Not only hurricanes are shaking the Caribbean basin these days. With the assassination of Haitian president Jovenel Moïse in Port-au-Prince still fresh, fabricated accusations of an attempted magnicide launched against Freddy Guevara and other important members of Voluntad Popular resounded in Caracas. The unprecedented day of nationwide protests in Cuba, last Sunday, raised the alarm within the Díaz-Canel government, which is to be expected as the Cuban dictatorship has played a key role in the Venezuelan crisis, and has no doubt learned not to give opposition forces a chance to show their strength in the streets—and as we mention in our latest Political Risk Report, they’re telling Maduro to waste no time in crushing the opposition here, too. All this with COVID-19 still ravaging the region and keeping tourism and many businesses on hold, and after a recent show of brute force displayed by the Nicaraguan regime on the western shore of our common sea.
Yes, this sounds a bit like Rubén Blades’s 1981 song Tiburón, written in the heat of the Cold War. But beyond the metaphors, what we see is two allied authoritarian regimes reacting to relative threats and gathering strength to improve their chances of overcoming them. To inhibit the Cubans from escalating the unrest, the Díaz-Canel government deployed organized mobs, police and military to carry out massive detentions while shutting down the internet that was so useful in spreading the call to protest on the streets. To change the perception of a weak regime spread over two days of defiance by gangs in southwestern Caracas, the chavista government repeated the pattern of inventing conspiracy theories and jailed opposition politicians to justify it, no matter how weak the evidence they’re showing through the propaganda apparatus is.
Both Cuba and Venezuela are trusting old tricks and proven methods to handle new situations. Both governments should think that this will yield the results they want and that they won’t pay a high price in terms of domestic resistance or international pressure. The soft response from countries like Canada, Argentina, and Spain to what happened in Cuba just showed how much an authoritarian regime can get away with repression in our times. And Maduro charged against Freddy Guevara a few days after he met European Union representatives in Caracas. Security forces took Guevara in broad daylight, in front of cellphone cameras, and kept him incommunicado for two days after taking him to a first hearing between midnight and dawn. Maduro responded to the humiliations inflicted by a guerrilla front in Apure and a gang in Caracas by taking—at gunpoint—people who would sit at the negotiation table, in front of European mediators.
We can say that the Maduro regime keeps accumulating more tokens to exchange in an eventual negotiation, and even widening the crevasses within the opposition by targeting Voluntad Popular, the organization Leopoldo López and Juan Guaidó come from. But we can also speculate that the Venezuelan government doesn’t expect to concede an inch in those negotiations, and for that reason, believes sanction relief is unlikely in the first place. In a way, they’re fast-forwarding the likely outcome of negotiations at the expense of time they could’ve bought (how much did they need that time?).
And it makes sense. The regime already knows, thanks to initial approaches between the two sides with help from Norway, what the López-Guaidó-G4 opposition will ask for. They also know that what they demand is unacceptable for chavista hardliners. Which leaves them with two options to go forward with negotiations: they could negotiate, sign a pact with the opposition, and then fail to comply; or they could start negotiations and then refuse to sign an agreement palatable to the opposition, i.e., a repeat of the 2018 Dominican Republic negotiations. The first option is a bad idea: by signing an agreement that the opposition likes, even if they had no intention of complying, they would be setting a precedent and a framework, and give the U.S., the EU, and other countries, a laundry list of things to demand: “You want sanctions relief? Just comply with what you already signed.” The signed pact would frame every interaction between the regime and the opposition (and its allies) for the foreseeable future. With the first option a no-go, they are left with the second option, which is essentially 2018 all over again. If they already decided that’s the way to go, it’s better for the regime to sabotage the process from the start than wait until the last moment. Doing so opens the possibility of a negotiation process without the López-Guaidó-G4 opposition, in which they could secure a deal that’s acceptable for chavista hardliners. That deal might not lead to sanctions relief, but would offer the much-sought “normalization” they want. And the root cause of the regime settling for a subpar outcome is something some political commentators have failed to grasp repeatedly: Maduro wants sanctions relief, legitimacy, and “normalization”, but Maduro doesn’t need sanctions relief, legitimacy and “normalization” enough for him to risk surrendering power.
Last week’s PRR covered the state of affairs after the government’s aggressive move against the opposition with behind the scenes insight from both sides of the isle. You can subscribe to the report here.
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