Venezuela’s opposition to switch tack by taking part in local elections

Move is tacit agreement western-backed tactics are failing to unseat Nicolás Maduro

 Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó. Photograph: Yuri Cortez/AFP via Getty Images

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó. Photograph: Yuri Cortez/AFP via Getty Images

 

Venezuela’s main opposition bloc will field candidates in November’s regional and local elections for the first time in four years as it prepares to reopen negotiations with president Nicolás Maduro’s hardline socialist government.

The move is a tacit acknowledgment that the opposition strategy – backed by the US and EU – of trying to unseat Maduro through street protests, diplomatic pressure and ever-tighter economic sanctions has so far failed.

Maduro, who came to power in 2013, claimed victory in a 2018 election that was boycotted by the opposition and denounced as a sham by western governments. He has presided over a collapse of Venezuela’s oil-dependent economy, which has triggered a refugee crisis, but has clung to power with support from Russia, China, Iran and Turkey.

In a statement released days before Norwegian-sponsored talks with Maduro’s representatives are due to begin in Mexico City, the opposition coalition said it had decided to participate in November’s elections after an “extensive and difficult” internal debate.

Tightened grip

As Maduro has tightened his grip on power, taking over political parties and appointing allies to run the electoral council, the opposition has been divided between those who want to compete in flawed elections and those advocating for a boycott.

“We know these elections will not be fair or conventional,” the bloc said. But the polls would serve as a “useful battleground” in its campaign to secure free and fair presidential and legislative polls as soon as possible.

The move comes after more than two fruitless years of western-led attempts to drive Maduro from power. At the start of 2019, the US and EU tried to force regime change by recognising opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president and squeezing Maduro’s military-backed government with a “maximum pressure” campaign of ever-tougher sanctions.

Maduro responded by cracking down harder on the opposition, including jailing dozens of prominent figures and tightening his grip on key institutions. At the start of this year, the EU backed away from its recognition of Guaidó as interim president and started pushing for negotiations to restart.

Fourth attempt

The Mexico City talks are the fourth attempt in five years to resolve Venezuela’s political crisis.

A Vatican-backed initiative failed to get off the ground in 2016. Talks in the Dominican Republic ended in failure in 2018 and in 2019 Norwegian-brokered talks in Oslo and Barbados also floundered. Critics of Maduro have said he uses negotiations to play for time and divide his enemies and that he had no intention of surrendering power.

“There is good reason to be sceptical about the prospects of success for this round, particularly in light of past failures,” said Phil Gunson, senior analyst for the Andes region at Crisis Group. “But negotiations remain the only reasonable route to ending the political showdown.”

This time, there will be greater international participation in the talks, which start on Friday and run until Monday. Maduro’s negotiators will be joined by the Russians, who are regarded as crucial to any solution in Venezuela, while a Dutch delegation will accompany the opposition. The US will play a more passive role.

The government and opposition sides met briefly in August to sign a memorandum of understanding, which listed points for discussion. These included political rights, electoral guarantees, the lifting of US and EU sanctions, human rights and economic policies.

Significant

“Perhaps the most significant aspect of the document is that is does not refer to the opposition as the ‘interim government’,” noted the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a US non-governmental organisation. “This has been interpreted by many as implicit recognition by the Guaidó coalition that Maduro retains de facto power.”

After so many previous failures, expectations remain low.

Maduro’s team is looking for sanctions relief to ease pressure on the ruined economy, while the opposition has dropped its demand that the president quit as a first step in a transition of power.

Guaidó’s negotiators plan to seek more modest goals, including the release of political prisoners, an agreement on using frozen Venezuelan funds to buy coronavirus vaccines and a more level playing field for the November elections.

Crucially, in a recent joint declaration, the US, EU and Canada said they were willing to lift sanctions gradually if they saw advances at the negotiating table.

“Maduro is unlikely to budge on much, unless he achieves his primary objective: an easing of the US sanctions that have isolated his government financially and made him increasingly dependent on Russia, China and Iran,” WOLA said.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021