Time After Time: 20 Years of Negotiations in Venezuela

On August 13th, 2021, chavismo and the opposition begin a new attempt at political dialogue. The regime wants sanctions relief; the opposition, elections. Let’s remember the milestones of a frustrating history of talks

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

August 2001: The Calm Before the Storm

  • Actors: Chávez’s government and the business sector. 

When FEDECÁMARAS, Venezuela’s most relevant business chamber, reacted against the changes in economic policy deployed after the implementation of the 1999 Constitution, Pedro Carmona, then president of the chamber, met with the government after an invitation from President Hugo Chávez, to convene in an attempt to ease tensions between the two groups. This dialogue effort was mostly led by the business sector; political parties couldn’t agree on what to do. However, it failed to the point that, in December 2001, the government passed 49 laws that increased expropriations and controls, which contributed to the political crisis that ended—in April 2002—with Carmona declaring himself president for two strange days. 

September 2002 to July 2003: Boston Group Talks

  • Actors: Chavista and opposition deputies of the National Assembly and a delegation from the U.S Congress. 

After the coup attempt in April 2002, the National Assembly (AN) and the U.S. Congress formed the Boston Group, a cooperation network between the two legislative bodies. The AN delegation included chavistas and opposition members.

There were only two meetings, to discuss improvements in the conditions of democracy, poverty, and the role of the media (a very heated subject after the April events). The group faded after the 2005 boycott of the National Assembly elections by the opposition.

May 2003: Forum for Negotiation and Agreement 

  • Actors: Chávez’s government, the opposition, United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Carter Center, and OAS Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria. 

In parallel to the Boston Group talks, opposition and government representatives agreed to meet with delegations of the UNDP, the Carter Center, and the OAS. These talks didn’t fall apart and allowed for the Carter Center to act as a liaison between government and opposition to agree on electoral conditions. This mission also started projects against polarization and political confrontation at the grassroots level that outlived the national discussions. 

Gaviria had a 22-point plan, but negotiations revolved around an electoral solution to the crisis and ended with an agreement to hold a recall referendum of Chávez in 2004, which reassured Chávez´s mandate and further divided the opposition. 

January 2011: Dialogue Attempt around the Enabling Law

  • Actors: Chávez’s government and the opposition 

Towards the end of its term, the chavismo-controlled National Assembly granted Chávez an Enabling Law for 18 months. This happened during the largest oil boom in recent history, as the price of the West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil averaged $94.87 per barrel. The opposition claimed that the law granted Chávez dictatorial powers and that the move was to undermine their win of 40% of the legislature for the 2011-2016 term. Per the proverbial tira y encoge, that classic technique Chávez used so well, pushing his authoritarian rule ten steps forward and then pivoting as he would take one back, he offered the possibility of dialogue and said the result could be the end of the Enabling Law a year earlier. The offer reeked of bait, and the opposition, at large, didn’t go for it. In the end, the executive powers granted by the Enabling Law stayed in place for the original 18 months. Unlike in other cases, the talks didn’t fall apart, they just didn’t happen.

February to April 2014: National Peace Conference 

  • Actors: Maduro’s government, the opposition alliance MUD, the Vatican and UNASUR.

After the 2014 protests, UNASUR and the Vatican sponsored dialogue between the government and MUD. This effort led to a six-hour-long televised dialogue with 22 speakers that quickly became an unfocused discussion with some additional private meetings. 

Both parties agreed to establish a Truth Commission to investigate the casualties of the 2014 protests, discuss fulfilling vacancies in the TSJ and CNE and reconsider the humanitarian situation of political prisoner Iván Simonovis. The government only complied with the last one. The government continued to enforce violence against the protests, as well as its hunt of opposition leaders. The talks broke down after a month. Ramón Guillermo Aveledo, executive secretary of MUD, said they weren’t available for a situation in which they had to maintain an “appearance of dialogue.”

October 2016: Forum for Dialogue and Negotiations 

  • Actors: The opposition, the government, the Vatican, and UNASUR.

In 2016, Henrique Capriles led a recall referendum campaign against Maduro that was suspended by the Maduro-aligned CNE after it claimed that there had been fraud during the preliminary petition stage. This led to the emergence of protests. In the midst of these, the Vatican met with Maduro and convinced both parties to participate in a discussion of a five-point agenda moderated by the Vatican and UNASUR. The opposition withdrew from the talks after the government reneged on certain key accords: to allow humanitarian aid, reform the National Electoral Council (CNE) board, free jailed activists, and restore the National Assembly’s powers. Also, opposition leaders saw this as an attempt to stall until the deadline of the referendum.

December 2017: The Dominican Republic Negotiations 

  • Actors: The government, the opposition, Danilo Medina (Dominican president) and José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero (former Spanish prime minister)

After a significant push to usurp the powers of the opposition-led National Assembly and the increase of deadly protests, both parties agreed to talks in the Dominican Republic around a six-point agenda that included opening a humanitarian channel, the creation of electoral conditions, the liberation of political prisoners, and the restitution of the powers taken away from the AN. However, talks fell after the government signed a unilateral agreement that the opposition didn’t agree to, and rushed the 2018 presidential elections. Furthermore, the government claimed that they obtained information that led to the execution of Oscar Pérez, and his associates from the conversations at the talk. The negotiations entered an extended recess. 

May 2019: The Oslo/Barbados talks 

  • Actors: Maduro’s government, Juan Guaidó’s caretaker government, the Norwegian government.

After Guaidó’s claim to the presidency in early 2019 drastically escalated the political crisis, both parties agreed to meet in Barbados and in Oslo. Maduro’s government asked for sanctions relief and the opposition pursued improved electoral conditions. Despite brief progress, the talks came to an end in September, after the U.S. government increased sanctions against the Maduro government. Maduro’s government met later with a faction led by Timoteo Zambrano with no significant progress.

The Pattern

How to make sense of all of this? To find out, I reached out to Professor Benigno Alarcón Deza, the director of the Government and Political Studies Center at Andrés Bello Catholic University. He pointed out the following patterns that we’ve seen in the previous attempts of dialogue.

  1. Throughout most of the processes, there’s a difference in agendas. Both sides are arriving at the negotiating table looking for different things. The government is looking for a mechanism to remain in power and the opposition is looking for electoral conditions that will weaken the government’s power. The government won’t negotiate to end up on the losing side and, if the conditions outside of the negotiating table are already favorable to the government, there’s no reason to remain in the process. 
  2. In essentially all of the processes, both the opposition and the government are deeply asymmetrical. Regardless of its low approval rates, the government has the capability to enforce its desired course of action without facing an existential threat. The opposition can’t do that, since it doesn’t have the power to physically confront the government. It has no other option than to cooperate with negotiations with the government because there’s no other alternative. 
  3. Many of the dialogue attempts, like in 2002, 2014, or 2017, happened after moments in which the conditions seemed to change against chavismo. However, it has instrumentalized this process to stall or to dissipate danger by dividing the opposition. This is because, while the government doesn’t incur a political cost by sitting down and negotiating, the opposition does. By being fractured by the question of whether to negotiate or not, the opposition is almost always criticized by its supporters when participating under accusations of “foolishness” or “betrayal”.

The Expectations

What to expect from Mexico then? Very little. The patterns that we’ve seen in the past are bound to repeat themselves. The opposition and the government are still very much asymmetrical and the conditions outside of the negotiation table don’t indicate any incentive for the government to make significant changes or to improve electoral conditions. According to Professor Alarcón, it’s very important to go into these processes with the most realistic outlook possible and, in this situation, the best-case scenario for the opposition is to demonstrate that the government doesn’t negotiate in good faith. Other than that, we’ll just have to keep watching the situation unfold and waiting for further developments.