Diálogo con apellido

We tend to see 'dialogue' and 'the Democratic Charter' as alternatives. But it's much less straightforward than that. Here's your beginner's guide to labyrinthine ways of the dialogue-carta-recall game.

On Monday, opposition representatives held a closed door meeting with Spain’s former prime minister, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero at a downtown Caracas hotel. According to National Assembly speaker Henry Ramos Allup they were there “to gauge the conditions for dialogue”.

I talked to Luis Florido, who chairs the National Assembly’s Foreign Policy Committee, about it all the other day. Florido says that, for the opposition, dialogue needs an apellido; Dialogo Genuino, Dialogo Efectivo, Dialogo Real. They just don’t think the government is willing to negotiate in good faith, leaving them a sad, surname-less bastard dialogue likely to go nowhere.

We’ve had several weeks of indirect talks-about-talks now. Maduro’s side say that they’re willing to sit down, but without any preconditions, and under the UNASUR backed mediation. MUD hasn’t been especially enthusiastic about that proposal, preferring the OAS route, which they think can generate more diplomatic pressure on the government. And it went well: last month, 22 out of 34 countries voted to collectively assess Venezuela based on articles 3, 19 and 20 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter.

The OAS vote came after Luis Almagro, the OAS Secretary General who has become almost an opposition advocate in the region, requested member states to enact the Charter. But what does enacting the Charter actually mean? There’s quite a bit of confusion and not a little magical thinking about this.

The Charter itself opens up a range of options, from “good offices” (diplo-speak for reasoning with these people) to —as a last resort— excluding Venezuela from the OAS. Such a step, while not imminent, would amount to an official, multilateral declaration that Venezuelan democracy has died: unprecedented in the Charter’s 15 year history.

Venezuela’s nunca bien ponderada Foreign Minister, Delcy Rodríguez, is all bluster and vitriol in poo-pooing the Charter invocation, but there’s obvious skittishness in Venezuelan power circles about it. It was precisely to sidestep it that Maduro and his entourage first proposed a dialogue, using UNASUR —the Chávez-created version of OAS, sans the U.S. or Canada— to sponsor a mediation. “Charter” and “dialogue” are often seen as an either/or proposition by both Venezuela’s government and opposition, but foreign diplomats themselves usually see them as both-and.

The question that hangs over this whole metadebate is the date of the recall referendum: if it happens before January 10th, 2017, it sets off snap presidential elections in 30 days. Any later, and it leaves Maduro’s VP in power. The opposition’s working assumption is that the UNASUR mediation is a delaying tactic to tip the referendum timeline beyond that January 11th date. They’ve been played for chumps before, and they aren’t willing to sit down in a pretend dialogue for the cameras, once again.

That’s why, when I talked to him, Florido stressed MUD’s pre-conditions to participate in the dialogue, which include that both mediators and location be chosen by both parties and not imposed by Maduro’s entourage. There needs to be a clear timeline for the recall referendum before the end of 2016, and a stop to the political harassment against the National Assembly and, frankly, anybody on the opposition.

Maduro has been resisting these (or any) conditions, strengthening the opposition’s belief that the UNASUR mission is a ruse to run down the clock. It doesn’t help that the government continues to pretend it isn’t frantically blocking the referendum, as if putting up two dozen arbitrary obstacles for signatories of the first step to invoke the referendum had been some sort of accident.

I asked Florido about the specific agenda they will be bringing to the dialogue. Long story short, there is no agenda. There are some topics that they think are important, because are part of the day-to-day nightmares Venezuelans are going through, nothing more yet. Florido was very clear about the pre-conditions for the dialogue, but they seem to have accepted at least Rodriguez Zapatero as one of the facilitators, whom has a bit of a dirty name in opposition circles these days, although Florido described him as a “democratic man with whom one can do business”, and MUD reps sat down with him Monday to discuss the dialogue. After the meeting, Florido told the news that they just went there to clarify their pre-conditions and mentioned there was no date to start conversations yet. However, UNASUR leader, Colombian ex-president Ernesto Samper, seems to disagree.

We all know a bit of negotiation, you get into the ring with your highest bid and start to agree on different terms as you talk. Today, dialogue seems to be closer to actually happening, and it seems that the only pre-condition needed was that there was a facilitator that would consider all sides’ demands and time-concerns.

CNE’s self-imposed deadline to advance to the next stage of the recall process ends in just three weeks. If the government is to delay the recall until next year, it needs a pretext now. But any decision to delay could destabilize the country badly — among other things, because such a blatant breach of the constitution would boost diplomatic pressure to exclude them from the Inter-american system through Democratic Charter. For all its bluster, the government is in a bind: the thought that a deal could sure help them here can’t have escaped them altogether.

The game is delicate. For MUD, “dialogue” is useful only to the extent that it guarantees a 2016 recall. For the government, the point of dialogue is exactly the opposite: pushing the vote to next year. The whole, complicated dance is really just about setting the agenda for the second half of 2016.

One thing we can be sure of, though: if delaying the recall was easy or cost-free for Maduro, he would’ve done it long ago.