, and Maduro grabbed the opportunity to launch a new negotiation process that does not challenge presidential power.”