The violence that began between the Venezuelan government and large segments of the opposition last February has now resulted in a dialogue between the opposing sides.
Although there is much wishful thinking on the side of the opposition represented by the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition, a group that includes most opposition parties, the future is far from certain.
In the two meetings that have taken place between the government and the opposition, an agreement was reached to create a Truth Commission to investigate the events of the last two months where 41 people lost their lives, hundreds were wounded, more than 2,000 were arrested, and many were tortured. In principle, the Truth Commission would integrate members of the National Assembly with recognized public personalities that are not necessarily from the political arena. However, it has not yet been decided who these individuals will be.
Another aspect of the agreement is that public positions such as members of the National Electoral Council (CNE) or the Supreme Court would be properly elected by a two-thirds majority of the parliament. This particular aspect of the agreement is important because it not only adheres to the constitution of Venezuela but the last time the appointment of three members of the CNE was done it was by automatic extension, not by a two-thirds majority of the National Assembly.
The Chavista regime, for its part, rejected an amnesty law proposed by the opposition that would have benefited political prisoners and political exiles. This is despite the fact that these imprisonments took place without due process — most notably the imprisonment of the leader of the Popular Will Party, Leopoldo López, whom the government arrested following the protests that erupted in February. Three elected mayors from the opposition suffered a similar fate.
This is the main reason why this important faction is not part of the dialogue. According to David Smolansky, mayor of the city of El Hatillo, there is no way Popular Will can participate if their people remain in jail.
Granting an amnesty to political prisoners and exiles would have been a great gesture that would have shown the government’s good intentions. On the other hand, the Truth Commission process’s outcome is not in the near future and could be subject to manipulation. Making the opposition also responsible for bringing a solution to the security problem is a joke, particularly when much of the violence is the result of the fact that the regime empowered thugs to defend it and provided an entire “born to kill” generation all the freedom and protection criminals in civilized countries only wish they had.
Likewise, the implementation of the election of public positions needs to be monitored as well as the appointment of members of the Truth Commission.
Some leaders of the opposition claim that the agreements represent progress. However, based on what was heard in those hearings, such prospects are not on the horizon. For example, the Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro, pointed out during the debates that “the bourgeoisie is no longer in power and it will never gain political power again.” If he were serious about respecting the democratic rules, the exclusion of the bourgeoisie, like any other group or class, would have been unacceptable.
This means that Maduro intends to continue deepening the revolution and the authoritarian regime founded 15 years ago. Other members of the government repeated the usual ideological discourse. According to them, they never carried out any acts of violence. They don’t consider that the organized communal groups (colectivos) are the ones perpetrating acts of violence. Instead, they blame the opposition and the demonstrators. Maduro talked about an armed insurgency rising against him, and thus he justifies that his supporters have the right to arm themselves.
Likewise, the scarcity and economic hardship Venezuela is experiencing is not the result of bad government policy but the result of an economic war against Maduro’s regime. The aggressive discourse of the pro-Maduro representatives casts serious doubts about the intentions of the government. As my colleagues and I have repeatedly pointed out, the Bolivarian regime has not been designed to give up power. It is a fully revolutionary regime, and at the same time, it is a mafia state, to use the words of political scientist Ari Chapin.
The most significant shift has been the attitude of former Brazilian president Jose Inazio Lula Da Silva, who has always been, like his successor Dilma Rousseff, a strong apologist and enabler of the regime founded by Hugo Chávez. Yet, Lula issued surprising statements criticizing Venezuelan President Maduro for practicing political rhetoric instead of governing the country and dealing with the economic problems and the scarcity affecting the Venezuelan people. Although Lula did not make any reference to Venezuela’s political prisoners, the state of democracy, or human rights, he praised the leader of the opposition MUD leader, Henrique Capriles, for resorting to dialogue and not acting in a radical, extremist way.
Lula, who is believed to be an emissary of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, proposed a five-year coalition government that would include the opposition in order to deal with the current economic and political crisis in Venezuela.
Lula referred to Venezuela as being a country of strategic importance to Brazil. Many Brazilian companies have contracts in Venezuela for billions of dollars. A poor, chaotic, and deteriorating Venezuela is not a good deal for the Brazilians.
Early in April, Jose Miguel Insulza, secretary of the OAS, acknowledged at an event in South Florida that Venezuela is in a deep crisis, and even if protests cease, the crisis will continue, regardless. In a private conversation with others and me, he acknowledged that Venezuela has violated human rights.
It is not clear how Lula and Insulza’s changed sentiments will influence the situation or if it will change anything, but their respective statements were long overdue. Yet, they are very important, not because they are sufficient, but precisely because they are a first step.
If Venezuela has strategic importance to Brazil, it is more the case for the United States. This is not because of the oil contracts or the oil supply, but because Venezuela is a dangerous regime that declared its enmity to the United States. In addition, it is a rogue state that supports terror, as well as a narco-state, whose political and military elite are involved in drug trafficking. It is important for US policy makers to recognize the fact that Venezuela, situated barely two hours away from Miami, is part of a geo-political zone that affects our country’s security.
Therefore, it would be a wise move for the United States to capitalize on Brazil and Insulza’s change of attitude by insisting that the dialogue be fair. In addition, the United States should discuss this issue with the Brazilian government and try to work in coalition with Brazil to restore democracy to Venezuela. Although it remains unclear how far the Brazilians are willing to go in pressuring the Venezuelan government, this shift by Brazil should open an opportunity to engage the most important player in the continent.
It would also be incumbent for the US government to follow the Senate initiative of Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Bill Nelson (D-FL) and the House initiative of Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lethinen (R-FL): apply sanctions at least on those individuals responsible for the repression in Venezuela.
Those sanctions must not only be a first step but be conditioned to provide a successful and clean outcome for the ongoing negotiations. Without pressure, the Venezuelan government is unlikely to concede. Giving a blank check to a dialogue that is already going through a bumpy process would be a huge mistake and would only perpetuate the problem.
This article first appeared in the Americas Report.