BOGOTA, Colombia — Venezuela’s government and factions of the opposition will sit down Thursday — on live national television — to try to dig their way out of a months-long political crisis that has paralyzed parts of the country and left dozens dead.
If the contentious and controversial talks do succeed, some of the credit will have to go to the long arm of late-President Hugo Chavez.
The organization that helped broker the meeting is the Union of South American Nations, or Unasur, which Chavez helped create in 2008 to challenge the role of the Organization of American States in the region.
Unasur took center stage in the current crisis after a delegation of foreign ministers began trying to bring both sides together in March.
By most accounts, it was a savvy move by the administration of Nicolas Maduro, which has been under growing pressure to break the impasse. By letting Unasur take the lead, Venezuela effectively sidelined the OAS and vocal critics there, including the United States and Panama.
But that doesn’t mean the Unasur will give the government a free pass, said Harold Trinkunas, the director of the Latin American Initiative at the Brookings Institute.
The foreign ministers of Ecuador, Brazil and Colombia will be mediating the talks along with a representative from the Vatican. Diplomats of that level “are not just going to sit there and do whatever the government tells them,” Trinkunas said. “This leaves Unasur on the hook…It has taken on a certain amount of responsibility for the outcome.”
At this point it’s far from clear what the outcome might be. As some were breathing a sigh of relief that an end to the crippling protests might be in the works, others in the opposition were wary that negotiators may give away at the table what has been earned through two months of street clashes.
In the Venezuelan border state of Tachira, student protesters greeted news of a possible rapprochement by calling for more marches.
“We reject those who went to talk to the government,” said Jackson Vera, a member of the Popular Student Patriotic Front in San Cristobal, which has organized some of the fiercest resistance to the government. “They don’t represent us in Tachira and they don’t represent Venezuela — you cannot negotiate without setting conditions.”
Vera, like other opposition leaders, said the government needs to make basic concessions before talks begin, such as releasing “political prisoners” including San Cristobal Mayor Daniel Ceballos, the head of the Voluntad Popular political party Leopoldo Lopez and the more than 190 students.
On Tuesday, the government and the coalition of opposition parties, known as the MUD, announced that they had agreed on the basic guidelines for talks. But both sides have been dampening expectations.
This is not a “negotiation or a deal we’re striking with anyone,” President Maduro said Tuesday after the initial meeting. “What we’re going to have is a debate and a dialogue, which is different…I would be traitor if I negotiated away the Revolution.”
On Wednesday, a MUD official said the group was going in with specific agenda items “but no preconditions.”
Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, who lost the presidential race to Maduro last year, said he would attend Thursday’s meeting and asked the nation to tune into the televised event.
The presidential palace “is going to tremble with the truth,” he said. “We are going to fight lies with the truth and no one can stay silent. I am willing to talk in favor of peace and building the country.”
In a sense, both sides had little recourse but to negotiate, Trinkunas said.
What began in early February as a student protest against rampant crime and a failing economy turned into a national demonstration that has left at least 39 dead, including eight police and other government officials. In some cities, barricades go up almost nightly as demonstrators clash with security.
“There was a pattern of violent protests and (government)-oppression that was neither growing nor decreasing in intensity,” Trinkunas said. “Clearly Venezuelans were not solving this for themselves.”
But many worry that the three Unasur foreign ministers that were picked to mediate might not be part of the solution. Ecuador and Brazil are seen as staunch allies of the Maduro administration. And Colombia not only has close economic ties with its neighbor, but relies on Venezuela as an observer of its own peace talks with leftist guerrillas.
Beatiz Olavarria, a Venezuelan opposition activist in South Florida, said that Unasur can’t be relied on to be a neutral observer.
“The opposition can’t pretend to talk to the deaf while the blind mediate,” she said. “All we’re asking for is our basic rights, and you shouldn’t have to beg for your rights.”