After two months of protests in which 39 people have been killed, Venezuela’s government and opposition have decided to sit down at the negotiating table.
Spokesmen for both sides said on Wednesday night that they would begin talks aimed at resolving that nation´s political crisis, and added that a series of conversations in which a “joint agenda” would be developed could start as early as this week.
Talking to the government is a risky move for the opposition leadership, whose followers are bitterly divided over whether to enter negotiations while the government still holds political prisoners and arrests students in the streets.
Some opposition activists argue that paralyzing Venezuela is the only way to force the Venezuelan government to make any concessions on human rights issues.
But the talks were inevitable, according to Eneo Cardozo, a political scientist at Venezuela´s Central University.
Cardozo says that most people in Venezuela are tiring of the protests, particularly of the street barricades erected by protesters known as “Guarimbas,” which lack the support of 63% of the Venezuelan people according to one recent poll.
The process leading up the talks began Monday when Maduro met with a delegation of South American Foreign ministers and emerged with a olive branch of sorts: He invited the opposition to start a series of talks to “pacify” the country and restart its struggling economy.
That move put the opposition in difficult position, according to Cardozo, because if they refused to enter talks altogether, the public could begin to perceive them as uncooperative and as trying to prolong the political crisis for their own ends.
“They had to sit down, [at the negotiation table] or else they would turn out to be the ones who carry the weight of the conflict,” Cardozo said.
Opposition negotiators have faced a backlash for entering the talks. Some top level opposition leaders have already raised their voice against the Unified Democratic Panel, the opposition umbrella group that decided to enter the negotiations.
Here´s what the mayor of Caracas had to say about the prospect of entering talks with the government:
No cuenten conmigo para lavarle la cara a Maduro, a la represión, a la dictadura. Cuenten conmigo para transitar hacia la democracia.— Antonio Ledezma (@alcaldeledezma) April 9, 2014
“Don´t count with me to legitimize Maduro, repression and dictatorship,” Antonio Ledezma says in the above tweet. “Count with me to enact the transition to democracy.”
And here´s what some regular opposition sympathizers had to say to Henri Falcon, a state governor who will participate in the opposition´s negotiation team:
“My god. How do you talk to a government that we know is illegitiamte. Do you actually think that these problems will end with a dialogue.”
What the opposition leadership seems to be doing here is to try to improve its standing with Venezuela´s swing voters, or those people who are frustrated with the Maduro regime, but also tired of the constant protests and barricade, which have disrupted daily life.
However, in order to maintain its legitimacy as a group that is fighting for human rights, the opposition must make a firm stand on issues that matter to many Venezuelans, like the release of political prisoners, press freedoms, the disarmament of paramilitary groups that have killed dozens of protesters, and the liberation of economic controls which have hampered the Venezuelan economy.
Some opposition strategists in Venezuela believe that it is a mistake to enter negotiations with the government because doing so gives Maduro legitimacy, buys him time, and takes pressure off him to make changes in Venezuela.
Henrique Capriles, the most well-known leader of the Venezuelan opposition and currently the governor of Miranda State, advocates for a dual approach.
He suggests that protests should continue as talks with the government take place:
Dialogar significa renunciar a principios?Quién dijo que diálogo significa renuncia a que ntro Pueblo siga reclamando sus derechos?— Henrique Capriles R. (@hcapriles) April 8, 2014
El pueblo tiene todo el derecho de protestar por los miles de problemas sin solución en ntro país!Nadie le puede quitar su derecho!— Henrique Capriles R. (@hcapriles) April 8, 2014
Capriles has criticized barricades before, arguing that they are not as inclusive as marches, because they center around middle class areas and lead to confrontations with police, creating a climate of confrontation the government “thrives off.”
“We’ve got a government that is fading out, their approval ratings do not reach 40%,” Capriles recently told America Economia Magazine.
“Maduro is more unpopular each day, but that doesn’t mean that the opposition is capitalizing on this discontent. The challenge is to capitalize on that. With barricades? No. By offering a project for the country. If there are shortages we should say how they’re going to be resolved. There is more to Venezuela, than the [political] issues that are on the news.”