A delegation of foreign ministers from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) returned to Caracas on April 7 and 8, securing an agreement to hold peace talks to calm political polarization and protests in Venezuela. The talks are being mediated by the foreign ministers of Colombia, Brazil and Ecuador, plus a Vatican representative.
The UNASUR delegation first visited in late March, recommending that Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and leaders of the opposition’s Mesa de Unidad Democrática (MUD) enter into a dialogue. The U.S. State Department had expressed support , as had Organization of American States (OAS) General Secretary José Miguel Insulza.
However, UNASUR’s plan will be complicated by Maduro’s reliance on paramilitaries within his Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (United Socialist Party of Venezuela—PSUV), whose loyalty requires his polarizing words and deeds. This conundrum already wrecked a previous dialogue.
In early February, before protests broke out, a highly placed government official explained to me, on the condition of anonymity, that Maduro was pursuing dialogue and cooperation with the opposition. This was because Maduro had realized that citizen insecurity could sink his administration—and that chavismo could not solve this problem alone. “The opposition controls many of the largest states and municipalities,” the official said, and “without the help of these governors and mayors, we cannot solve this problem. […] They are the ones that control the police and bureaucracy in these areas; we don’t.”
Maduro’s decision to approach Henry Falcón, a former chavista and governor of Lara state, as well as elected opposition officials in Caracas, appeared to be paying off. Successful meetings had also begun with Henrique Capriles, leader of the MUD and governor of Miranda state, Antonio Ledezma, the metropolitan mayor of Caracas, and opposition mayors of Caracas’ local municipalities.
Demonstrating Maduro’s seriousness, I was told that PSUV Federal District Mayor Jorge Rodríguez was “fully onboard” with the meetings, despite his reputation as a strident chavista. The “big problem,” according to the Maduro administration official, was Leopoldo López, the leader of the Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) party, who did not have any interest in talks.
Indeed, a section of the opposition was strenuously arguing that it was political suicide to cooperate with Maduro if his polarizing rhetoric and restriction of democratic opposition activity continued unabated.
This sparked “#LaSalida“—a call for protests against the Maduro administration. A bitter confrontation ensued between the pro-dialogue opposition and #LaSalida’s authors—López and María Corina Machado, a national assembly member. When #LaSalida led to protests on February 12, Maduro had Lopez thrown in prison, only reinforcing López’ warnings.
Why couldn’t Maduro restrain his seemingly counterproductive words and deeds? A major reason is that some members of the PSUV feel such antagonism to the opposition that Maduro dared not enter into a dialogue without continuing to vilify and restrict the opposition. Although he had good reasons to seek cooperation, Maduro’s base has been nurtured on highly polarized, class-antagonistic, black-and-white, good-and-evil rhetoric.
Sustaining polarizing rhetoric especially caters to the PSUV paramilitaries Maduro needs to stay in power. Chavismo was never very effective organizing on its own in barrios, and Chávez didn’t even launch the PSUV until 2008, so he turned to groups that already had control in the barrios before chavismo arrived. Today, chavismo’s very effective get-out-the-vote and loyalty-enforcement machine in Venezuela’s barrios relies on allied “ultra-Left” groups, local criminal groupings and motorcycle gangs that have become armed paramilitary groups, euphemistically called “colectivos”—a slander against most colectivos, which are non-violent barrio community groups.
But these paramilitary gangs could turn against Maduro without receiving the clientalist largesse and rhetoric that reifies their sense of solidarity with his administration. Chávez—who began enlisting them following the failed 2002 anti-Chávez coup as future street fighters to protect his government— occasionally spoke sharply to regulate these groups’ excesses, something Maduro lacks a similar authority to do. And, their effectiveness as extra-legal enforcers has been recently demonstrated as they’ve marauded in opposition middle-class neighborhoods, attacked demonstrations and barricades, invaded universities to beat students, and—most importantly for Maduro—prevented open protests in their home-turf barrios.
Maduro’s contradictory dependence on—and fear of—paramilitaries explains why he has called opposition protesters “fascists” and “coup plotters.” This deliberately evokes the romantic logic for paramilitaries, whom Chávez declared would “descend from the barrios” to defend the presidential palace against any future coup.
These PSUV dynamics clearly threaten UNASUR’s new peace dialogue. Especially if the government’s recent economic response to protests fails to produce timely reductions in food shortages and inflation, protests could spread into barrios—the Maduro administration’s worst nightmare—and further cement Maduro’s reliance on paramilitaries there.
Even though Maduro’s allies in UNASUR publically advised him in March to abandon inflammatory rhetoric, and former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva himself earlier advised Maduro to “… dialogue with all the democrats,” such steps could directly undermine the loyalty of the PSUV’s core get-out-the-vote, barrio-pacification and street-fighting apparatus. A difficult conundrum, indeed.