As the country is torn by polarization and civil unrest, government and opposition are aware of the role its neighbors can play in the pacification process. Transparency in negotiations can be augmented with and involved regional public opinion.
Street politics are commonplace in Latin America. However, none has attracted the attention of regional audiences more than the ongoing protests in Venezuela. Since they first broke out in mid-February, broadcast and print media have covered them extensively. Politicians of all stripes and public personalities have felt it necessary to justify their positions on the issue. But this passionate debate over Venezuelan politics is not new south of the border. Ever since late President Hugo Chávez was elected in 1999, his reforms—dubbed Socialism of the 21th Century — have galvanized both supporters and detractors throughout the region. Thus Latin American fascination with Venezuelan politics deserves a closer look. It might offer new insights into the embryonic dialogue rounds between government and opposition.
None of Venezuela’s neighbors have remained indifferent. Solidarity marches for and against the demonstrations have crossed the main avenues and packed the squares of Latin American capitals. Local politics are read through Venezuelan political cleavages; governments being called chavistas and the opposition coup-ready. The passion that Venezuelan politics arouses contrasts with the feeble response to other episodes of regional civil unrest. The 2006 student protests in Chile, the 2012 YoSoy132 movement in Mexico and the 2013 protests in Brazil went by almost unnoticed by regional audiences.
Among analysts, the most common explanation for Latin American government and civil society interest in Venezuela revolves around Chávez, focusing specifically on his foreign policy and public diplomacy: generous resource transfers—both to incumbent governments and ideologically proximate political movements; appeal to a shared continental sense of anti-Americanism; all delivered by a charismatic leader that supposedly struck a chord with the region’s strongman tradition.
A Chávez-centric explanation for Venezuela’s pivotal position in the region’s political debates is incomplete. Events occurring after his death—the 2013 presidential and municipal elections—received daily coverage by the media. Few election cycles elsewhere have received such close attention by the Latin American press.
A further examination on Latin America’s passion for Venezuelan politics is required. Leadership matters but so do institutions. When Chávez first came to power in 1999, his home country had undergone political stagnation and economic deterioration for over a decade. Political parties had become detached from their electorates, restricting the entrance of new contestants. Most Venezuelans felt that chief policy decisions were made without much democratic consultation. Rather than being restricted to one country, many Latin American nations shared this late 20th century disillusionment with post-authoritarian liberal democracy.
In this context, Chávez was a new face that promised the political landscape to be cast anew. He proposed to reform the constitution—heightening its participatory democracy features—and to push for an economic distribution program. Venezuelans and audiences abroad were captivated by this set of reforms. However, its initial consensus suffered its first dents when power centralization on the executive branch was stated as a necessary condition. Shortly after, one of the hallmarks of contemporary Venezuelan politics—polarization—set in.
Since then, reform programs throughout the region are judged according to their proximity to chavista ideology. Its loyal base of supporters is challenged by equally vocal detractors. Consequently, Venezuelan politics have become a partisan issue in Latin America. Candidates are well aware. Now President Humala of Peru saw its chances dwindle in 2006 when he was judged “too radical chavista” by the electorate.
When the protests officially started on February 12th, governments offered their carefully measured official statements. Not surprisingly, their interpretations of events and the proposed solutions were widely divergent. For Venezuela’s closest allies—Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina—the protests were a front for quintessential destabilizing forces that merely adopted “student activism” as a façade. Chile, Colombia and Peru—distant from the government in Caracas—condemned the violence, urging Venezuelan authorities to respect the protesters’ freedom of speech. The middle ground ran thin as both candidates for regional leadership—Brazil and Mexico—found scarce adhesion to their paltry pleas of national reconciliation.
Both sides in the Venezuelan imbroglio are aware of the benefits of securing regional support. The past months have witnessed a frenzy of diplomatic activity. Elias Jaua—Venezuelan Minister of Foreign Affairs—toured the capitals of South America. His aim was to avoid any condemnation against the Venezuelan government at any of region´s international forums. Panama’s ambassador to Organization of American States (OAS) call for a special sitting of the Permanent Council to discuss the situation in Venezuela was not deemed friendly. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro responded with the breakdown of diplomatic ties between both countries.
Protesters have also displayed their own active policy diplomatic activity. They have addressed the international community not only at regional organizations but also at foreign parliaments, when invited by opposition parties. Former deputy Maria Corina Machado led the opposition at heated sessions at the OAS and the Brazilian Senate.
Again, the demonstrations corroborate the degree of entanglement between Venezuelan, regional and domestic politics. Presidents are aware of the fact that they face real political costs at home. Recently inaugurated Michelle Bachelet has seen two of its main coalition parties—Communist and Christian Democrat—viciously quarrel about whether Chile should lend vocal support to the protests.
Despite the animosity between both sides, Maduro and the opposition agreed to participate in tentative talks. The compromise was brokered after an intensive activity at a special summit of Ministers of Foreign Affairs at the Union of South American Nations (USAN) in early April. Brazil, as regional leader, was designated as mediator—together with Venezuelan ally Ecuador and Colombia—proximate to the protesters. With NGOs on the ground, they are vital for supervising compliance. Stated this way, it is a traditional national reconciliation negotiation.
Common knowledge holds that negotiations between government and opposition have better chances of success if players are insulated from external scrutiny. Secrecy is underscored as necessary. This is a serious mistake. One of the main threats to the dialogue rounds are possible retaliations by the die-hards in the opposition. Machado and Leopoldo Lopez have already condemned any approachment.
Latin American public opinion has a role to play. Venezuela is one of the few countries where the mediating party can be sure that journalist coverage will be intense and constant. By demanding transparency of the unfolding negotiations and pinpointing agreement violations, accountability is enhanced. Disclosures by fact-finding missions have greater resonance along media outlets. In consequence, intransigent arguments judging the peace process as traitorous carry less weight. Pragmatists on both sides could secure a legitimate arrangement by preserving a reasonable level of openness.