The meeting is one of several formal contacts between the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela and the opposition in the past month. In December, Maduro met with mayors from the Mesa de la Unidad opposition coalition. A second meeting is planned for Jan. 15. The United Socialist Party's governor of Carabobo state also met several times with opposition officials in his state. Such meetings rarely occurred during Chavez's tenure.
After the 2002 coup attempt against him, Chavez excluded the opposition from most positions of power. He staffed important Cabinet posts, governorships and the oil sector with loyalists. He also remained highly popular throughout his presidency because of high levels of social spending funded by state-owned energy firm Petroleos de Venezuela. Chavez's control of the energy industry and his widespread public backing meant he had no reason to talk to the opposition, much less make concessions to them. Maduro, on the other hand, lacks these advantages.
Maduro likely decided to engage the opposition because he faces more problematic domestic politics than Chavez ever did. Maduro has to share the task of ruling Venezuela with powerful political figures such as National Assembly head Diosdado Cabello, Planning Minister Jorge Giordani and Petroleos de Venezuela President Rafael Ramirez. Chavez's popularity among Venezuelan voters kept ruling party officials from challenging his political decisions. Despite being Chavez's appointed heir, Maduro has faced some setbacks in consolidating his power, such as a delay in receiving the ability rule by decree. No direct challengers have emerged, but Maduro does not seem able to impose his will on his party as easily as his predecessor did.
Venezuela's shaky finances and worsening economy may also be spurring Maduro's decision to talk to the opposition. Petroleos de Venezuela's declining oil production and the central bank's dwindling international reserves complicate the government's ability to continue funding social spending. Cutting back this spending could lower the United Socialist Party of Venezuela's popularity, in turn weakening its unity. Venezuela's high inflation and scarcity of food and other goods also offer political opponents opportunities to challenge Maduro. Because the opposition has close connections to the private sector, Maduro may want to secure their help in obtaining businesses' collaboration in addressing these shortages.
Despite being cobbled together from various parties, the opposition is more unified than it was during most of Chavez's presidency. Chavez was able to ignore the divided opposition parties because they boycotted legislative elections in 2005 and were therefore not represented in the National Assembly until 2010. During this time, the opposition had virtually no influence in national politics. In recent years, the opposition has credibly challenged the government for the presidency twice, forcing it to increase public spending to secure its electoral victories.
Maduro is not yet ready to discuss formal alliances with his opponents. However, the current meetings could facilitate future cooperation. This cooperation would in turn aid Maduro's position by weakening total defiance of his administration from within the opposition coalition. Some members of Mesa de la Unidad may join the government, but more likely than not others would refuse. This outcome would probably gain Maduro some votes in the National Assembly and would prevent the opposition from coherently opposing the government's policies.
That would be an ideal outcome for Maduro, but talks with the opposition will probably not advance quickly. The presidency will probably initially bring its opponents to talks only on issues of mutual concern, such as security. The government and more conservative sectors of the opposition cannot yet engage in substantive talks to reform the structural issues affecting the Venezuelan government, including profound corruption, because their views on Venezuelan national policies differ so greatly. Members of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela's inner circle may also not be willing to give opposition politicians any concessions that could weaken their grip on national institutions.
The emerging dialogue with the opposition appears to be the latest effort on Maduro's part to reduce challenges to his rule. He cannot count on the same charisma and advantages Chavez had in ruling Venezuela. As a result, he finds himself having to reach out to the very politicians who have been so frequently criticized by the ruling party.