Rumblings about restarting the dialogue between the Maduro government and the Venezuelan opposition have been building over the past month. Yet so far relevant players have sent contradictory signals and there is no clear momentum. New Secretary General of the Union of Southern Nations (UNASUR) Ernesto Samper has mentioned the issue as a priority. And the recent release of Ivan Simonovis generated speculation. Nevertheless, statements by OAS Secretary General Insulza over the weekend made a dialogue restart appear less likely.
The one-month dialogue starting in April of this year was promoted by Unasur and the Vatican in response to the violence occurring in the context of anti-government protests. The talks eventually broke down when the opposition said they were “freezing” their participation until the government acted upon some of their demands.
More than three months passed by with scarce mention of the dialogue by any stakeholders. But at the end of August, Colombian ex-president and newly appointed Secretary General of Unasur, Ernesto Samper said: “the dialogue is frozen, not broken.” Samper continued saying Maduro is “a man of dialogue and peace…I have elements that make me think that within a reasonable time frame it could be possible to restart [the dialogue]. My particular position is that more important than whatever is negotiated in these types of dialogue roundtables, is what is pre-negotiated so that the dialogue does not fail.”
In early September Samper again mentioned the issue. “I aspire to talk with president Maduro, during my next visit to Venezuela, about ways to reactivate the political dialogue that was started by the foreign ministers of Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, and that today is frozen, but not broken.”
It was only fitting that such an impetus come from Unasur as they were the key force behind the first round of dialogue.
Other international actors have likewise made mention of Venezuela’s stalled dialogue process. The government of Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos was one of the key promoters of the April dialogue but by May was absorbed with Santos’ reelection bid. On September 22 Santos declared that his government supported the restart of dialogue in Venezuela: “We are interested in the stability of Venezuela. Anything that happens there affects us.”
However the prospects of dialogue suffered a serious setback on Friday from statements made by OAS Secretary General Miguel Insulza. On Friday he suggested that the opposition could not be expected to dialogue when they have political leaders in jail–thereby adopting the position of opposition radicals who boycotted the April dialogue using exactly this reasoning. In an interview with Spain’s El Pais, he said:
“The opposition can’t sit at the table when there are a bunch of leaders who are in jail, who perhaps did not want to go to dialogue, but are part of the opposition.”
Of course, in the wildly polarized media coverage of Venezuela, this statement had a life of its own in the coming days. El Pais ran the story under the following headline in quote marks as if it were a direct quote from Insulza.
“The Venezuelan Opposition cannot Dialogue if its Leaders are in Prison”
The suggestion seemed to be that opposition’s leaders couldn’t dialogue from their jail cells.
By Sunday Venezuelan daily El Nacional was reporting “The world is pressuring—through the Vatican, the White House, the OAS and presidents—for the liberation of political prisoners as a starting point for resuming government-MUD dialogue” under a picture of the White House. The article described the apparent international consensus developing that liberation of political prisoners should be the precondition of dialogue with the government.
However, if you go to the actual sources, support for this portrayal is scarce. The Pope mentioned the need for dialogue but did not mention political prisoners.
“One should not fear peace. Coexistence, dialogue, reconciliation and unity are not defeats or losses but victories, because he who wins is the human being created by God to live in peace and harmony.”
Barack Obama, in contrast, called for the release of Leopoldo López but did not mention the dialogue. In his speech a the Clinton Global Initiative on September 23, Obama said:
“We stand in solidarity with those who are detained at this very moment.In Venezuela, Leopoldo Lopez; in Burundi, Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa; in Egypt, Ahmed Maher; in China, Liu Xiaobo; and now Ilham Tohti; in Vietnam, Father Ly.And so many others.They deserve to be free.They ought to be released.”
Peruvian president Ollanta Humala arguably supported Insulza’s position when he said (watch from 5:00):
“What we have proposed, the member countries of Unasur, is the establishment of a platform for supporting Venezuela to the degree that Venezuela needs it. We have expressed our rejection of the detentions of people for expressing their opinions or for manifesting these opinions in the street. We believe that things will not be resolved in this way. We have proposed that they recover their freedom, and that the government and opposition sit down and dialogue. And if necessary there could be the presence of a third party such as the Catholic Church. And let them find their path.”
The truth is that international opinion is not so much unified or divided regarding dialogue in Venezuela, as not paying close attention to debates between moderates and radicals regarding whether liberation of political prisoners should be a goal of dialogue or precondition for it. But of course in radical opposition discourse, the world is now united. One widely followed opposition tweeter wrote:
Obama, the Pope, and Insulza said to the MUD: “Hey! Just a minute. You’re going to return to the “dialogue” with your leader’s in jail? What’s up with that?
While many among opposition radicals welcomed Insulza’s arrival in their ranks, others suggested it was too late and that he should simply keep quiet. Former governor of Venezuela’s Federal District, Asdrubal Aguiar wrote the following:
By way of farewell, perhaps with a heavy conscience and close to retiring, the OAS Secretary, too late, affirms what thousands of victims of this wretched Bolivarian revolution already know: there is no democratic dialogue possible, or with any clear destination when one side holds the guns and maintains its political adversaries behind bars…Insulza has arrived a little late. It would be better if, out of shame or as an act of contrition, he just kept quiet.
This is not the first time international statements have fed the centrifugal forces of Venezuela’s public sphere. In early May statements by US State Department Undersecretary Roberta Jacobsen upset the tense calm within the opposition. When she suggested that members of the MUD had asked them not to seek sanctions against the Venezuelan government it was considered a betrayal by opposition radicals and contributed to the demise of the dialogue.
In any case, any move back towards dialogue will depend primarily on the disposition of local actors. We will look at that in our next post.