A faint hope for Venezuela
Since a failedattempt on April 30th to trigger a military uprising against the dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela has entered a costly stalemate. The opposition is not strong enough to bring Mr Maduro down. He cannot halt the country’s slide into penurious ungovernability. Against this background, both sides sat down in Barbados this week at talks convened by Norway’s government. After three preliminary meetings, this marked the start of “continuous and expeditious” negotiations, according to Norway’s foreign ministry.
The plan is to meet every Monday to Wednesday in Barbados to tackle a six-point agenda, starting with elections and the lifting of sanctions imposed by the United States and others. The opposition’s delegates command wide respect. The government team are officials close to Mr Maduro. The Norwegians are experienced mediators. Having acted as facilitators in the peace talks in Havana between Colombia’s government and thefarcguerrillas they are trusted by Cuba, Mr Maduro’s chief international backer. Yet there are big reasons for scepticism.
Many in the opposition scorn talks, after three attempts since 2014 that Mr Maduro used merely to buy time and sow division. Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader and speaker of the national assembly who is recognised as interim president by more than 50 democracies, has backed the Norway initiative. But to keep his fractious coalition together he has also refused to rule out inviting military intervention by the United States to overthrow Mr Maduro.
Despite the talks, the government continues to try to crush the opposition. On July 12th it arrested two of Mr Guaidó’s bodyguards. His chief of staff, Roberto Marrero, has been in jail since March. Two dozen opposition assembly members are in exile or in hiding, having been stripped of parliamentary immunity. Mr Maduro rules through paramilitary police forces, repression and torture, as a report by theunHigh Commissioner for Human Rights this month made clear.
Each side still appears to want different—and impossible—things from the talks. Jorge Rodríguez, one of Mr Maduro’s representatives, said brightly this week that his boss was committed to “a permanent dialogue for peace”. That is precisely what the opposition does not want. Mr Guaidó’s oft-repeated three-point programme, backed by Donald Trump’s administration, is “an end to the usurpation” (meaning that Mr Maduro steps down), a transitional government and a free presidential election within a year. The opposition says it will leave the table if there is no progress within a few weeks.
“The government hasn’t decided whether it’s willing to risk losing power,” says Phil Gunson, who works in Caracas for Crisis Group, a Brussels-basedngo. “I don’t get a clear sense that they know the situation is untenable and that they have to negotiate a way out.”
The big question is whether Mr Maduro is prepared to step down to allow a transition. Similarly, the opposition would probably have to accept a genuine transitional government, composed of both sides and headed by a third figure, rather than a takeover by Mr Guaidó.
The alternatives are bleak. Even before Mr Trump imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry in January, mismanagement was destroying the economy and public services. Some 4m Venezuelans have emigrated since 2015. If nothing changes, that figure will double by the end of next year, reckons the Organisation of American States. Most will go to Colombia, which is struggling to cope and cannot close its 2,200km (1,400-mile) border with Venezuela. If the talks fail, there is a riskof violence. One diplomat close to the situation fears a border war between Colombia and Venezuela, which hosts 1,000 or so Colombian guerrillas from the eln group.
Several things would aid the talks. The armed forces and Diosdado Cabello, Mr Maduro’s de facto deputy and rival, should be at the table. The European Union and most Latin American democracies have backed the talks. The United States, China and Russia should do so, too. More pressure on Mr Maduro is needed. Federica Mogherini, the outgoingeuforeign-policy chief, said this week that were the talks to fail Europe would step up sanctions against regime leaders and their families. That, more than oil sanctions, which hurt all Venezuelans, is what Mr Maduro’s people most fear. It is a threat that should be tied to swift and measurable progress in Barbados. Otherwise, the last, best hope for Venezuela will slip away.