Venezuela is in critical condition, suffering simultaneously from economic catastrophe, growing social unrest, looting, violence, and rampant crime. The political opposition has long recognized the gravity of the country’s problems. Now, at long last, the chavista government itself appears to be following suit. Last month, after President Nicolás Maduro appointed General Vladimir Padrino López to a "superminister" post, with sweeping powers to oversee supplies of food and other basic goods, the general noted succinctly: "A government that cannot govern is not a government."
The organized political opposition, the Mesa de Unidad Nacional (MUD), won a major electoral victory in last December’s elections, winning more than two-thirds of parliamentary seats (although less than 60 percent of the popular vote). But this remarkable victory turned out to be largely symbolic, as Maduro’s government has checkmated the legislature’s initiatives and threatened to close it down.
Each side has important social and electoral bases of support, but neither can impose its will to remove its opponent.
The opposition has now focused its energies on a campaign to recall the president, and has worked with great determination, despite government obstruction, to meet the complicated prerequisites for this procedure (which is provided for by the constitution). It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that the executive will succeed in putting off the possible recall until after the beginning of January — at which point, according to the constitution, a recalled president would be succeeded not by new elections but by the elevation of the sitting vice-president, thus thwarting the opposition’s aim of ousting the chavistas.
Government and opposition have reached a standoff: Each side has important social and electoral bases of support, but neither can impose its will to remove its opponent. The government is demonstrably unable to solve the country’s evident and growing difficulties. Top officials are clearly worried about losing control of the situation entirely, and they are correspondingly insisting on their prerogatives and denying space to the opposition. The chavistas deeply distrust the opposition — not an unreasonable stance, given the last eighteen years of history. Though freely elected in 1998, Hugo Chávez and his allies were long denied legitimacy and actively attacked by the establishment, which is now in the opposition. Over the years, they have used an attempted coup, a strike at the state oil company, boycotts, and demonstrations to try to topple the government.
For their part, the leaders of the opposition likewise do not trust the government, which has used arrests, economic pressure, media manipulation, expropriation of property, and electoral blacklists to maintain its grip on power. Some, perhaps many, reject the very idea of dialogue with the government as simply a ploy by the regime to gain time and postpone the recall. Opposition leaders are generally inclined to make demands but not to offer concessions. Individual ambitions and competition among the opposition leaders prevent them from developing a coherent strategy and agreeing on tactics. The opposition movement, the MUD, has been less a unified front than a series of parties and personalities in ambivalent search of potential unity. It comes together for elections but then falls apart again.
Up to now, the fundamental instinct, both in the government and in the opposition, has been intransigence. Polarization and strident rhetoric have contributed to the daunting impasse. No Venezuelan personality or institution has the stature, convening power, and credibility to begin a process of political negotiation — probably not even the Catholic Church, long a respected mediator in other Latin American crises.
Even so, a move is now under way to find a path to political dialogue, eventual negotiation, and possible future power-sharing arrangements. An international initiative under the auspices of UNASUR (a South American regional organization, headed at present by former president Ernesto Samper of Colombia) is brokering an incipient dialogue between the government and the opposition. Former Prime Minister José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero of Spain has been taking the lead, accompanied by former president Leonel Fernández of the Dominican Republic and Martín Torrijos, former president of Panama. The European Union has endorsed Zapatero as a mediator, though it has declined to give him a formal title or mission, perhaps because Venezuelan opposition figures, who generally distrust international mediators, have lobbied hard against him.
Both the government and the MUD have agreed that the Vatican should play a mediating role. The UNASUR mission also has the backing of the U.S. government, although the Republican-dominated Congress surely would be dubious if it were paying attention. OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, whose own capacity to mediate was compromised by his earlier attempt to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter in order to intervene personally in the Venezuelan morass, apparently accepts Zapatero’s lead.
Up to now, the fundamental instinct, both in the government and in the opposition, has been intransigence.
An important factor promoting this incipient dialogue is the shared interest of several powers — including Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, the United States, China, and the European Union — in a stable Venezuela that would produce and export large amounts of petroleum, import needed products from its major suppliers, pay its debts, refrain from destabilizing its neighbors, and effectively address its humanitarian crisis. Another is Venezuela’s increasing regional isolation due to recent changes in the politics and policies of Argentina, Paraguay, Peru and Brazil. Elections in the first three countries, and the impeachment process against Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, have removed or weakened some of Maduro’s more powerful friends. The MERCOSUR (Southern Common Market) bloc, which had given Venezuela international protection in recent years, has also now realigned, distancing itself from the Maduro government.
Even in the best-case scenario, building conciliation and mutual tolerance will not be easy in an environment in which, at least until now, both sides consider the current situation more advantageous than conceding anything to the other side. But they can take inspiration in the political courage and flexibility shown by many other leaders around the world, working both within incumbent regimes and in political oppositions, who have helped achieve transitions from authoritarian rule towards democracy.
In Brazil, Chile, Poland, Spain, and elsewhere, such leaders have inspired hope by articulating a positive and inclusionary vision of the future without arousing unrealistic expectations of immediate and total change. They have found spaces and means for informal dialogue to explore ways to move forward, such as the "talks about talks" between the African National Congress and unofficial representatives of the South African government or the Round Table discussions between the Communist government and Solidarity in Poland. They have encouraged those within an authoritarian regime who seek a safe exit that this might indeed be possible, while excluding those among the opposition who reject compromise or threaten the use of violence — as was necessary in Brazil, Chile and Spain. They have improved electoral laws and created independent electoral authorities to build trust in the electoral process, as occurred in Mexico over several years.
Notably, successful transition leaders around the world — again, from both incumbent regimes and oppositions — have had to make compromises, even painful and unpopular ones, preferring modest advance to heroic defeat. In 1988 in Chile, Patricio Aylwin, leader of the united opposition to the Pinochet government, prevailed after bitter disagreement among opposition groups in securing the opposition’s participation in a plebiscite, despite the risk of thereby legitimizing Pinochet. This decision made possible the dictator’s historic ouster. In Brazil in 1986, Fernando Henrique Cardoso and other key opposition leaders succeeded in dialing down the public clamor for "direct elections, now," resisted by the military government, agreed to contest the elections under the military’s rules, named a civilian official of the military government as the opposition’s vice-presidential candidate, and won the indirect presidential elections that ended military rule. And in 1989-90, the leaders of Solidarity and its democratic allies accepted the participation of the Communists in the first democratically elected government of post-Communist Poland.
They found ways to recognize each side’s contributions to national progress.
The architects of previous democratic transitions learned the delicate art of mobilizing international support without being perceived as instruments of foreign intervention, as illustrated by the ANC in South Africa and, indeed, by skilled opposition leaders in each of the countries mentioned above. They asserted their commitments to constitutional freedoms while ending gross human rights violations, such as the detention of political prisoners and the threat of incarceration for legal protest. And they developed modes of documenting abuses, recognizing and sometimes compensating victims by appointing Truth and Reconciliation commissions or other such bodies, without seeking revenge or exacting full justice in the fraught conditions of a democratic transition.
They found ways to recognize each side’s contributions to national progress. And they worked together on necessary economic and social changes, as illustrated by Spain’s Moncloa pact among political parties, business organizations and trade unions. Often they cooperated with humanitarian relief programs and international financial institutions to begin the process of economic recovery. In most of these countries — and especially in Chile, Spain, and Brazil — opposition leaders invested time and effort to build unity among the democratic opposition, eliciting personal and party sacrifices to achieve shared goals and developing clear programs for governing.
All these challenges face Venezuela today. They are difficult, but they need not be insurmountable. The circumstances of South Africa, Chile, Indonesia, Brazil, and other countries were arguably much more hostile to peaceful democratic transition than those facing Venezuela, but creative approaches were found by those deeply committed to fashioning them.
All Venezuelans, as well as the international community, should understand that the prospects for a better future may depend on taking full advantage of the incipient process of dialogue, mediation and negotiation. All concerned need to bear in mind the importance of compromise, patience and the ability to listen as well as to pronounce.
Abraham F. Lowenthal, a widely-published scholar, is the founding president emeritus of the Pacific Council. He is professor emeritus of International Relations at the University of Southern California, and an adjunct professor at Brown University’s Watson Institute. He was also the founding director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program and the Inter-American Dialogue. He co-edited Democratic Transitions: Conversations with World Leaders.
This article was originally published in Foreign Policy's Democracy Lab.The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Pacific Council.