Leaders of Venezuela’s political opposition are due to sit down at talks in Mexico with the government of President Nicolas Maduro on Friday in a long-awaited dialogue aimed at breaking the nation’s political stalemate and potentially opening the door to challenging 22 years of unbroken socialist rule.
The talks begin days after Venezuela’s main opposition parties on Tuesday announced an end to their three-year boycott of elections, agreeing to field gubernatorial and mayoral candidates in crucial regional races in November for 350 offices mostly held by members of the ruling Socialist Party (PSUV).
A coalition of opposition parties ‘ the ‘Platform of Unity’ is expected to participate in the upcoming vote, presenting the first potential challenge to Maduro’s bloody, authoritarian rule since 2017.
“It really was time for a change and this is a significant change of strategy,” said Phil Gunson analyst for the International Crisis Group, which seeks to find peaceful solutions to international disputes. “If it wasn’t evident before, then it was certainly evident at the beginning of this year, that the insurrectionary route that sought the immediate departure of Maduro, had not worked, and in fact had failed. So, there was a need for a substantial rethink,” he added.
The opposition has historically been divided and many experts doubt that the Maduro regime will allow a level playing field. But there now appears to be broad acceptance that elections deserve another chance.
Opposition leader Freddy Guevara, who was recently freed after a month in jail, said on Tuesday it was time to end the opposition's effort to overthrow Maduro by force.
"The time has come to assume that this dynamic and this vicious circle must stop ... I am absolutely convinced that we have to move on to a process of coexistence. Not coexistence with dictatorial structures, but coexistence between political forces," Guevara told reporters.
Guevara said the opposition should focus on the ongoing talks with the government in Mexico as its best option to restore democracy. "We are convinced that a negotiated solution with the Maduro regime is necessary for Venezuela. The time of displacing and eliminating the other party is over," he added.
His comments mark a shift in tone by the Voluntad Popular party, of which Guevara is a leader. The party has for years been seen as the hard line of the opposition and has been a frequent target of arbitrary arrests and government intimidation.
Some see the move as a sign of acceptance that a policy of international sanctions, led by the United States, were never going to dislodge Maduro and the need for a new domestic strategy to gradually undermine Maduro’s grip on power and at least alleviate the humanitarian and political crisis that has seen six million flee the country.
“It’s not the desired outcome. But it’s a no-win situation. The opposition doesn’t have a lot of options. Trump’s not there anymore to say all options are on the table,” said Russ Dallen, a financial consultant who follows Venezuela closely.
“The opposition is in a difficult position. By running, it helps to legitimize the elections that will not meet ‘free and fair’ standards of any real democracy,” said Vanessa Neumann, former Juan Guaidó-appointed Venezuelan ambassador to the United Kingdom.
“However, if it doesn’t run, the opposition can never build its own electoral system or following, and it just looks like a privileged crybaby … the opposition needs to be in it to win it—even if it can’t. It needs to start somewhere,” added Nuemann, speaking to the Latin America Advisor, published by the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.
Analysts say the opposition stands a good chance of winning some governorships and municipalities, but the country will remain firmly in Maduro’s control.
“In 2019 there was an expectation that the regime would fall. That did not happen and the opposition is concluding that ‘Ok, we should get back to politics. It’s time to start rebuilding the muscle-memory of democratic political life and hope that the 2024 [presidential] election can be a meaningful one,’” said Elliot Abrams, President Trump’s former Special Envoy for Venezuela.
Abrams said he had few expectations for the talks in Mexico which are being mediated by Norway with other countries – the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and France - expected to create an observer group of ‘Friends of Venezuela.’ The Venezuelan delegation is being ‘accompanied’ to the talks by Russia and the opposition by Holland.
Nor did he have high hopes for the elections.
“I don’t think we should be under any illusions that these will be free and fair elections. There won’t be equal access to the media or the ability even for everyone to run. Maduro has 100 percent control of the state and the electoral apparatus,” he said.
Biden and easing sanctions
Some in the opposition, worry that the Biden administration is not paying as close attention to Venezuela as Trump, while others are glad that Washington has adopted a more moderate tone.
But the State Department says Maduro still has a lot to do before sanctions are eased. "If the Mexico City talks produce real change and real openings for democratic actors to engage fairly and freely in Venezuelan public life, then we will take a fresh look at our sanctions. That’s in Maduro’s hands," a State Department spokesperson told Univision.
The State Department spokesperson said the United States would continue to work with the international community to press for a long list of necessary changes in Venezuela: the unconditional release of all political prisoners, increased humanitarian access, freedom of expression, rehabilitation of political parties and a cessation of attacks against civil society.
Opposition leaders now say participating in the elections does not mean legitimizing them. "We don't have all the guarantees, but we can't say that if we don't have 100 percent of the guarantees we won't participate," said Henry Ramos Allup, a leader of one of the four main opposition parties.
As a concession, Maduro has already agreed to allow two opposition members to be named to the five-member National Electoral Council (CNE). While Maduro will still hold a built-in majority, the two opposition members are highly qualified and well regarded. One of them, Roberto Picon is a systems engineer and technical analyst who was jailed for six month by the Maduro regime. The other Enrique Marquez, is a former deputy chairman of the National Assembly and a member of the el partido Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT).
The talks signal perhaps the end of the opposition effort to install Juan Guaidó as interim president, handing at least a temporary victory to Maduro.
The socialist leader is clearly enjoying the moment, declaring in triumphalist tone on national television; “I'm going to sit in my armchair, with the TV on, ith my popcorn to watch Guaido voting on November 21.”
In response, Guaidó tweeted late Tuesday: “Maduro: get serious. We all know that there are no conditions or guarantees for a free and fair election.”
Maduro is showing no signs of being prepared to make any substantive agreement in Mexico to guarantee the conditions for free and fair elections. Instead, he remains focused of lifting U.S. sanctions and recovering Venezuelan government assets frozen overseas, including nearly 2 billion dollars of gold held in the Bank of England in London.
“His ultimate goal is to defenestrate Guado and get his gold back,” said Dallen.