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Why Venezuela’s Government and Opposition Are Finally Coming to the Negotiating Table

8 minute read

Four months into the chaotic political stand-off between Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s regime and opposition leader Juan Guaidó’s attempted revolution, officials confirmed Thursday that representatives for both sides had travelled to Norway for talks aimed at resolving the country’s crisis.

The Oslo talks, acknowledged by Maduro’s ambassador to the U.N., are the first real sign that his government is willing to engage in dialogue with Guaidó, the president of the opposition-held parliament, and his supporters. Guaidó told reporters the talks did not yet amount to “negotiations” but a form of “mediation.”

But the news of possible progress came in the same week as a dramatic government crackdown on the opposition. Security forces blocked lawmakers from entering parliament on Tuesday, and intelligence agencies have placed fourteen opposition lawmakers––including the vice president of parliament–– under investigation for their role in a failed April 30 uprising against the government, which was dubbed a coup by Maduro.

Meanwhile Guaidó said he had instructed his U.S. envoy to open relations with the U.S. military and set a meeting with the U.S. Southern Command, which oversees military operations in Latin America, for next week, raising fresh fears of American military involvement in the country.

Tensions are rising even as a peaceful way out seems visible for the first time. Here’s what to know about the chaotic interaction between the two sides in Venezuela.

Why is Venezuela in crisis and why are the government and the opposition in a stand off?

Maduro’s government has grown increasingly authoritarian since he took over from his mentor, popular socialist leader Hugo Chávez, in 2014. A drop in global oil prices that year triggered the collapse of Venezuela’s economy, sparking years of severe humanitarian crisis and widespread social unrest. Maduro responded by detaining protesters and political opponents and stripping the opposition-controlled parliament of its powers.

Guaidó and Maduro have been at loggerheads since January, when Guaidó claimed that Maduro’s second presidential term, won in 2018 elections the opposition considered rigged, was invalid and constituted a vacuum of power. As parliament leader, the opposition claims the constitution mandates Guaidó temporarily take over the presidency to organize fresh elections.

The U.S. and 50 other mostly western countries have recognized Guaidó as president, while Maduro retains the backing of Russia, China and Turkey. Maduro also has the crucial support of the military, Venezuela’s largest institution, which exercises security functions and controls many state bodies.

The Norway talks are not the first time the two sides have been in contact, says Diego Moya-Ocampos, a Latin America expert at risk analysts IHS Markit. “There’s always been back channels to try and find an electoral solution,” he says. “The problem is there’s a small group of top government and military officials who are trying to block those solutions because they fear that if there is regime change, they will be held accountable for human rights abuses and crimes they’ve committed as part of the regime.” Analysts and international prosecutors say that many of the upper ranks of the government and military are involved in illicit money-making activities, including corruption, drug trafficking and the theft of Venezuela’s natural resources.

Why is the government cracking down on the opposition?

The crackdown began a few days after Guaidó and his supporters took to the streets on April 30. Guaidó said he had closed-door meetings with parts of the military, and called on all troops to rise up against Maduro, in what he called “the final stage of Operation Freedom.” Guaidó has long recognized he needs the military to switch sides if he is to take power. But only a relatively small number of the lower ranks and a few high-ranking members answered his call. The most high profile defector was Manuel Christopher Figuera, the former head of the much-feared national intelligence service, SEBIN.

In the wake of the failed uprising, the pro-Maduro supreme court accused legislators of treason and stripped them of their parliamentary immunity from prosecution. Some took refuge in embassies of countries including Argentina, Italy and Spain. SEBIN agents arrested parliament vice president Edgar Zambrano, towing his car to a Caracas detention center after he refused to get out.

The opposition’s gamble left it temporarily weakened, giving hardliners within the regime––those who are most opposed to closed-door talks with the opposition––the chance to assert themselves, according to Geoff Ramsey, assistant director of the Venezuela program at the Washington Office on Latin America. “This is a display of dominance and control,” he says.

Why are these talks happening now?

The failure of the April 30 uprising revealed that neither side is strong enough to break the paralysis in Venezuela by force. That likely motivated the opposition to accept talks with officials representing Maduro––after months of refusing to pursue them on the grounds that the embattled president would use them to play for time.

April 30 also fractured the government’s unity. The opposition’s claims to have met with the military top brass and the former SEBIN chief’s defection “made the perception that Maduro has control of the security apparatus less credible,” Moya-Ocampos says. “He’s lost trust in the loyalty of some top military commanders.”

And while some hardliners are lashing out, Ramsey says there’s a growing realization within Maduro’s regime that the situation is unsustainable. “[The uprising’s failure] was a Pyrrhic victory. Maduro is able to resist, he’s not able to govern,” he says. “Ultimately, it’s not in Maduro’s, or anybody in Chavismo’s interest, to resist indefinitely and end up governing over a pile of ashes.”

Adding to the time-crunch for both sides is the impending impact of U.S. sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry––which provides some 97% of the government’s foreign cash––which is increasingly important as the inflation rate of the Venezuelan bolivar hits 10 million per cent.The U.S. Treasury announced a raft of severe sanctions on Jan. 28. But several American companies that work with PdVSA were allowed to continue to operate inside Venezuela for six months. When that time runs out, on July 27, oil production could drop steeply, cutting off the government’s supply of foreign currency and making life far more difficult for both ordinary Venezuelans and the government elite.

Who is talking in Oslo and what does each side want?

Guaidó said he had sent “some envoys” to Norway, while Maduro did not explicitly acknowledge the talks but said Information Minister Jorge Rodríguez was on a “very important” mission outside Venezuela.

Venezuelan officials told the AP that the opposing sides had received separate invitations from a group of Norweigans for exploratory talks. Norway is not in the E.U. and was one of few European countries that did not recognize Guaidó as acting president in January. The Norweigan foreign ministry told AFP it could neither confirm nor deny the country’s role in the talks.

The regime and opposition remain at odds on fundamental issues.

Guaidó has made Maduro’s resignation a red line and reiterated the opposition’s demands for regime change at an event in Caracas Thursday. “I’ve said it again and again,” he said . “We won’t accept any false negotiations that don’t lead to three things: the end of the usurpation, a transition government and free elections.”

The opposition’s priority will be to move toward the establishment of a new electoral authority and a timeline for elections, Moya-Ocampos says.

But the government side has insisted that no new elections will be called before Maduro’s mandate ends in 2025.

Still, the mediation, which is supported by the U.N., could represent the beginnings of a “robust, internationally facilitated negotiator transition,” Ramsey says, and a move away from threats of military intervention from the U.S.

“The international community have been acting under the theory that, if we put enough pressure on Maduro’s regime it will collapse,” he says. “Now we’re seeing an increasing acceptance of the fact that the same is true for politics as it is in hydraulics: pressure needs to be accompanied with some kind of relief for it to be useful.”

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Write to Ciara Nugent at ciara.nugent@time.com