Belfast, June 1972. The slow burn civil war between Irish Republicans and British Unionists has been going for four years already, hundreds have already died.

A senior British diplomat is dispatched to the province to open a secret backchannel with the IRA. First, a ten-day secret truce is agreed so the sides can meet amid calm. Soon after two meetings take place in a leafy protestant suburb of Belfast, under extreme secrecy. At the second meeting, the following month, the IRA makes an impossible demand: the British must leave Ireland by 1975. The British negotiator makes it clear that this is a non-starter. The IRA, completely out of leverage, decides to draw blood the only way it can:

They make the meetings public.

It’s a public relations catastrophe for the British government, raising howls of alarm from Unionists in the province. The IRA’s betrayal sets back negotiations years, and opens up one of the bloodiest periods in the troubles.


The IRA leaked the meetings in impotent frustration after its impossible demands were summarily dismissed.

The anecdote is retold in Jonathan Powell’s gripping manual, Talking to Terrorists. Powell, who would become Tony Blair’s chief of staff and, two decades later, lead the negotiation that finally brought peace to Northern Ireland, has unique insight into this and a whole lot of other conflicts, and his book is well worth a read.

From this episode, the thing to take away is that leaking the talks wasn’t a sign of betrayal by the British government, or a sign of strength by the IRA. Just the opposite: the IRA leaked the meetings in impotent frustration after its impossible demands were summarily dismissed. The leak revealed its weakness, not its strength.

Powell notes that these kinds of situations are all too common in the early stage of pre-negotiation between warring parties. It happened in El Salvador a bunch of times in the 80s, it happened in Colombia early in its negotiation with FARC. In each case, there have been splits between hardliners who scoff at the idea of negotiating at all and moderates willing to explore possibilities. In each case, leaking secret talks is an easy recourse the hardliners have in seeking to derail the moderates’ advances.

Nihil sub sole novum


Outlawed, barred from travel, distrustful of all around them and prone to extremism by nature, insurgents reach the negotiating table after prolonged periods of isolation from the ideas considered mainstream in the outside world.

What I find really fascinating is the way Powell’s analysis of the insurgent side seems to apply much more naturally to the Venezuelan government than to the opposition.

Insurgents, Powell notes, are often marked by extreme ideological isolation and a kind of anachronistic provincialism. Outlawed, barred from travel, distrustful of all around them and prone to extremism by nature, insurgents reach the negotiating table after prolonged periods of isolation from the ideas considered mainstream in the outside world. Does that description sound more like Nicolás Maduro and Diosdado Cabello or Julio Borges and Freddy Guevara?

What’s frightening about reading Powell’s book is how well the negotiating processes he describes with actual warring insurgents applies to the Venezuelan case. But what makes it genuinely freaky is the realization that, in Venezuela, the roles are flipped: the extremists are the government, it’s the opposition that’s mainstream.

33 COMMENTS

  1. Francisco,

    IT seems the term “negotiation” is used for talks that have to be behind closed doors. But what if we had absolutely public negotiations? That would look more like a debate in the original sense, only that at the end of the day the parties will take the finall decisions and the public will only support those decisions or not but
    would not be the ones voting.

    I do not recall really open negotiations but: are they so impossible?

    I remember when the “attempt” of debate took place in 2014. The first time it was public and then the government decided to continue it behind closed doors until they came to nothing and the opposition opted to do that as well…probably because they also didn’t know what a debate was.

    Most people on both sides thought that process was a waste of time but I considered the first time, the open event with the TV cameras, was absolutely positive for us, even if we did not have any particular orator.
    Chavismo was just that bad.

    What would happen if the opposition demanded an open debate for all the world to see?

    Who would be against that? Could those who are for an open debate put those opposing it to shame?

    Yes, those debates are more for real democracies in parliamentary systems but: couldn’t we force them?

    • Kepler,

      Even a dumb dog learns not to expose itself to a beating when there is an alpha around.

      That public round table debate they had in 2014 was a rhetoric thumping for Chavistas. It was clear that they were outclassed intellectually and ideologically, to say nothing of their lack of charisma and seething resentment.

      Chavismo learns not to expose itself to goleadas. They will never have a public debate nor an election for that matter.

      • I agree…99.99999% of chances they won’t accept. So: let’s keep asking for it and telling everyone why they won’t agree.
        Let’s play parts of it. Let’s show those parts to the outside world.
        Let’s show Venezuelans how democrats outside Venezuela hold debates. Let’s ridicule Chavistas and start talking about the transition away from them.

          • As far as I remember we had ONE public talk and then access was severely limited, things were not sent live. And that is the point. I do not think Chavismo will accept further open, live discussions but I do believe there is a chance that by insisting on them and declaring Chavistas won’t accept as authoritarian regimes never accept we can make them lose more face.

    • Kepler
      The 2014 attempt failed not only because one of the participants (Government) was not willing to openly discuss areas of conflict but also because of the chosen format. A debate is divisive in nature and at this point the only way to solve the current situation is by bringing people together and fostering a commitment to change their positions and find some common ground. Public Debates do not encourage that. Dialog does that but requires a genuine commitment from both parties and even if you have the commitment of most of the people involved you may have radicals in each side trying to sabotage it. Dialog between the two parties could be private but the public should know about it. As Quico clearly pointed out in his article, keeping negotiations or dialogs a secret, allow for one of the sides to use it as a weapon to undermine the position of the other.

    • Nothing of interest will come out of a public debate. A public debate may expose how they are violating the law, using the CNE as they want, etc. *but we all know that already*. And what they have to discuss in reality, like how the oppo won’t chase them after they’re gone, and how they will both grant some “amnesty”, negotiations regarding granting political stability after the colapse, etc. won’t come out in a public debate.

      Basically a public debate may be really democratic, but at the same time really futile in this context. Neither the oppo or the gov. want those things coming out. But those are the negotiations that will allow a change in the gov.

  2. Retweeted Werner Corrales Leal (@wernercorrales):
    UN DIÁLOGO NO ES NEGATIVO PER SE… Todo se descompone y se hace sospechoso cuando se niega y más tarde se demuestra que si lo había

  3. I’m not even sure what the dialogue can be about. I mean, is the referendum negotiable? The only thing the government wants is to stop the referendum, so if it is non-negotiable, what are they going to negotiate? There is nothing the opposition can offer the government that could be good enough in exchange for allowing the referendum,so I don’t understand what’s the point.

    I believe that your comparison with other times secret talks have been leaked (flipped roles and all) is interesting but not entirely right. I don’t think the government leaks the talks because they are the ones that are weak and kicked the table in frustration. Rather, I think that all along they have been planing to leak the secret talks in order to make it look like the opposition is ready to betray us all and give up the referendum, thus weakening it in front of its supporters.

  4. The civil way to resolve a political/social/economic conflict must be through negotiations. That’s why arbitration lawyers are loaded! Meetings and dialogues must take place. What I condemn is MUDS’s flat deniaI theres been no meeting… Are we 5 years old???

    BTW, I applaud those who can be level headed and sit down in a round table to talk with those motherfuckers…

  5. The opposition wants a referendum, the government doesn’t. The positions are non negotiable. What are they going to negotiate? What leverage does the opposition have to use in a negotiation?

    • Sure, the oppostion has few assets it can claim for itself except for the impotent National Assembly, but the driving force in politics right now is the failed state that Venezuela is becoming. This brutal reality of hunger, fear and general chaos is what Venezuelans want addressed. Moreover, the general feel in the street is that Maduro is to blame for it.

      The military are the ones taking the last swing at propping Chavismo with their General Yuca, and Almirante Pescado gambit, but it is foretold that they will fail. The model will not work, let alone that the military in charge are simply incompetent for the task (running a fish market has nothing to do with sailing in the Caribbean in some second rate warship).

      Effective politicians -sail- the winds of the nation’s mood. Chavismo reminds me of the video of man beach combing in Thailand before the tsunami came in 2004.

      • My take is that most people want Maduro to go, but a lot want to replace him with another revolutionary that will not betray el legado del comandante. The best scenario for the government would be to have the recall in 2017. If they win, case closed. If they lose, then another one of them would take over and the “revolution” would get a new grace period. And in both scenarios they will be viewed as democrats for holding elections.
        They will never accept a 2016 recall, never. I don’t think we will have regional elections until the poll numbers change. There is a precedent with local elections, concejales stayed for almost two complete periods.

  6. It’s easy to get lost in the chronology of the dialogue leak, but it goes something like this:

    Sept. 5: Zapatero makes a surprising arrival in Caracas, after a very short visit hours before the #TomaDeCaracas
    Sept. 6: Capriles, surprised at Zapatero’s visit, demands that he is clear about his visits.
    Sept. 7: Zapatero leaves.
    Sept. 7: María Corina surprises everyone by tweeting, “don’t count on me if a referendum is agreed to take place in 2017”
    Sept. 9: “Gabo” Sanmartin is freed from jail, Timoteo Zambrano thanks Zapatero for its diligences.
    Sept. 11: Enrique Márquez of UNT tells Diario Panorama that the dialogue is at a “very interesting” stage, leaving many wondering what he meant, as the so called dialogue was thought to have been dead since last May’s fiasco at Dominican Republic.
    Sept. 12: Ramos Allup admits talks between Gov and the MUD regarding the Referendum, and nothing else.
    Sept. 12: Diosdado contradicts Ramos Allup, says there are talks, but Referendum is out of the question.
    Sept. 13: 12:30 pm Jorge Rodríguez confirms that exploratory talks took place.
    Sept. 13: 6:00 pm Chuo Torrealba gives further details about the dialogue, gives names.
    Sept. 13: 7:00 pm Maduro and Jorge Rodríguez also give further details and names.
    Sept. 14: MUD releases a statement regarding the dialogue:

    So, as you can see, it wasn’t the regime who blew the lid on the dialogue, it was the opposition, this disproves your whole theory about what happened and why it happened Quico.

    • I believe the oposition is playing for the international community, a segment of which wants to protect Maduro. Samper the main character of which, as Maduro’s puppet, orchestrated Zapatero’s mediation. This mediaion is losing credibility. Only after that loss is the OEA capable of doing anything.

      • Well, of course… ” In each case, leaking secret talks is an easy recourse the hardliners have in seeking to derail the moderates’ advances.”

        That’s quite what happened.

        For good or ill.

  7. Betraying one’s own “back channel” is always dangerous. As most have said, the betrayal is probably at the hands of the Chavistas, who are willing to give up —NOTHING. The RR, if held, would be in 2017, to show the world Venezuela’s “democratic” leanings, with a Chavista Presidency shuffle, perhaps, as a learned friend hypothesizes, to cement the military allegiance, allowing Padrino as VP to Aristobulo’s Presidency….

  8. Yea, I really dont know what is being “negotiated” but I also dont see what can be negotiated.

    First, there are things that just cant be negotiated. Like “stop jailing opposition leaders and release the ones that you have”. You cant negotiate that, or basically any other of the millon crimes they commit with regularity – those have to stop to START thinking about a negotiation.

    And then… what are you going to negotiatie? I mean, imagine it from the chavista point of view. Hey, if the MUD doesnt go for a referendum now we will… what? Offer a “national unity” goverment with a new direction (and Maduro out)? Make a change of policies, like dismantling price controls and exchange controls? Accept that the country is in a dire emergency and sit to talk with international organizations for help?

    Can you imagine them offering anything like that? Can you imagine anybody believing them?

    Negotiation means you have something to offer that the other side will take in exchange for not pursuing their full agenda. Is risk mitigation for both sides – get this for sure and do not have to gamble for it all. Do anybody feel they have anything to offer the opposition?

  9. The dude is dead. Good riddance. But for some reason, millions of people still venerate that evil scumbag.

    Juan Bimbo judges the effectiveness of Venezuelan government according to the amount of oil revenue the government distributes. As such, the initial era of rising oil prices from 1973 to 1981 is associated with good times and thus good government. The era of much lower oil prices from 1986 to 1998 is associated with bad times and thus with bad government. It is no accident that Chavez was elected in 1998, the year when the export price of Venezuelan oil averaged around $10/bbl, much lower than the 1981 peak of close to $40/BBL. $100 oil is the reason many venerate Chavez. Maduro is hated because he is associated with $40 oil.

    That Maduro has not changed but merely continued Chavez’s disastrous economic policies is ignored. That Venezuela’s economic growth under Chavez was anemic compared to other countries- even with the oil price bonanza- is also ignored. Or better said that due to communication hegemony, very few people are aware of this.
    GDP per capita, PPP (constant 2011 international $) 1998-2013 increase
    Upper middle income 112
    Middle income 97
    Low & middle income 93
    Lower middle income 82
    Least developed countries: UN classification 57
    World 44
    Low income 38
    Latin America & Caribbean (excluding high income) 31
    Venezuela 15

    In 1998, Venezuela’s per capita income was $15,361, and for Upper Middle Income, $6584.

    World Bank: World Development Indicators

  10. I am an American that sees a bullet between Maduro’s eyes as a good first step on the road to recovery for Venezuela. The opposition needs to reach out to the common soldier and make him realize that his loyalty is to the people of Venezuela and not to the criminal leaders.
    When the government begins to doubt that the military will act against the citizens, the cracks will open wide in Maduro’s regime. Eventually the soldiers will be hungry. Their families will be suffering along with everyone else. A crack in the military leadership will have these criminals scurrying like rats leaving a sinking ship.
    Reach out to every soldier you see. Plant the seeds of doubt. Make them understand that democracy is the only peaceful solution. Eventually you will cause a schism. Offer amnesty to soldiers and officers that support the opposition. Seeing some people escape justice is better than seeing your family starve.
    I am doing all I can to help people in your country. I ship food, medicine and other necessities to your country. I have a way to transfer money to my friends. I have written my Congressman and Senators and urged them to help the people of Venezuela.
    Maduro must be removed at any cost. His continuing destruction of the country must end.

    • I agree! It seems like the lower the oil prices are, the better will be. It is not who wins or looses its about the future of our country. Sadly the poverty and the hunger will be the only ‘conscious’ that people will listen.

  11. Okay, I know this is besides the real point, but

    “The IRA’s betrayal sets back negotiations years, and opens up one of the bloodiest periods in the troubles.”

    Negotiations were set back years not because of this ‘betrayal’ but because neither side was willing to comply with the other’s basic demands (or at least in a way that was also acceptable to loyalists), among other reasons. The Provisional IRA were at their peak in mid 1972, and thought they were ‘winning’. Many were deeply suspicious of any talks with ‘perfidious Albion’, and of a truce which could prove damaging to them by allowing the British to gather intelligence more safely, have the PIRA volunteers let down their guard, and get a republican populace on ‘war’ footing too used to peace.

    Since the talks were obviously not going to accomplish anything, the PIRA tried to leverage what they could out of it, and they did so by revealing them.

    Anyway, there was a longer truce put in place in 1975, so clearly this ‘betrayal’ did not stop future talks.

    But, back to Venezuela, there are definitely some parallels. There are those in the government who probably want to come to an agreement with MUD, but there are those radicals, criminal generals, and armed collectivos who must be accounted for, and ultimately could stop any agreement they don’t like. Similar to the 3 way situation in Northern Ireland (republicans, loyalists, and british govt)

  12. I think even Chavistas see the writing on the wall that their days are numbered. Villa Rosa’s cacerolazo had to make it patently clear to Maduro, or read Aporrea.

    The problem Chavistas have is that by playing a maximal position of power indeed gives no assets to the opposition to bargain with. They desperately need an Escobar / Gaviria circa 1992 style of arrangement where they can get a symbolic purge for their maleficence with assurances of no extradition while preserving a reassuring amount of their ill gotten fortune. But Chavismo shortsightedness and greed effectively crippled the National Assembly so it cannot concede such a deal and ease the transition.

    Maduro y su combo painted themselves into a corner and they know that the only way forward is a full and naked dictatorship. But consolidating power in this way seems questionable. The people are going hungry! I hear reports that ‘do~nitas del Cafetal’ are starting to go hungry.

  13. This is not about moderate or radicals, that is silly. This is simply about trust. People don’ t care too much about the polititians themselves of even about the negotiations. They only care about the RR because it is the only hope they have. If the RR is held this year, no one will complain about the negotiations at all. On the contrary. But if the RR is delayed then… well, you can’ t expect to come clean after that defeat. If some factions within the MUD think it is better to hold the RR next year, they have to make it public right now and try to convince people of that idea. So this is not about the will or the unwillingness to talk, but about the fear of secret agendas, which is quite understandable given the situation.

  14. Paradoxically it is often the weak and internally divided opponent who adopts the take no prisoners stance, or finds discussion morally objectionable on its own terms. Or the mentally disturbed. Or both. Psychiatrist anyone??

    • Compromise is what negotiation is about. I give something, you give something. Consider negotiation as a poker game. If you have a thousand dollars , you can afford to bet $10- lose $10- give up $10. If you have only $10, you cannot afford to bet $10- lose $10-give up $10. You will be out of the game. The side with the weaker position has less to give.

      Another way to look at it is that Chavismo has never been about compromise, but on winning, on imposing one’s position on everyone. Chavismo will continue this basic strategy, however weak or strong its position is.

  15. The MUD doesn’t have anything to offer? What? What about “hey, dude, you almost failed to pay this years debt with a reduction of ~40% in imports and making the people go hella hungry, what are you going to do in 2017 (and those Arco Minero plans won’t go as fast as you think, trust me…)”? What about “hey, pana, did you hear the rage of your PSUV buddies? They are sliiiightly worried about how you’re making the PSUV the worst sh*t on earth thus making their future go the same way actually; ¡los vas a hacer volverse adecos otra vez!”? What about “hey, listen, did you know that even there had to be a public document regarding how the oppo may be ‘confusing’ foot soldiers among the FANB and making them prone to support the oppo…”? The pressure is not only from the MUD, if that was the case we’ll be doomed. Rumours said ~75 VIP of the PSUV reunited and most voted for Maduro to renounce. If the RR16 (which I think won’t happen) actually happened, do you really think it would’ve been possible without “dialogue” behind the curtain? Really? I think it was Chuo who said something on the lines of “we need to set the conditions on how the gov. will be oppo and viceversa”. Here it is: “Insistió Torrealba (…) que pasarán a la oposición hay que ofrecerles garantías de que podrán ejercer sus derechos políticos”. The whole interview is actually pretty interesting: https://goo.gl/njGaK5

    Do somebody think the oppo has no connections among the military? They’ve probably “dialogued” quite a bit with them too. The Gov. is searching for a way to go out with the less damage for those who are not the main face of this madurista era (including no RR but presidential elections in 2017, which is something I think will happen, that or similar). In any scenario considering the PSUV has institutional strength (and people like Cabello) a dialogue/negotiation will be necessary. Keeping this until 2019 is maybe possible, but HARD. In three years the economy lost 1/4 of its size (considering something like -11% GDP this year). The MUD has a lot to offer, like dealing with this mess, does that seem little to anyone? Well I wouldn’t agree to lead this ship even if drunk! What I don’t understand is why the oppo keeps having no structured communicational planning (specially for risky things like this dialogue fiasco, for the n-th time). Why when Cabello/UNT dude spoils everyone the MUD doesn’t have the plan to set those bots&influencers on fire and create, like the Gov does, this “rumour” about how the Gov. is negotiating their exit? We should be talking about that and not about how the oppo sells the country. The Gov. wins again. They are disgustingly good at it. With no RR16, dialogue will be necessary. The MUD has one task: creating trust among the people. That one thing they totally suck at. Dialoguing is not anyone’s fault. But their response is so badly planned I kindly understand those who don’t see anything but a lack of naïveté….

    • … I fail to see what is your point. I mean, yes, the opposition can offer any of that, which all sounds like variants of “we can shoulder part of the work of fixing this mess if you let us”.

      What nobody in his right mind think is that the government is actually looking for that kind of offer.

      • Obviously the negotiation is not with Maduro, or Cabello. The negotiation is with people like maybe Jaua (among the best valued among chavistas, considering all of them are poorly considered), people that think in a 5-year span can change their image and restart their political career once the worst passed (hideous, but people do forget…take a look all over LATAM). The negotiation is with the military who are seeing how they become the worst valued institution in the country (making it harder to continue meddling with politics and do their ‘business’, like they have always done). The negotiation is with all those no-face chavistas with a lot of money they did with Chávez and Maduro and who’re already thinking in all the business they’re making once the situation changes and who see how the generous hand of the Gov. managing the dollars is smaller as time goes by. It is with all the low-key chavistas who dedicated years to climb inside the PSUV who are seeing all their efforts go to the drain. Maduro, Cabello, et. al. are a little group among a lot of people with different interests in things changing. Basically because everyone knows the Gov. can’t and won’t solve this mess. Maybe those 20 among the top won’t look out for that kind of offer. But that’s irrelevant. The thing is convincing all the other ones. When that happens, we won’t know exactly if they’ll force those 20 to leave with guns or just simply allowing ‘investigations’ to go through, there’re many ways. But they will leave. They are 20 or so human beings. Not gods. Things are already going in this direction, right now it is pretty clear than even with no RR16, Maduro will be forced to leave in 2017 past january-10. The oppo has to negotiate because things are already changing and solving the mess is actually a pretty valuable card to play for a lot of people. Five years is not a lot of time…

        I’m not saying both Maduro, Cabello, etc. do not take part in all the process. But when Chuo says “those who will stay as the oppo” he’s not talking about Maduro nor Cabello. As I said the pressure is not only from the MUD. There’s lots of groups interested in finding a solution, powerful ones, basically because the mess has started affecting their chance to make money with little to no political cost. Keeping this up until 2019 is almost impossible, just look at the mess with the CITGO backing 2017 bonds, etc recently. Reducing the political dinamic to what Cabello or Maduro may want is, in my opinion, pretty naive.

  16. You all talk like “chavistas” is a single organism with a single mind, purpose and desire. In fact is a group of groups and Individuals, each with their own agendas. So, maybe 2016 referendum is bad for Nico and Diosdi but not so much for General X or Governor Y. It’s in MUD’s best interest (and Venezuelan people too) too find out who in the other side is willing to cooperate, under what circumstances and how can they (we?) benefit for that.

    I’d rather see some General or politician walk out and have a change of government now than to prolong the misery and conflict for many years.

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