Negotiate What, Exactly?

While Delcy Rodriguez can be seen in Brussels in the same table with several presidents and opposition negotiator Gerardo Blyde, the reality is that the government seems to be leaving openness behind

Over the last few months, we’ve seen an increase of authoritarian actions carried out by Nicolas Maduro’s government. The entire board of directors of the national electoral council was “resigned,” the leading opposition presidential candidate was barred from running for office, and Jorge Rodríguez has been loudly yelling that the European Electoral Observation Mission will not be returning for 2024. On top of all this, 2023 is now the second-consecutive year that has seen the minimum wage stagnate, amid almost daily protests from the public and private sector, and in the middle of a vast purge of former government associates who happened to be on the wrong side of the power struggle.

Winning a reasonably free and fair election would reaffirm Maduro’s hold on power and get further sanction relief. So why are they reacting with such harsh measures? Well, it’s possible that Maduro has just accepted he can’t win a fair election so he’d rather not try. That said, he knows going down that path won’t get him any closer to sanctions being lifted or the vital cash infusions his government seems to need.

That’s why he may resort to his favorite tactic: empty negotiations.

The Hardships of Negotiating with Maduro

It’s been reported that the Maduro administration has held talks with the United States in private just this summer, and this week we saw Venezuela’s vice president Delcy Rodríguez travel to Belgium for a European Union-CELAC summit as well as a sit-down with notable world leaders interested in Venezuela’s situation. It seems then, that new rounds of negotiations may be around the corner so it’s worth asking a few serious questions.

A big one is the “why” behind all of this. Why would Maduro negotiate with the opposition? The opposition’s standing in any negotiation is incredibly weak for one simple reason: they have nothing to offer.

The one thing that Maduro’s regime constantly talks about, the sanctions, aren’t even in the opposition’s control. This means that the Unitary Platform’s wishes in any negotiation are subject to whether they align or not with those of the United States at any given moment, even though María Corina Machado’s presidential campaign has picked up some steam recently, resulting in the regime banning her from running for office.

Beyond the why, what would be the subject of negotiations? We know the lifting of sanctions would be central, or at least any sort of deal which results in a serious cash infusion for the regime. So, that’s pretty easy, but what would the other side get in return? It has to be something the opposition wants, something the government is willing to give up, and something that can’t just be reversed on a whim.

And this is a key problem in negotiations with Maduro & Co.: they’re very good at coming up with “concessions” that don’t really mean much, don’t hurt their power, and can easily be taken back whenever they so desire.

Preparing for a new round of negotiations Maduro has tilted the tables in his favor by creating a brand-new batch of bargaining chips out of thin air: the appointment of a new CNE board, an electoral calendar, the restoration of political rights to some of those barred from running, the threat of canceling the opposition primary. Maduro’s government could easily push for sanctions relief (even if just momentarily), or try other less impactful but still important deals such as humanitarian aid disbursements to be managed by his government. If he gets anything in return for these chips then the deal would be, quite literally, free.

Remember, we had a “balanced” CNE, we had international observers for the last election, and now we don’t. Any deal where he promises to “give” these things up is worthless because nothing would stop Maduro from just taking it all back when things don’t pan out the way he wants.

The regime could propose a deal where they restore the political rights of a “leading opposition figure.” Who do you think that person would be? Do you believe it would be someone capable of defeating the government at the ballot box? Even if the government decides to restore an actual rival’s political rights, what will stop them from just banning them again if things get a little out of hand?

This is why the US tends to negotiate in exchange for freeing US nationals that have been imprisoned in Venezuela. A freed American can return to their country and be out of Maduro’s grasp. This is not the case for any of the “concessions” the regime gives the opposition. Freed political prisoners can be thrown back in jail, activists can be detained, politicians can be barred from running for office, the CNE can just be dismantled again.

Maduro would need to fear the consequence of breaching the deal more than he fears the deal itself, and the reward would have to be so good that he signs onto the deal instead of just rejecting it outright.

Let’s imagine a deal over fair elections. The risk of accepting it is a chance of losing power, while the consequences for pulling out of the deal would have to be a much higher or certain chance of losing power, and the reward would have to be something that makes the consequences of breaching the deal worth it. Lifting sanctions isn’t enough to convince Maduro to risk everything

Is such a deal possible right now? I highly doubt it, which is why, for the time being, we should be very wary of any deals promising fair elections and an immediate end to the crisis. If you see anyone claiming that negotiations would fix this issue, ask them: negotiate what, exactly?