[After a three week hiatus in order to concentrate on another writing project, I’m back on the blog. I’d like to thank Hugo, Becca and Tim, as well as the folks at WOLA for picking up the slack while I was away.]

It sounds like a reality TV show aimed at highlighting dysfunction more than a high level dialogue aimed at peace. But today’s nationally televised meeting between the government and opposition is not without grounds for optimism. While the starting positions of each side do not look promising, the presence of third party moderators could provide some unexpected progress.

The Opposition

The opposition delegation will include Henrique Capriles, Henri Falcón and most likely Ramon Guillermo Aveledo. It was the opposition’s demand that the meeting be broadcast live on television. This most likely comes from their not inaccurate claim that their positions, arguments and events get little coverage given the government’s hegemony over broadcast media. They see this as a chance to get their message out to the country. As Capriles said yesterday “this is a historic opportunity to confront lies with the truth.”

However, the position of the opposition coalition Mesa de la Unidad Democratica (MUD) is a complex one. The protest movement that has convulsed Venezuela over the past month was begun by radicalized segments of the opposition in defiance of the MUD. In December and January the leading opinion within the opposition was that the best strategy would be to let the government confront social and economic problems of its own making, do the grassroots organizing to grow their own coalition, and negotiate with the government where necessary.

A movement led by Leopoldo López and Maria Corina Machado rejected this path and pushed forward a movement whose main slogan was #lasalida. This was joined by the student movement from Venezuela’s autonomous universities.

López has since been put in jail and Machado has been pushed out of the National Assembly. Yet they have not become important symbols for the movement as many of us though they would. The protest movement has been carried forward by students with the support from the traditional middle class base of the opposition. It is striking how little the protestors even mention López, Machado or any opposition politicians.

Indeed HCR and the MUD have seemingly lost relevance, sometimes not appearing in the news for days at a time. In this sense the dialogue with the government provides an opportunity for them to make themselves relevant as leaders of the opposition coalition.  But it is a complex terrain for them as they risk being seen as traitors by radicalized elements of the opposition who do not support dialogue.

This week the student movement came out saying in clear terms that it rejects dialogue. Voluntad Popular did so yesterday, as did Proyecto Venezuela. Waltzing in and coming to agreement with the government would look like another act of treason by the radicalized base of the opposition. The MUD is likely emboldened by recent polling data that shows it and HCR receiving strong numbers from the broader population as well as strong support for dialogue. However it knows that it risks a split if it too readily comes to agreement.

The MUD’s recent suggestion that their top concern in going to dialogue is the situation of students, as well as their proclamation that the dialogue does not mean the end of the protests, are aimed at alienating this radicalized base as little as possible.

The Government

The government is positioned a little more favorably. Over the past month they have pushed forward with an effort at dialogue that has been shunned by the opposition and has not been recognized internationally. Here they have a renewed effort that they immediately embraced and comes from the multilateral organization that they have heralded as an alternative to the Organization of American States. If the opposition backs away it will give them credible grounds from which they can paint them as intransigent.

Nevertheless the government’s position has its own complexities. After agreeing to dialogue Nicolas Maduro suggested it would not be a negotiation but a debate. “I would be a traitor if I started negotiating the revolution because that power does not belong to me. That power belongs to the revolution, to the people, to history. My job is to administer this power to make more revolution.”

Maduro’s statement might just be pregame posturing. But it also gets at the very real dilemma of his entire presidency. His primary source of strength is the fact that Hugo Chávez named him as his successor. That gives Maduro considerable legitimacy within chavismo. But it does not give him the leadership to push forward with a direction that deviates from the largely unsustainable policies that Chávez left him with.

For example, already last June the government announced its intention to reinstate a free floating “permuta” exchange rate (eliminated by Chávez in May 2010). Yet this did not happen until last month and so far the government has not actually allowed the rate to float freely, limiting its impact. Maduro does not seem to have strong enough leadership to break with Chávez’s policies and take a new direction because doing so would call into question his main source of strength. Nor, in fact, does anyone else in the coalition. As a result the government seems anchored to the past unable to make necessary changes. This puts them in a poor position to make concessions in a dialogue.

The Mediators

While the medium and the two sides’ starting positions do not seem promising, a dual mediation effort represents a source of strength.

This conflict has provided UNASUR with its most significant test to date; and despite international and domestic moans regarding its lack of independence, it has risen to the occasion. As a coalition of countries more than a multilateral agency, UNASUR’s main focus has been to protect the sovereignty of its members. Nevertheless it is not ALBA and contains considerable internal diversity, from strong Venezuelan allies like Ecuador and Bolivia, to somewhat more distant partners like Colombia and Peru.

Without a doubt Venezuela would have preferred that the Chile meeting in February had led to a straight forward letter of support for the Maduro government. Instead it led to an official delegation of foreign ministers. While many expected it to amount to nothing more than an elaborate photo op, they ended up meeting with opposition for 3 hours and human rights groups for 2.5 and proposing to moderate a dialogue.

Having been one of the main advocates of UNASUR from its inception, the government was in a poor position to demur. Likewise now it needs to show itself serious in talks facilitated by UNASUR. The foreign ministers include a clear ally in Ricardo Patiño of Ecuador. However it also includes Maria Ángela Holguín of Colombia who has apparently been a leading voice in pushing for dialogue, and Brazil’s foreign minister Luis Figuereido.

While Brazil has shown more solidarity than distance during the past two months, it is clear that it thinks some negotiation needs to happen. Indeed former President Lula da Silva recently suggested Maduro develop a minimum program to govern with. It seems clear that the Venezuelan government has a lot to lose by not taking Unasur’s first real diplomatic test seriously.

The presence of Vatican officials will likewise provide an anchor for the opposition. From the beginning they have suggested the need for third party mediation and have suggested the Catholic Church. Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin was the Vatican nuncio in Venezuela for five years before he was named by Pope Francis.

Overall the meeting itself could go some distance in addressing the enormous differences between the two sides. One of the reasons for Venezuela’s incredible political polarization during the Chávez period has been the lack of spaces in which the government and opposition meet face to face.