Venezuelan rivals to talk again in Oslo

The Norwegians are due to host a second round of talks between Venezuela’s bitter rivals. Two representatives each of beleaguered president Nicolas Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaido are expected to meet again next week in Oslo.

Though some opposition leaders oppose the talks, arguing that they are merely a delaying tactic by Maduro, it would surely be wrong to dismiss them as a pointless exercise. It is easy to understand the suspicions coming from Guaido’s camp. The stark reality is that the opposition’s attempt to force Maduro from power with huge popular demonstrations have so far failed.

Indeed, after the initial heady days when it seemed to opposition protesters that it required just one more shove to send Maduro and his people off to exile in Cuba or Russia or even Turkey, the public’s appetite for massing in the streets has declined. Most recent demonstrations have been poorly attended. It seems very much as if the mood has changed, not in favor of the regime but rather to one of sullen recognition that Maduro is not going to be shouted from power.

The clincher for the Venezuelan leader has been the continued support of the armed forces. Last month, with the defection of a few senior generals, it looked as if the military was going to melt away in the face of mass public anger. But Maduro has so far succeeded in keeping the majority of the armed forces behind him, in part by arguing that the revolution which brought his far-left United Socialist Party to power was led by a former paratroop sergeant, the charismatic Hugo Chavez. When Chavez died of cancer in 2013, Maduro, a former bus driver, took over an economy already tottering from excessive redistributive policies and nationalizations compounded by inept state management.

Maduro’s Russian advisers have probably pointed out that time is on his side. Even though the majority of Venezuelans want him gone, he still occupies the Miraflores presidential palace and as long as the military remain loyal, he will be difficult to oust. However, there is one reason, besides playing for time, that Maduro has agreed to send to the Oslo talks. The socialist policies begun by Chavez have wrecked the economy. Even the once-solid support of the poor is falling away as prices rocket and the ever-boosted subsidies they are still given, fail to keep face with hyper-inflation.

There might be room for compromise in Oslo. After Maduro’s dubious re-election, Guaido, the leader of the National Assembly, declared himself president and was recognized by some 50 countries including the US and EU members. The Norwegians, who in the past have hosted peace talks for Sri Lankans and Colombians, may be suggesting a national unity government, in which Maduro keeps the presidency and control of security forces while Guaido becomes his deputy and takes over management of the economy.

The Norwegians will argue that Venezuela faces both a political and economic crisis, which can only be solved peacefully by a return of some semblance of stability. This could come about if all political rivals put the interests of their country above party. But given the violently opposed positions held by supporters of Guaido and Maduro, is it perhaps too much to hope that they can work together to end Venezuela’s chaos?