Venezuela is mired in a profound humanitarian crisis. Food and medicine are scarce, crime is at an all-time high, and the country’s economy is the worst performer in the world. In light of this, the region’s power players are pushing for dialogue between the government and the opposition, but the latter side has been reluctant to embrace it, if not downright hostile toward the idea.
Is the opposition being immature? Or do they have a point?
Sadly, it is the latter. In the past, the government has not been serious about dialogue, and has used it to simply defuse tensions and then forward its agenda un-altered. Everything suggests that this is the strategy this time around as well. But the push for dialogue this time threatens to make a bad situation even worse.
Back in 2002, the political crisis in the country was so severe that it led to a brief coup against then-President Hugo Chavez. Following his return to office, the government established a dialogue process, brokered by the Secretary General of the Organization of American States, César Gaviria, who practically took up residence in Caracas for months at a time. The result? A document full of platitudes and pledges that President Chavez’s government never respected.
In 2010, the opposition was finally elected to the National Assembly after boycotting the previous legislative election. But while the legislature is the natural place for democratic dialogue to occur, what people remember about that effort was chavismo’s frequent violation of the rules to scuttle the conversation, taking away the opposition’s speaking rights and expelling prominent opposition legislators from the National Assembly. At one point chavistas even started swinging their fists to shut the opposition down.
In 2014, in the midst of widespread street protests, the government invited opposition leaders to Miraflores Palace to talk. The outcome of those conversations was that protests were defused, but no real change came about. Many of the protesters from that period continue to languish in the country’s prisons today, including opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.
What does the opposition want this time? An end to the foreign exchange controls system. A serious plan to tackle inflation and to bring some sense into the state of public finances. They also want more resources put into fighting crime, housing, and health. Most important, they want the government to stop giving away oil to its political allies and an end to the politicization of the country’s institutions, especially the armed forces.
On all of these issues, the government’s response has been to double-down. It says that the exchange control system is a “political” measure that will never be lifted, that inflation is the fault of the enemies of the Bolivarian Revolution and that it is a “fictitious” phenomenon. Its approach to the crime wave has been spurts of repression during which serious human rights violations have occurred. And it’s always been the government’s plan to build an armed forces loyal to chavismo.
In other words, the government is impermeable to change, one of the basic tenets of any democratic dialogue. This is almost by definition. The late Hugo Chavez used to speak about making the Bolivarian Revolution “irreversible,” saying that only socialism could ensure people’s happiness. In the face of the unending misery his project has caused, the government’s response has been only to say that what’s needed is more socialism, and promise that it’s on its way. (God forbid!)
Opposition leaders are not brainless demagogues looking to unseat Maduro no matter what. Their push to unseat him comes because they rightly believe that none of these changes can come from the government he leads. After the results of the December 15, 2015 legislative elections, they also clearly represent the majority of the nation.
This majority wants chavismo to leave power. In that regard, the opposition has begun a cumbersome process to recall Maduro. This drive has faced stiff resistance from the government, as well as from the supposedly impartial institutions that review the recall petition and implement the recall referendum.
The recall referendum will be triggered if 20 percent of eligible voters request it. But to reach that point, the opposition needs to go through multiple rounds of signature collection and verification. At all of these stages, they must overcome the tricks and hurdles the government sets for them. For example, the initial signature drive saw hundreds of thousands of signatures being discarded on technicalities and whims; even the signatures of opposition leaders Henrique Capriles and Lilian Tintori were thrown out without appeal. Meanwhile, the government has announced a court battle to have the entire process overturned.
In the middle of this drama, the international community has finally woken up to the crisis and is trying to help promote dialogue between the two sides, but it is worth asking if this is the right kind of help. The government’s precondition for dialogue is for the constitutional recall process to go away, but this is non-negotiable for the opposition. If the recall process does go away, the opposition will be in an even weaker position to sit down, having conceded a constitutional right, all in the name of dialogue.
If the international community wants to play a constructive role in the Venezuela crisis, it should stop trying to appease the Maduro government. The only way out of this mess is for Maduro to change course. He needs to be convinced that he must either change his policies, or he must go.
That is the only conversation that the majority of the Venezuelan people want, or need.