As representatives of Venezuela’s socialist government seek to defuse a political crisis in a new round of negotiations with the opposition, one question remains central to any prospect of a breakthrough: the fate of President Nicolás Maduro.
The talks on the Caribbean island of Barbados, which are being mediated by Norway, follow two failed rounds in Oslo. Publicly, the sides remain far apart. The Venezuelan government insists that U.S. and other international sanctions must be lifted, while opposition officials are demanding new and verifiable presidential elections and an end to what they call the “Maduro dictatorship.”
But privately, senior members of the opposition are debating an offer that some argue might help break the deadlock: the possibility that Maduro could temporarily remain in the presidency as new elections are mounted, if certain conditions are met. Some are even floating the notion that Maduro could run for reelection, calculating that his approval ratings are so low, he has next to no chance of winning a free and fair race.
People familiar with the talks — speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations — caution that the offers are still under debate and may never reach the bargaining table. For starters, Maduro’s government, they say, has not yet signaled its willingness to hold a new presidential election. And the question of Maduro’s fate, opposition leaders insist, would be up for discussion only after such a commitment is reached.
In addition, some in the opposition remain strongly opposed to any deal that does not involve Maduro’s immediate exit. Nevertheless, the internal discussions suggest the lengths to which the opposition may be willing to go to secure a deal at a time when both Maduro and his enemies are under mounting pressure to reach an agreement that begins to address the vast humanitarian crisis unfolding in Venezuela.
“The preferred scenario for the majority of Venezuelans is to end this crisis through a free and fair election,” said one senior opposition leader. “It is secondary whether Maduro stays in power for a temporary period.”
There are incentives to reach a deal on both sides.
Harsh U.S. sanctions and growing international isolation have hit Maduro’s government hard, turning Venezuela into a pariah state propped up largely by Russia, China and Cuba. Those sanctions — particularly a strict U.S. ban on crude imports and restricted access to U.S. financial markets — have slammed Venezuela’s already crumbling oil sector, now at its lowest level of output since the 1940s.
The meetings in Barbados come days after the United Nations commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, published a report denouncing an erosion of the rule of law under Maduro, including more than 6,000 extrajudicial killings since 2018. The report also cited torture of political opponents, repression of the press, and the use of food and water as political weapons.
This week’s meetings had been scheduled for last week but were postponed after the alleged torture and killing of a detained navy captain, Rafael Acosta. Acosta died while in the custody of military counterintelligence forces, hours after appearing in court in a wheelchair and being sent to a hospital on a judge’s orders.
Before Acosta’s death, Maduro’s communications minister, Jorge Rodríguez, claimed on national television to have uncovered an alleged new failed coup attempt against the government.
Yet the opposition — led by Juan Guaidó, who has been recognized by more than 50 countries including the United States as Venezuela’s rightful ruler — is also running out of time and, potentially, steam. It’s efforts to turn Maduro’s senior officials against him have failed, and the opposition was stung last month by allegations that two of its members embezzled more than $60,000 in aid meant for Venezuelan soldiers who had fled to Colombia.
“In Venezuela, the ‘all or nothing’ premise has disappeared,” said Jesús Seguías, a political analyst and director of the Datincorp polling agency. “Both sides have no other option than to sit and negotiate.”
In past years, Maduro’s government has repeatedly engaged in talks with the opposition, to no end. At times, the current talks have also verged on the bizarre. Late Monday, for instance, Maduro held a news conference where he hailed the involvement of the Indian guru Ravi Shankar, who he said was now aiding the dialogue process with his “knowledge of meditation.”
Maduro blamed the opposition Monday for the past failures but insisted the opening five-hour session had gone well.
“We have established a schedule of six talking points,” he said. “I’m very optimistic.”
For months, Guaidó and others in the opposition have seemed to insist that Maduro would need to immediately step down as part of any deal, given the credible allegations of fraud that attended the 2018 election.
Critics of the talks, including senior opposition figures, say Maduro’s government is simply stalling for time and has no intention of agreeing to a new presidential vote. Thus far, it has offered only new legislative elections, a proposal the opposition widely sees as a non-starter.
“What the hell is this? Dialogue again?” exiled opposition leader and former Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma said in a tweet Sunday. He added: “There’s no worse offense than thinking that the people are dumb.”
But others in the opposition say compromise may be possible. One option: that a “toothless” Maduro remains in office for, say, nine months, during which time the election commission would be renovated, international monitors lined up and new voter registration drives held. Should Maduro refuse, opposition officials say, that would help them press their demand that international partners do more to force his ouster.
The question of what happens to Maduro in the longer term is more complicated. Many in the opposition insist he must pay for his government’s crimes and should not be included in amnesty offers. Others suggest his best option may be to seek refuge outside Venezuela, perhaps in the Dominican Republic or Cuba.
“But first,” said one person involved in the opposition’s strategy, “we need to get that far.”