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Political tension in Venezuela has reached extraordinary levels, even for the convulsed South American country. For the second time in less than two months, on October 26th hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans protested in the streets against the government, in what the opposition has called “Venezuela’s takeover.” This was largely a reaction to the judicial annulment –on October 20th— of efforts to collect signatures for a recall referendum against President Nicolas Maduro. That same night, a court banned several opposition leaders from leaving the country, including former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles.
In fact, the courts have only confirmed what many inside Venezuela and abroad had been denouncing for some time: that Maduro was not going to abide by the constitution, and would use his control of state institutions to block the recall referendum. In response, Mesa de Unidad Democratica, or MUD –an alliance of more than 18 opposition parties that controls the National Assembly—denounced a “coup” by the government and launched an impeachment procedure against Maduro, a symbolic gesture since the government-controlled judiciary has effectively stripped the Assembly of all its powers.
The end of the referendum process and the massive demonstration of the opposition crystallized the absolute blockage Venezuela has been experiencing for months. The resounding opposition victory in the parliamentary elections of December 2015 undermined the ruling Socialist Party’s claim that it represented a majority of Venezuelans. Until then, Chavismo had repeatedly renewed its hold on the presidency and the parliament through democratic elections since Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999. Not anymore. Today, amid a grave economic collapse that many have called a humanitarian crisis, around 80% of Venezuelans want Maduro to leave the presidency, according to Datanálisis. Further, despite its lack of ideological coherence and some internal divisions, the MUD has been able to capitalize on that widening discontent.
However, chavismo has made clear that it will not let go of its grip on Venezuela, with or without majoritarian support. The government still has a base of mobilized loyalists, controls all state institutions other than the Assembly –including the powerful Supreme Tribunal — and, most importantly, has reinforced its alliance with the armed forces. Some analysts doubt about the loyalty of the army, but at least in public it has remained staunchly loyal to the government. In fact, only hours after the electoral authority had cancelled the efforts to hold a referendum, the military expressed its support of Maduro and denounced the opposition. In other words, the opposition may have democratic legitimacy, but the government continues to have the power.
In another sign of the gravity of the current crisis, the latest demonstration came only days after the Vatican announced it was backing a dialogue between the government and the MUD, the result of a surprise meeting between Maduro and Pope Francis this week. The Vatican-backed effort –an attempt to revive talks initiated by former presidents José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Martín Torrijos and Lionel Fernandez– is set to begin on October 30th in Isla Margarita. The problem, however, is the opposition might not even be at the negotiation table. Many in the MUD claim that the government is merely using the goodwill of the Vatican to buy time. Jesus Torrealba –the executive secretary of the opposition coalition– came under fire for agreeing to the talks in Margarita. Even Capriles, widely regarded as a moderate voice within the opposition, remained skeptical, warning Pope Francis that the MUD is “facing the Devil” and setting a number of preconditions for an eventual dialogue, including the reactivation of the referendum and the release of political prisoners.
Still, the hastily announced Vatican-sponsored dialogue is a demonstration of Maduro’s political skills, which the opposition –and the international community— tend to underestimate. Rejecting the papal offer would probably have costs for the opposition: besides offending the popular Francis in Catholic Venezuela, MUD leaders run the risk of losing legitimacy if they say no to at least trying to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis. But if they do attend, they could lose momentum and the chance to channel public frustration against the government’s blatant violation of the constitution. Furthermore, the unexpected dialogue left Secretary General of the OAS Luis Almagro and Argentine President Mauricio Macri in a difficult position, since only hours before they had repudiated Maduro’s authoritarianism and called for more regional pressure against him.
In the past Pope Francis was the only figure who had the support of the opposition and chavismo to act as an impartial mediator. But the cold response MUD leaders gave to the new dialogue shows that this could no longer be the case. The Venezuelan government has made clear that the constitution and democratic elections will not stand in the way of its hold on power, and the opposition is not willing to agree to an unconditional dialogue under these circumstances. Further, if the talks in Isla Margarita do take place but end with no concrete breakthroughs – on such key questions as political prisoners, the judicial blockage of the recall referendum or the lack of recognition of parliamentary powers—an important part of the opposition (and of Venezuelans) might give up on any chance of a dialogue.
Unfortunately, this is now the most likely scenario. Given that the government has the support of the top echelons of the security forces and of irregular armed groups, a confrontation could be catastrophic for the opposition and for human rights in the country. On the other hand, as Venezuelan analyst Luis Vicente Leon points out, for the first time since Chavismo came to power in 1999 the opposition has majoritarian support and the capacity to channel it into protests. In fact, far from scaling down, the MUD has announced a new wave of protests over the coming days, including a general strike and a march to Miraflores, the presidential palace.
It has become commonplace to say that Venezuela is on the brink. Now, however, with a government that is so nakedly authoritarian and an opposition that is mobilized and running out of options, this is truer than ever.