CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan opposition leaders began a late-night meeting with President Nicolás Maduro and his cabinet Thursday in a possible first step toward ending two months of anti-government protests and street clashes that have left at least 41 dead.
The meeting was broadcast live on Venezuelan television and radio, at the insistence of the opposition, and was attended by mediators from Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia and the Vatican. The representative of the Holy See in Venezuela, Aldo Giordano, opened the meeting by reading a written statement from Pope Francis urging both sides to put aside differences and summon the courage to reach an agreement.
Maduro followed, speaking for more than half an hour, and insisted that the encounter was a “dialogue,” not a negotiation. “I’m willing to debate all of the country’s problems,” he said. “But we need to join together in condemning violence as a way to force political change.”
With 11 members of the opposition and 11 members from the government side scheduled to speak, it appeared likely that the meeting would stretch well past midnight. Both sides indicated that future meetings would be required to work out the biggest sticking points between the two sides, especially the fate of jailed protesters. Henrique Capriles, the opposition standard-bearer who narrowly lost to Maduro in last April’s president election, was the most prominent figure on the anti-government side.
While the encounter allowed opposition leaders an unusually open platform to speak directly to a national audience and the president himself, it was also notable for the absence of the opposition’s more hard-line anti-Maduro wing.
That’s the branch that has been in the streets battling national guardsmen and blocking traffic with flaming barricades, and it may be unwilling to heed any agreements that emerge from the talks with Maduro.
María Corina Machado, the congresswoman who has emerged as the most prominent opposition voice in recent weeks after the arrest of fellow anti-Maduro hard-liner Leopoldo López, boycotted the event, saying no meeting with the president should be occurring while protesters and opposition leaders remain in jail.
“We won’t accept a dialogue to stabilize the dictatorship,” she wrote on Twitter, referring to Maduro’s government. “We cannot have dialogue with students detained, mayors detained and [López] detained, and while there’s repression.”
The statements pointed to the same deficiency — divided leadership — that has hampered Venezuela’s opposition since the protests began as well as throughout much of Hugo Chávez’s 14-year rule.
Once more, an inability to present a united front has left the anti-government movement weaker, analysts say.
“The Venezuelan opposition has had a repeated tendency to fall into a trap of its own making,” said Christopher Sabatini, director of policy at the Council of the Americas, a New York-based policy organization focusing on Latin America.
Since the protests began in February, Maduro, a former bus driver, has outmaneuvered the opposition’s top figures one by one or simply run them over.
Early in the protests, he arrested López and locked him up at a military garrison on charges of inciting violence and other crimes. Maduro has also jailed Daniel Ceballos, the popular mayor of San Cristobal, the opposition stronghold where the protest movement first caught fire among students.
When Machado attempted to take on a bigger leadership role, she was kicked out of parliament and threatened with arrest.
Meanwhile, Maduro has delighted in mocking the masculinity of Capriles, a moderate state governor, playing to the image of Capriles as “weak” among frustrated Venezuelans who want a more confrontational approach and have been inspired by López and Machado.
Though opposition leaders do not feud in public, they don’t do enough to coordinate strategy or unite forces, either, enabling Maduro to foil them, analysts say.
“The entire opposition is in crisis,” said Caracas political analyst Carlos Raúl Hernández. “At the moment, there are as many divisions within the opposition as there are between the opposition and the government.”
Some of the disagreements among anti-Maduro forces have been tactical — over the wisdom of blocking traffic with street barricades, for instance. Others are more philosophical, with some sectors of the opposition wanting a more sweeping repudiation of the socialist model built by Chávez.
But above all, the divisions appear to stem from personality clashes, as Capriles, López and Machado lead their own, smaller political parties or civic groups. At times, their supporters seem to occupy their own camps and, in some extremes, remain so mutually mistrustful that they don’t speak to one another.
The result is a protest movement that has often appeared uncoordinated and incoherent, analysts say. And if anything, the events of the past two months have further polarized the two branches of the opposition, bolstering López and Machado, said Margarita López Maya, a historian and political analyst.
“The more radical sector of the opposition, led by Leopoldo López and María Corina Machado, has been strengthened, while the moderate wing is weaker,” López Maya said.
Such disunity was supposed to be Maduro’s undoing, not the opposition’s.
When Chávez died last year, many predicted that a power struggle would ensue between his two most powerful deputies: Maduro, his chosen successor, and Diosdado Cabello, the leader of Venezuela’s parliament and a figure with closer ties to the military.
Instead, the two men have stayed in lock step, at least publicly, even as Maduro warns of shadowy “coup plots” against him and ordered several air force officers arrested last month.
At the same time, Maduro has taken more decisive steps to address some of the problems that generated the protests. He has set up a new foreign exchange market that appears to be strengthening the national currency against the U.S. dollar and could ease the region’s worst levels of inflation.
Maduro says he wants opposition leaders to work with him to battle crime and boost economic productivity. Opposition leaders have previously said they want amnesty for protesters and others jailed during the demonstrations, and the item could be a sticking point for the two sides from the outset.
Even if Thursday’s talks start the country on a path out of its political crisis, Maduro’s image has suffered more than any opposition leader’s, experts say. His heavy-handed tactics, especially against largely peaceful student demonstrators, left him looking far more repressive and intolerant than Chávez.
Meanwhile, Venezuela’s other big problems persist, including unchecked crime, sporadic electrical blackouts and shortages of basic goods.
Polls suggest that Maduro’s support has dipped in recent weeks, but unhappiness with his leadership hasn’t led to a popularity surge for any single opposition figure.
“There may be more people opposed to the government, but they don’t follow any one particular leader,” said Venezuela historian Tomás Straka, in Caracas. “It appears the protests are being driven by their own dynamic.
“If that continues,” Straka said, “it’s a panorama that favors the appearance of new leadership.”