The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Is this the turning point Venezuelans have been waiting for?

Lilian Tintori, wife of Venezuela’s opposition leader Leopoldo López, who has been granted house arrest after more than three years in jail, poses with supporters outside their home in Caracas, Venezuela, July 10, 2017. (Andres Martinez Casares/REUTERS)

Francisco Toro is executive editor of the Caracas Chronicles news site and a contributing columnist for Post Opinions.

It wasn’t quite the triumphal, Mandela-style homecoming his supporters had been hoping for. At 3 a.m. on July 8, with no previous warning, Leopoldo López was secretly moved from solitary confinement in a military-run prison near Caracas into house arrest. After serving three and a half years of a 14-year sentence on what are widely seen as trumped-up charges, Venezuela’s highest-profile political prisoner – and its most popular politician – was free to hug his small children in his own home.

The news sent shockwaves through a crisis-struck country. The move came on the ninety-ninth day of a raucous protest movement that has paralyzed much of the country. Marches, rallies and road closures have become part of the daily routine as citizens push back against what is now an openly dictatorial government. What the government thought it might gain by freeing López nobody can know for sure. But the rare – indeed, unprecedented – sign of flexibility toward the opposition opens up the tantalizing possibility that the Maduro regime is, at long last, preparing to launch a serious, high-stakes negotiation with its critics.

Key here is the involvement of former Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who is credited with brokering the move to send López home from prison. Rodríguez Zapatero has spent much of the past year attempting to mediate some sort of agreement between the government and the opposition. He has, in that time, become a figure of hate for some members of the opposition, who think the government has found it easy to manipulate a gullible Spaniard into helping it tighten its group on power.

Releasing López from jail – even if only into house arrest rather than full freedom – is Rodríguez Zapatero’s first big win in Venezuela. It has dramatically raised his stature, establishing his mediation track as the forum for negotiation between the sides.

What those negotiations might consist of – or whether they’ll be formally launched at all – remains nebulous, and time is short. The government has called a July 30 vote for a “Constituent Assembly” to rewrite the constitution. The opposition – which was never consulted about convening such an assembly in the first place – has decided to boycott that election, and for good reason. The election rules proposed were openly, brazenly designed to favor the government, giving it a good chance of securing an assembly majority even though three-in-four Venezuelans now oppose it.

Under Venezuela’s peculiar constitutional traditions, a Constituent Assembly has unlimited powers that cannot be hemmed in by any previously constituted authority. The dangers of this approach are obvious. With the opposition boycotting, the country now faces the prospect of giving absolute legal authority to a government that is loathed by 75 percent of citizens.

The first order of business for Rodríguez Zapatero, then, must be to find some face-saving way for the government to back off from this deeply destabilizing Constituent Assembly proposal and to pledge its commitment to existing legality. That would have to include finally accepting the legitimacy of the legislative branch, where the opposition won a two-thirds supermajority in free and fair elections in December 2015. And it should include measures to establish a minimally credible supreme court and an independent national elections committee to take the place of the absolutely subservient regime apologists now in charge of those bodies. And the fate of over 100 political prisoners still behind bars would have to be part of the negotiation as well.

In return, the opposition would agree to dial down the protest movement that has rendered the country almost completely ungovernable for the last 100 days, and to respect the constitutional timetable calling for new presidential elections at the end of 2018, rather than the immediate vote it has been calling for. The opposition would have to recognize President Maduro as the duly elected leader of the country, and accept the legitimacy of his constitutional powers. And it would have to pledge support for a set of emergency economic measures to bring a measure of order to Venezuela’s fast-collapsing economy, and to relieve catastrophic food and medicine shortages.

The broad outlines of a grand bargain to pull Venezuela back from the brink of all-out civil conflict are, in other words, already visible. With the July 30 date for elections to the Constituent Assembly now less than three weeks away, time is desperately short. But bringing Leopoldo López home shows something that has been entirely absent from talks until now: a real willingness to make significant concessions on the part of a government that has always defined itself by know-nothing radicalism and intransigence.

The road ahead will not be easy, and many in the opposition have profound doubts about whether Rodríguez Zapatero – who seemed so pliant for so long – has the chops to persuade the government to accept painful concessions.

The likely alternatives to this compromise path are clear: either an open-ended Cuban-style dictatorship or all-out civil conflict, with the military eventually stepping in to referee a political solution. So we had better hope that Rodríguez Zapatero has what it takes.