After years of stalemate, Venezuela’s government and opposition appear to be inching towards a compromise that could help unlock the country’s often bloody political impasse.
In a move that its proponents hope opens a path to the return of credible elections, the national assembly, which is dominated by the populist chavista movement of President Nicólas Maduro, installed a new national electoral council (CNE, after its initials in Spanish) earlier this month.
Included among the new CNE’s five members and 10 supplementary members are four widely respected figures who were nominated by Civic Forum, a coalition of independent civic groups. Their inclusion is the first time in over a decade that the body with responsibility for overseeing elections has significant representation not linked to chavismo.
For Maduro, embattled at home after overseeing an unprecedented peacetime economic collapse, and facing the possibility of international charges for human rights abuses, the new council is part of an effort to break out of years of international isolation.
His regime's control over the previous CNE allowed it to rig a series of votes since it lost parliamentary elections in 2015. But this increasing authoritarianism provoked boycotts by most of the political opposition and the refusal of the United Nations, EU and most regional states to recognise the results, eventually leading to crippling US sanctions.
Despite having been one of its demands, the new council has caused tensions within the country’s fractious opposition. After helping to place four nominees on it, Civic Forum welcomed it as “a first step towards the difficult recovery of democratic institutions in Venezuela”.
The group, which is linked to Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader Maduro defeated in the 2013 presidential election following the death of chavismo's founder Hugo Chávez, has been seeking an alternative path out of the political deadlock to that pursued by the main opposition bloc.
Its leader Juan Guaidó is widely seen to have failed in his bid to force Maduro from power by declaring himself interim president following the disputed presidential election in 2018.
Despite widespread unpopularity and often violent protests, Maduro has nullified the threat from his rival by relying on the support of the army and other security forces, which according to the UN’s Human Rights Council have killed thousands of Venezuelans in crackdowns. This has left Guaidó increasingly isolated with little room for manoeuvre.
Capriles called the new CNE an “indispensable first step” towards re-establishing democratic norms, while Guaidó initially dismissed it, saying it had not been negotiated with the opposition. The Organisation of American States, which has recognised Guaidó, also dismissed the move.
But enthusiasm for the changes within Venezuela forced Guaidó to make his own offer this week of a "national salvation agreement", saying he would call for the gradual easing of US sanctions if Maduro agreed to "free and fair" elections, crucially dropping his demand they be held under a transitional government.
The new CNE has already started work, and its first major test will come in November when it will oversee regional and municipal elections. It has announced an audit of the electoral roll and overhaul of the voting system, and says it will seek to have foreign election observers from the EU and other international organisations return for future polls after their refusal to observe recent contests.
But even as part of the opposition looks to trigger a recall referendum against him, local analysts say there is no immediate chance that adding independent members to the CNE will lead to Maduro’s removal at the ballot box.
"The administration won't permit this. It is in a strong position internally, and by making this concession is aiming for negotiations with Europe and to open channels of communication with the US," says Luis Vicente Leon, a political analyst with Caracas consultancy Datanalisis.
According to Leon, participating in freer elections could help the opposition escape from the cul-de-sac of Guaidó’s failed all-or-nothing opposition to the regime. But several of its leaders warn that Maduro is setting a trap, seeking to entice them into a restricted democratic opening in return for the lifting of sanctions that would provide him with access to desperately needed hard currency.
Other recent moves by the populist strongman aimed at winning concessions from Washington include a report to the International Criminal Court on steps being taken to prosecute suspects in the killing of opposition members while in state custody.
The regime has also dropped its ban on allowing the UN's World Food Programme into the country to feed 1.5 million children facing hunger, and is working with the opposition to fund the import of vaccines against coronavirus.
It also granted house arrest to six oil executives with dual Venezuelan-US nationality in jail since 2017.
The Biden administration has acknowledged the signals coming from Caracas but has yet to respond to them, and it is unclear if they will be sufficient to get Washington to lift its sanctions against Venezuela’s oil sector. This is regarded as crucial to halting an economic collapse that has seen the economy contract by 75 per cent since Maduro came to power, with the IMF projecting it will shrink another 10 per cent this year.
More than five million Venezuelans have fled their country, which despite having the world’s biggest oil reserves has, according to several measures, seen its citizens fall behind Haitians to become the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.