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International support for a national dialogue

Venezuela’s democratic balance is at a high-risk moment. Protecting it requires an urgent political dialogue amongst Venezuelans. But such a discussion will not occur without the mediation of international actors. So far, the Venezuelan people have admirably placed their hopes in elections, despite a feeling of impotence in the face of sharp shortages of basic goods and services. Sustained trust in a democratic path will depend on whether or not the citizenry perceives that its vote will be able to resolve its most stifling problems.

The opposition’s recent electoral triumph and its control over the National Assembly has given it strength and generated a certain rebalancing of power. However, while weakened, the government still maintains its strength and capacity to act. As a result, the sense of political confrontation has intensified. The upshot? Even as the opposition gains momentum, neither party will have the capacity to prevail over the other. The country is locked in political paralysis, socio-economic deterioration, and rising levels of despair. The risk of chaos is rising, and with it threats to the democratic system.

The opposition’s strategy is a recall referendum to remove the president in 2016 to trigger new elections. However, the National Assembly lacks any executive power, and its resolutions are blocked by the Supreme Court of Justice, which serves as a Constitutional Court. If, as the opposition hopes, the recall referendum is verified in 2016, there will be new elections and a new government. But if the vote takes place in 2017, the President is removed but the Vice-President assumes office until the end of the government’s term in 2019. In that case, the opposition will have to come together in the face of a serious dilemma: if it opens itself to dialogue, it might lose strength; if it does not, it may delay the implementation of basic reforms necessary for governance.  There is no guarantee that, should the opposition triumph in the 2018 elections, there will still be time to solve the country’s widespread social and economic problems. The key, for the opposition, is to stay unified.

Sustained trust in a democratic path will depend on whether or not the citizenry perceives that its vote will be able to resolve its most stifling problems.

There are also signs of internal tensions within the government. President Maduro has had to appoint the army chief (and Minister of Defense), Vladimir Padrino Lopez, to head the country’s food supply system. This is in the midst of a rapid economic deterioration (inflation is over 500% and GDP is set to fall by nearly 10% this year). Widespread shortages spur a large number of daily protests. The government’s dilemma is dramatic: the status quo makes things worse but open-market corrections could unleash an avalanche. In the meantime, President Maduro hopes to delay the recall referendum in order to stay in power. What happens then is unclear. His electoral support is very low, and the steady militarization of the government is unsettling.

At present, the battle over the recall referendum date prevents any real dialogue. Time is ticking and the electoral calendar is intense: gubernatorial elections in 2016 (the government holds 20 out of 23 positions, but after the elections that imbalance could flip); mayoral elections in 2017; and presidential elections in 2018. The question, though, is if the system will last that long and how the country will be governed until then.

Even though the doors to dialogue seem closed, two agreements must be made in order to prevent chaos and a likely military intervention: i) sharp fiscal and exchange-rate adjustments, incentives to encourage national production, a convincing social mitigation plan, measures to reduce corruption, and ii) guaranteed impartiality towards the Constitution and the right to vote (including changes in the National Electoral Council, a balanced Supreme Court of Justice, equal access to social media, and limits to the use of public funds for campaigns) and the release of political prisoners. Without a doubt, an effective citizen security program is also pressing.

The international community must use as pressure as possible to push an effective dialogue. The work of former presidents Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Leonel Fernandez, and Martin Torrijos has managed to, at least, plant the seed. A visit by US Undersecretary of State Tom Shannon, along with recent declarations from the chancellors of Chile, Peru, Uruguay, Argentina, and Paraguay, show that other countries are increasingly worried and willing to facilitate conversations.

To achieve this, it is essential to create a negotiation space with operational capacity. The UNASUR member states, with the support of the US, China, Cuba, and the EU as observers, might lead to a viable path forward. Some even suggest the United Nations and the Vatican could play a role.

If the opposition wins the referendum in 2016 or 2017, or forces within the government push changes in order to survive—is unrealistic to imagine a new government of national unity that applies an emergency program for 2017-2018, with a new President and Vice-President? In my judgement, it is not.