Nov 8, 2016 | 09:00 GMT

3 mins read

Venezuela's Last-Ditch Effort at a Peaceful Political Transition

Venezuela's Last-Ditch Effort at a Peaceful Political Transition

The Venezuelan government and its political opponents are trying to move beyond their current impasse: The opposition is intent on using a referendum to remove President Nicolas Maduro from power, and his administration is intent on preventing it. Unless the two can come to an agreement in their most recent round of talks, a violent attempt to overthrow the government is possible. Reaching a compromise, however, will not be easy. Both Caracas and the opposition are divided among themselves, and early elections would require an overwhelming consensus in the government — something that lately has been in short supply.

The opposition is having a hard time forming a united front against the government. The largest opposition parties — Accion Democratica, Primero Justicia and Un Nuevo Tiempo — believe negotiating with Maduro's administration is in their best interest. Though these parties have agreed on their demands, their alliance is tenuous — a fact the government could use to its advantage. In June, for example, Caracas tried to leverage its offer to release Leopoldo Lopez, the founder of opposition group Voluntad Popular, in exchange for dropping the recall referendum, a proposal designed to split the opposition. Nevertheless, compared with the rest of the government, the opposition looks positively united.

Students demonstrate against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's administration on Nov. 3.


The government is clearly divided between Maduro and his backers on one hand and a coalition of officials loosely affiliated with former National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello on the other. Maduro seems open to negotiating with his rivals and has offered to hold early elections, either in 2017 or 2018, if they will agree to abandon the recall referendum against him. Cabello, however, is intent on holding his ground and his power by any means necessary. This conflict, more than any other, will determine the future of the government's talks with the opposition. Neither Maduro nor Cabello is likely to give in to the opposition's demands easily, but Maduro at least is open to the idea of negotiation.

For the most part, Cabello's backers are prominent officials who are concerned that they could face criminal charges under any future administration led by the opposition. Should it appear to them that Maduro is making too many concessions, they may try to sabotage the talks altogether. Of course, rather than being open to his own ouster, Maduro is open to talks only insofar as they eliminate the immediate threat that protests pose to his rule. Therefore, any improvement in Venezuela's economic outlook (most likely caused by an increase in global oil prices) would probably prompt Maduro's camp to pull out of the negotiations anyway.

A negotiated settlement will be difficult to attain, given the divisions between the opposition and the government, on top of the divisions that already exist within each camp. The government's repeated attempts to delay talks are threatening to tear the opposition apart at the seams, while the rifts within the government are making it difficult for the state to offer the kind of concessions it would need to reach a deal. Moreover, holding early elections would require a constitutional amendment, which in turn would require the buy-in of most of the ruling party's members — a hefty standard of unity for such a fractured government. As disunity persists, talks will continue to stall, and the longer they drag on, the less likely they are to succeed.

But for now, at least, they will go on. The negotiations are a risky proposition for the opposition, since the government could renege on any promises it makes, even those made during the public dialogue supervised by the Vatican. After all, talks amount to nothing if they are not followed up with action. If the negotiations fail, the opposition will likely turn to protests as its only means left of influencing the government's actions. And the government, desperate to hold onto its power and maintain stability, will crack down on the demonstrations, even at the risk of intensifying them.

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