MEXICO CITY (AP) — Representatives of President Nicolás Maduro and the Venezuelan opposition on Friday showed eagerness to find a common path out of their country’s political standoff, meeting in neutral territory for formal dialogue for the first time in more than two years and agreeing on an agenda for future discussions that includes social and electoral matters.
Allies of Maduro and the opposition, which is led by Juan Guaidó, met in Mexico City and signed a memorandum of understanding for talks facilitated by the Norwegian government. The dialogue process is expected to begin in earnest in September.
“That is our integral objective, (to) achieve a comprehensive agreement that benefits everyone, that when we achieve it, no one feels defeated and we all feel included,” Gerardo Blyde, head of the opposition’s delegation, said after signing the document. “An inclusive agreement for all, even for those who today, perhaps with just reasons, may be skeptical about what is being started.”
The memorandum’s agenda contemplates a schedule for elections that would include observers, renouncing violence, reparations for victims of violence, social and economic measures and the lifting of sanctions.
The latest round of talks, the third in four years, are taking place under very different circumstances, the only constant being that Maduro remains in power. The country’s crises have worsened, the opposition has weakened and fractured, the U.S. policy toward Venezuela remains unclear, and millions of people in the troubled country are more focused on surviving the pandemic than on politics.
The U.S., whose sanctions have exacerbated Venezuela’s punishing economic crisis and derailed the last round of negotiations, is not participating directly in the process. It nonetheless holds influence over whatever the two sides agree on.
“At this point in the development of the political life of Venezuela and of the so-called international community, it is already known that Venezuela does not operate based on pressure, pressure does not work on us,” said National Assembly president Jorge Rodríguez, chief of the delegation representing Maduro.
Rodríguez called on delegates to act swiftly following months of conversations and exploratory phases and urged them to “take care of the hope” of the citizens of the South American nation.
Millions of Venezuelans live in poverty amid low wages and high food prices resulting from the world’s worst inflation rate and irregular dollarization of the economy. The food assistance agency of the United Nations has estimated that one of every three Venezuelans is struggling to consume enough daily calories.
The country’s political, social and economic crises, attributed to plummeting oil prices and two decades of government mismanagement, have continued to deepen with the pandemic.
“The polls demonstrate that there is a deep desire for change, but there’s also deep fatigue for two reasons, not only the daily struggle for survival, but also the inability of politicians up until now to make any difference in their daily lives,” Cynthia Arnson, director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program, said ahead of Friday’s meeting. “I think there’s a broad skepticism.”
Damaris Álvarez, a coordinator of a Venezuelan public music school, said her roughly $4 monthly salary is not enough to buy all the food her family needs. She added that she will follow the negotiations between the government and the opposition but insisted that her priority is “to resolve the day-to-day” problems.
Months before COVID-19 spread around the world, representatives of Maduro and the Venezuelan opposition for weeks shuttled back and forth to Barbados to try to reach an agreement. Mystery surrounded the discussions, also guided by Norwegian diplomats, in the summer of 2019, but Venezuelans were hopeful for change.
The fragile process, however, fell apart when the administration of then-President Donald Trump announced sweeping new sanctions freezing all of the Venezuelan government’s assets in the U.S.
Maduro’s allies would not return to the table and the opposition finally declared the talks over. They would go on to lose its leadership of the National Assembly in an election. Soon, the world’s attention shifted to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Vatican, Norway and several Latin American nations have sponsored previous attempts at dialogue, all of which ended up strengthening Maduro and leading to a crackdown on his opponents.
While those failures have dampened expectations for a breakthrough among regular Venezuelans, even harsh critics of Maduro like Elliott Abrams, the former Trump administration’s envoy to the South American country, recognize that conditions for negotiations have improved.
That’s because unlike past talks, domestic and international support for Guaidó has faded, weakening his ability to demand Maduro’s removal. Less than 10 of the more than 60 nations that once recognized Guaidó’s self-proclaimed government still maintain that recognition, according to a report this month by the Wilson Center.
“There is a likelier chance of success if you define success as reaching a deal,” said Abrams, now a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council of Foreign Relations. “But if you define it as an actual improvement in human rights conditions, for example freedom of assembly or freedom of the press, then I’m not sure there will be progress.”
Abrams pointed to the re-arrest last month of Freddy Guevara, a top opposition strategist, as a sign that Maduro remains firmly in control of the judiciary and security forces and won’t hesitate to use them against opponents should he tire of talks. Maduro accuses Guevara of having ties to “extremist groups.”
Guevara previously spent three years holed up in the Chilean ambassador’s residence in Caracas until the charges were dropped last year as part of a political thawing that has accelerated with the election of Joe Biden.
Associated Press writer Josh Goodman contributed to this report from Cleveland.