Why Maduro’s Rival Now Wants to Talk to, Not Topple Him

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It’s well over two years since a standoff began between Juan Guaido, the opposition figure recognized by the U.S. as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, and President Nicolas Maduro, the leftist in charge during one of the deepest economic collapses in modern history. While Guaido has not officially abandoned his claim, there’s no longer any doubt: he lost and Maduro has won. As international support around Guaido weakens, he and some segments of the opposition are raising the prospect of negotiating with Maduro over a new round of elections. For Maduro, the incentive is the hope of a gradual lifting of U.S. sanctions. For many Venezuelans, the questions are less relevant than the daily struggle to survive in a country ravaged first by hyperinflation and now the coronavirus.

1. What happened?

Guaido was quickly recognized as Venezuela’s leader by the U.S. and over 50 other nations. He drew massive crowds to street rallies that were met by a police crackdown. But his attempt to spark an uprising and to win defectors from the military in April 2019 failed. Top military leaders have benefited under Maduro’s regime from government contracts and mining concessions, and now the distribution of scarce fuel. Maduro’s ties to the military date back to the rule of his mentor and predecessor, Hugo Chavez, the leftist army colonel who was first elected president in 1998 after having been imprisoned for leading a failed coup in 1992. Maduro has also retained control of the media, police and PDVSA.

2. Who still supports Guaido?

Most of the countries that supported him after he assumed leadership of the nation have quietly walked away, although the U.S. continues to back the opposition leader. The EU now only considers him a “privileged interlocutor.” Other countries officially still support Guaido but in practice avoid the topic. Maduro has managed to maintain the support of key allies such as Russia, China, Turkey and Iran, which help him circumvent U.S. sanctions with shipments of gasoline, food, medicine and Covid vaccines.

3. What kinds of talks are going on?

As Guaido’s efforts fizzled, a segment of the opposition led by former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles concluded that their only path forward is through the ballot box, despite having boycotted previous elections that they said were rigged. They started discreet negotiations with Maduro’s regime, trying to win guarantees of fairness in the round of gubernatorial and mayoral elections coming in November. Those talks led to the appointment of a new Electoral Council in May, with two of its five members coming from the opposition for the first time since 2004. The U.S. didn’t reject the new electoral body, saying that it is up to Venezuelans to decide whether it will contribute to finding a political solution that includes free and fair elections. The EU called it a good first step.

4. Is Guaido involved?

Yes and no. After the appointment of the new electoral council, Guaido dropped his demand for a radical change in regime and said he is open to negotiations over guarantees for new elections. But unlike other segments of the opposition, he insists that the talks must include a repeat of the 2018 presidential and 2020 legislative vote. (The next scheduled presidential election is in 2024; the next legislative vote in 2025.) Maduro has refused to discuss that idea. Still, the opening was broad enough to convince Norwegian officials to make a new diplomatic effort, seeking to resume talks Maduro walked away from in 2020.

5. What is Maduro’s strategy?

Confident that his hold on power is not under serious threat, Maduro has made a series of small concessions. In what’s been seen as an effort to improve relations with the US, he announced in April that the UN World Food Program would start operating in the country, surrendering for the first time some control over the nation’s food distribution. Six American senior executives of Citgo Petroleum Corp. who’ve been detained by the government since 2017 were transferred from prison to house arrest. The moves seemed like a wink from Maduro to the Biden administration in hopes of sanctions relief, while U.S. figures with good access to Washington and Caracas are serving as go-betweens.

6. What about sanctions?

Guaido has hinted that if negotiations lead to a real settlement, the sanctions issue could be discussed, and some could be lifted. Venezuela today sells very little oil, mostly under the radar to allies like China. Traditional buyers are too afraid of the U.S. sanctions to buy Venezuelan oil and the U.S., the principal buyer for decades, is obviously not buying Venezuelan oil anymore.

7. What has public reaction been?

In the streets, where Venezuelans face non-stop hyperinflation and a chaotic transition to an unofficial dollar-based economy, people appear to be paying less and less attention to politics. Many spend their days trying to make enough money to buy food, waiting hours in line to fill their tanks with gasoline or standing in long lines for the few Chinese and Russian vaccines available.

8. What has been the impact of the pandemic?

Venezuela is still going through a second wave of covid infections, with hospitals and clinics hitting their highest levels of occupancy in March and April. The official numbers of 238,013 infections and 2,689 deaths are widely considered severe underestimates, since the country is performing few tests. Few Venezuelans are able to follow strict lockdown rules, as most of them work in the informal sector. The average monthly salary is only $55 (according to a report of the opposition-led National Assembly and local firm Anova) while the average cost of a basic basket of staples for a family of five surpasses $200 a month.

9. What has it meant politically?

The pandemic has reinforced Maduro’s control. For one thing, he has been arbitrarily doling out the less than 3 million vaccines that have arrived in the country, making Guaido less relevant. Although a “technical round-table” was set up in February with representatives of Maduro and Guaido to reach a vaccination deal through the WHO-backed Covax system, Maduro has sidelined the talks and said that his government paid for the Covax vaccines on its own (although payment hasn’t been completed and vaccines haven’t arrived).

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