Venezuela talks called 'best' hope to solve impasse over President Maduro

Opposition leaders have temporarily halted their campaign of street marches and legislative action to force out Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and are giving Vatican-mediated talks a chance. Yet the decision has angered some activists who fear Maduro’s true goal in the negotiations is to derail the protest movement.

“Every time the government feels pressure, at home or from abroad, it calls for talks. And every time they have violated all the agreements they reached,” said Maria Corina Machado, who heads a right-wing opposition party and opposes the negotiations. “We are facing off against a dictatorship so we need to have people on the streets.”

Venezuela’s streets have seen scores of raucous demonstrations against Maduro, who has led this oil-rich country into its worst economic crisis in decades. There are shortages of basic foods, like flour, pasta, and cooking oil. Venezuela is edging closer to hyper-inflation. Its currency, the bolivar, has collapsed. The largest-denomination bill is worth only about 10 (Canadian) cents. About $ 200 will buy a trash bag full of Venezuelan cash weighing several pounds.

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Students demonstrate in the streets of San Cristobal in the Venezuelan border state of Tachira, close to Colombia, on Nov. 3. (George Castellanos/AFP/Getty Images)

Polls show that most Venezuelans want Maduro to go. But electoral authorities loyal to the president last month suspended a recall election that was designed to cut short his term. That led to a new round of protests. Finally, the Vatican convinced both sides to take a breather and give negotiations a shot. U.S. special envoy Thomas Shannon also urged them to talk.

“It’s a good-faith effort to find a peaceful way out of the political impasse,” Shannon told reporters on Friday after a three-day trip to Caracas. “It represents the best opportunity to achieve such a goal.”

Concern over political prisoners

In the absence of negotiations, Shannon said street protests can be unpredictable and turn violent — as they did in 2014 when clashes between demonstrators and security forces killed more than 40 people.

But Shannon acknowledged that the Maduro administration “holds the key” to the success or failure of the dialogue. Maduro maintains a firm grip over the armed forces, the judicial system and other institutions that would be major players in a political transition. In addition, the government is holding about 100 political prisoners whom the opposition wants released immediately.

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Dozens of pro-government supporters camp outside Miraflores presidential palace ‘to defend President Maduro,’ and prevent opponents from marching to the site in Caracas on Nov. 3, a day after Venezuela’s opposition leaders called for a temporarily halt to protests. (Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images)

Despite their deep distrust of Maduro, the opposition coalition — called the Democratic Roundtable — which includes about two dozen political parties, agreed to exploratory talks after the Vatican agreed to mediate.  That led to the release of six political prisoners this week, while the opposition called off a major street protest as well as a symbolic political trial of Maduro in congress for dereliction of duty.

But for the dialogue continue, the government has to come forward with major concessions in the coming days, said Henrique Capriles, a former opposition presidential candidate.

Anger over stalled recall referendum

He and other leaders have set a Nov. 11 deadline for the government to put forward a plan to release all political prisoners and to either reinstate the recall referendum or move forward with presidential elections currently scheduled for 2018. They also want to reorganize the Supreme Court and other government bodies that are supposed to be independent, but now answer to the president.

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President Nicolas Maduro has led the oil-rich country into its worst economic crisis in decades. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

“Venezuelans can’t be waiting months for these changes,” Capriles said.

But the government is giving mixed signals. While calling for both sides to find common ground, Maduro also threatened to jail more opposition leaders. And in a bellicose speech on Thursday, the president vowed that “neither through elections nor bullets” would the opposition ever again gain control of the Miraflores presidential palace.

Such comments show the government has no intention of negotiating in good faith, according several opposition leaders who oppose the talks. They point out that in 2014 similar meetings with Maduro helped bring an end to several months of violent anti-government protests but did not lead to any political or economic reforms by his government.

Opposition leader remains imprisoned

“It is hard to negotiate with someone who calls us ‘terrorists’ and threatens us with prison,” said Juan Andres Mejia, a congressman for a party called Popular Will, which opposes the talks. Twelve of the party’s activists have been imprisoned, including its leader Leopoldo Lopez, who was arrested two years ago on what human rights groups call trumped-up charges of inciting riots.

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Lilian Tintori, centre, wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, takes part in an anti-government protest in Caracas on Oct. 26. (Rodrigo Abd/Associated Press)

Phil Gunson, who tracks Venezuela for the International Crisis Group, says that if Maduro takes the talks seriously, they could help stave off a popular uprising by angry Venezuelans and open the door to a peaceful transition of power.

For example, moving forward the 2018 presidential elections to next year might pacify the opposition and defuse the protests. It would also give Maduro and his inner circle — which includes some officials who could face corruption, drug trafficking or human rights accusations under a new government — time to negotiate legal protections or exile.

“Nicolas Maduro has a limited shelf life as leader of the country,” Gunson said. “He may feel that if he’s going to negotiate his future he needs to do it now.”

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