CARACAS – The announcement of negotiations in Oslo between Nicolás Maduro’s government and the Venezuelan opposition took most of the country by surprise. Though the basis for the talks was built quietly over several months, their beginning marked a new phase in the country’s political conflict.
How did we get here, and what are the possibilities for success?
Two failed attempts to push a rapid break within chavismo left National Assembly President Juan Guaidó and his backers weighing less radical options for a transition. Guaidó’s April 30 effort to rally the military against Maduro fell victim to the same false assumption that stymied Hugo Chávez’s coup attempt in 1992. The idea that loose military movements in opposition to the government will snowball among the rank-and-file disregards the nature of the military establishment, which tends to move as a bloc if it moves at all.
And so immediate hopes rest on Oslo. Exploratory talks began just two weeks after the April 30 uprising, indicating that the opposition had already been testing the possibility of negotiations while pursuing its preferred path of a dramatic rupture within the government. With those talks underway, Guaidó now faces two fundamental problems.
The first is that he must deal with currents within the opposition that do not want a negotiated exit for Maduro. This is not a minor point, as it includes his own political group. Opposition figures like María Corina Machado, Diego Arria and Antonio Ledezma have maintained a hard line when it comes to how the conflict should be managed. They want terms of surrender, not a negotiation. Some who support this approach genuinely believe that it is the only way to bring about a transition; others may see tough talk as a way to bolster their public image.
Guaidó thus faces a difficulty common to opposition movements in the fight against authoritarianism: how to maintain unity among figures with their own egos and diverse interests. Pressure from international actors, especially the Lima Group and the European Union, which have been consistent in calls for a peaceful resolution to the conflict, may help in this regard.
A second, related problem is how to sell the benefits of dialogue to a skeptical public that remembers the fruitless attempts at negotiation with Maduro in Caracas in 2016 and the Dominican Republic in 2018. In both those cases, Maduro did not feel much pressure to reach a meaningful settlement with the opposition. He was more interested in biding time, and that may again be the case today – it is to be expected that every actor in this process would hope to get as much of an advantage from the situation as they can, and for Maduro that still means finding ways to hold on to power.
But despite the risks, the circumstances today are very different. Maduro is likely to still feel that he’s holding most of the cards, but time is not on his side as it once was. International pressure today is much more significant than in previous years, with steps from the U.S. and others limiting his government’s autonomy and ability to mobilize financial resources, and numerous officials and figureheads of the regime facing personal sanctions that directly affect their livelihoods. The crisis in oil production and the collapse of basic services also means that pressure from the Venezuelan public is more readily maintained. As quality of life deteriorates within both civilian and military structures, the sources of dissatisfaction – and potential rupture – continue to grow.
Thus the possibility of success in Oslo, while perhaps slim, should not be discounted. Norway has vast experience in conflict mediation, such as between Israel and Palestine and Colombia and the FARC guerrillas. True, this is a different case – not a war between two sides, but a situation in which the state has a monopoly on power and feels able to impose its will. The challenge lies in convincing those with the weapons that clinging to their trenches will cost them more in the long run than reaching an agreement and exiting the stage.
To do this, it is essential to continue to increase pressure on Maduro, and Guaidó should concentrate his efforts on three goals: keeping the opposition coalition as unified as possible, keeping the public mobilized, and coordinating with international allies to continue to create effective mechanisms to pressure the regime. If any of these fails, the goals at Oslo may well be unattainable.
In a process as complex as the Venezuelan crisis, the variables are constantly moving. What role will the U.S. play, for example? The Trump administration does not have a seat at the table in Oslo, but it is difficult to imagine that anything is happening without its full knowledge and consent.
Diosdado Cabello is another player to keep an eye on. A powerful force in the regime, Cabello has no supporters representing him in Oslo, where there are only true Maduro loyalists to be found. Cabello is known not to be a favorite of the government in Cuba, but did make a recent trip to Havana. He also holds considerable weight in the military establishment. If Cabello were to get backing from Cuba as well, it could lead to consequential changes in the balance of power within chavismo.
The struggle has just begun and both sides could give in to temptations to walk away. Diplomacy will play the primary role in Venezuela’s conflict at least in the coming weeks. This is the case both in Oslo and in Sweden, where various stakeholders – but not the Venezuelan government or its opposition – have convened to discuss the conflict. It is also likely true of other discussions that have yet to come to light.
If talks are successful, the most likely outcome will be a call for new elections with safeguards to ensure a fair result. The two sides, for now, are far from such an agreement, and the odds of success at this point do not seem high. But for Venezuela, it is well worth the attempt.
Seijas is a Venezuelan political analyst and statistician, Ph.D. He is the director of the Delphos poll.