September 9, 2021

Latam

VENEZUELA: Positive early steps but mountain still to climb in political talks

BY Nicholas Watson

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( 3 mins)

Regime and opposition negotiators announced two partial agreements at the end of three days of talks that culminated on 6 September. The two sides have agreed to build mechanisms to facilitate food aid and health assistance for the local population and announced they share positions in the long-running territorial dispute over the Essequibo region of Guyana. Another round of talks is scheduled for 24-27 September. The agenda will center on 1) the judicial system and the restoration of political rights for regime opponents; and 2) how to unblock Venezuela’s access to multilateral funds and state assets held abroad by the opposition.

The two issues on which there is agreement represent the lowest of the low- hanging fruit. The agenda for late-September’s round is far more complex because it challenges the regime’s grip on the judiciary, while inducing the opposition to loosen its control over one of its few levers. However, the design of the agenda creates the basis for mutual exchange and compromise, which makes further advances possible, however painstakingly they are crafted. In this light, President Nicolas Maduro’s latest threats to jail opposition leader Juan Guaido should not be seen as a fundamental threat to the talks but rather as a signal that the regime expects a blanket amnesty to be on the agenda under any future discussions on a transitional justice process.

As previously analyzed, the talks are likely to get more difficult the further they advance and as more contentious issues come under discussion. However, for the next ten weeks, the talks should be braced by the electoral factor: gubernatorial, mayoral, and municipal elections are scheduled for 21 November. It is in both sides’ interests for reasonably credible elections to take place. The elections offer the opposition a chance to regain political space, while Maduro wants international recognition and legitimization – and Guaido downgraded within the opposition. To be sure, there are several spoiler factors that could derail the talks between now and November, but the most likely scenario is for the process to remain on track until the vote.

In the scenario whereby the talks continue, elections involving the opposition are held, and the newly restructured National Electoral Council (CNE) certifies most or all results, the talks could enter a much more difficult phase. Maduro may be willing to allow opposition parties to compete in fairly low-stakes local elections that will not fundamentally threaten Chavismo‘s grip on power, but it is another matter entirely to greenlight a recall referendum, bring forward presidential elections from 2024, or even consider competing for the presidency on a level playing field. Substantial sanctions relief and legal guarantees would have to be in evidence for Maduro to consider these kinds of concessions. Without them, events of 2015, when the regime wrested away the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD)’s legitimately-won two-thirds majority in the National Assembly, provide a precedent of how Chavismo reacts when its opponents encroach on its power. In this context and given how difficult the talks are likely to become, it is difficult not to see the “co-existence” referenced in the August memorandum of understanding between the two sides as entailing a dominant Chavismo alongside a subordinate opposition.

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