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Why Venezuela’s ‘Two Presidents’ Are Ready to Talk

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Nicolas Maduro and Juan Guaido, who have sparred for control of Venezuela for more than two years, each claiming to be country’s rightful president, are preparing for talks. The two sides have talked before, to little effect. What might be different this time? For one thing, Guaido and other members of the opposition have all but conceded that their attempts to oust Maduro have failed. On his side, Maduro has proved unable to stop Venezuela’s continuing economic collapse, in part because of tight economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and other nations that continue to back Guaido.

1. How did the stalemate develop?

Maduro, 58, a former bus driver and foreign minister, rose through the Socialist Party ranks and won a special presidential election after his mentor, the firebrand Hugo Chavez, died in 2013. In 2018, with the economy already slumping, Maduro was re-elected in a vote opposition leaders said was fraudulent. In January 2019, Guaido, 38, proclaimed himself interim president, saying that Venezuela’s constitution allowed him to take that step as head of the National Assembly, which he called the country’s last democratically elected body.

2. What happened after that?

The U.S. and dozens of allies agreed and still recognize Guaido as leader. They’ve also repeatedly tightened sanctions first imposed in 2014. But the opposition has never wielded any real power in Caracas. Crucially, Maduro was able to retain the loyalty of the military leadership. He has, in fact, increased his power, by installing his own legislature and putting loyalists in key posts in the judiciary. In response, the opposition boycotted what they saw as tainted elections. But Guaido’s overseas and domestic influence gradually waned, although polls show that recent efforts to reconnect with followers at demonstrations on the streets have fanned a small revival in his popularity.

3. What prompted the talks? 

Even before the standoff began, the economy was in a deep slump, hurt both by falling oil prices and by what the opposition termed Maduro’s incompetence and corruption. The tighter U.S. sanctions contributed to a collapse in oil production and the export revenue that was the mainstay of the economy. The U.S. and European governments also blocked Maduro’s access to more than $7 billion of state funds held abroad. The economy has contracted for seven years, hunger is widespread and more than 5 million people have fled the country. Both Maduro and Guaido want the talks to find a solution to the catastrophe.

4. What’s on the table?

The two key issues are guarantees for upcoming elections and the easing of sanctions. Others are political rights, economic measures, cooperation on Covid-19 vaccines and humanitarian aid and how to manage assets frozen abroad -- some under Guaido’s control. A memorandum of understanding signed in Mexico City in August and drafted by Norway -- which is brokering the talks -- outlined the negotiations and issues to be discussed over three days starting Friday.

5. What would success look like for Maduro?

Maduro has repeatedly called for an end to sanctions against his government and the oil industry. He wants direct talks with Washington and the restoration of diplomatic relations. The Biden administration has said it would consider some demands provided Maduro meets conditions starting with electoral guarantees. In Mexico, Maduro’s negotiators, led by National Assembly head Jorge Rodriguez, will also seek access to assets frozen by foreign governments who recognized Guaido. Maduro has already achieved one aim: The memorandum signed by the adversaries identifies the two parties to the talks as the Government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and the Unitary Platform -- implying recognition of the legitimacy of his government and presidency.

6. What does the opposition want?

The opposition sat out votes for president in 2018 and the legislature in 2020, saying they wouldn’t be free and fair, particularly without international observers. The myriad parties in the fragmented opposition coalition have sought candidates to run in the November election for mayors and governors. Opposition negotiators led by Gerardo Blyde, a former legislator and mayor, will seek reassurance on the conditions for presidential elections set for 2024 and the legislature in 2025. They’ll also call for the release of political prisoners and for exiled leaders to be allowed back to participate in politics.

7. Are these talks any different from previous rounds?

Previous rounds have failed, starting in 2014 in Caracas and most recently in Barbados in 2019. But this time there’s a crucial difference: The ground rules allow for interim agreements before any final deal, which is unlikely for months if at all. Negotiators could, for example, agree on electoral guarantees for the vote in November or the lifting of some sanctions. Both sides have also dropped demands that foiled previous talks. The opposition is more divided and weaker than it was in 2019: While Guaido’s camp has taken more of a hard-line approach, former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles leads a group pursuing a long-term transition in the belief that a change of government is far off. This division strengthens Maduro’s hand. 

8. What role is the U.S. playing? Other governments? 

The U.S. won’t play a direct role, but it has advocated a negotiated solution and indicated it may ease sanctions if the talks go well. The meetings will be mediated by Norway in Mexico because it’s seen as a neutral venue. Russia will advise the government and the Netherlands will assist the opposition. In addition, several “friendly nations” including the U.S. are monitoring the talks.

• The agreement on talks between Maduro and the opposition.

• A report by the Washington Office on Latin America and the U.S. Institute for Peace on lessons from 2019 talks.

• An Inside Venezuela video report from the country.

• Bloomberg Intelligence on Venezuela’s oil industry.

• Venezuela to cut zeros from bolivar.

• Bloomberg’s Cafe con Leche Index.

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