Venezuela Burns, Body Count Rises

Why is dialogue between the government and opposition in Venezuela so difficult? Blame the poisonous legacy of Hugo Chavez.

Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

Venezuela’s political crisis is entering its second month. Scores have died in the violence, with many more detained, wounded, and, some say, even tortured. Yet the crisis on the streets is not the only one shaking the South American nation.

On the political front, there is little to no chance of constructive dialogue between the two equally determined factions. This dearth of constructive politics can be directly traced to the late Hugo Chávez, and to the venomous rhetoric employed by his heirs.

Crises heighten the need for dialogue, but at the same time they also make it less likely. When passions are enflamed, people will be less willing to sit down and negotiate with someone they view as an aggressor.

Take, for example, last fall’s government shutdown in the US. Just when it was reaching its apex, the New York Times editorial board said “[t]he two sides will eventually have to reach a reckoning on long-term economic issues, but the time to do so is not while dangling over an abyss.”

With time, the shutdown ended and the two parties continue trying to forge agreements, with varying success. But prospects for dialogue in Venezuela seem dim to nonexistent. Why is dialogue in Venezuela so difficult?

There are many reasons. One of them has to do with Venezuela’s political institutions, which provide few instances of cooperation. In the National Assembly, legislators from left and right generally talk above, instead of with, each other. In a famous incident last year, several opposition legislators were beaten bloody by colleagues. The perpetrators went unpunished.

The lack of trust between Chavistas and the opposition has a long history. In 2003, in the midst of a political crisis, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States set up shop in Caracas for months while he sponsored peace talks between representatives of the two sides. The talks produced two agreements that the government has ignored.

Yet as much as one can look at this or that event as the root cause for the gap between the two sides, a large reason for the deep mistrust comes from years of bridge-burning rhetoric.

Chávez defined the revolution both in form and substance. While he could be a chameleon on the international stage, he was never a man of dialogue on the domestic front. The instances when Chavez actually met with opponents were few, and some were rarely publicized. There are only a handful of Chavez and his opponents online. The tone that Chavez set was that the opposition was not a force to engage with, but “fascist” “pigs” who had to be “crushed and pulverized.”

Now, human beings are rational. But even the most rational politician will find it difficult to deal with an opponent who repeatedly vows to “crush” you. While the lack of dialogue has many roots, the dehumanizing rhetoric at the heart of the revolution is one of its main causes.

Discussions are also difficult to accomplish because they require a partner, and the opposition is not uniquely structured. Last year, they had a leader in Miranda governor Henrique Capriles, but this is no longer the case, as Capriles’ leadership is challenged by politicians like Leopoldo Lopez, the former Mayor of Chacao who was recently jailed, legislator Maria Corina Machado, and the student leadership at the heart of the street protests. These actors all have varying agendas and different attitudes toward dialogue.

Talks between the two sides will require toning down the rhetoric, mostly from the government. So far, there is little sign of that. President Nicolás Maduro seems unsure what tone to take publicly – one moment he is trying to be open to the other side, while a few hours later, far from the view of foreign correspondents, he is blasting them as “fascist Chuckys,” after the famous horror movie doll.

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The government has also shown few signs of openness and willingness to change. For example, ministers spent a few days talking to private businessmen who complained about, among other things, overbearing regulations forbidding businesses from firing employees. The government responded by saying that labor laws were not open to discussion. Echoing Hugo Chavez, they have vowed to make his revolution “irreversible.”

A sincere openness is required and so far, the Maduro government has ignored the few overtures the opposition has made. For example, after Capriles attended a meeting in the Presidential Palace last January – and was blasted by his most radical supporters for doing so– the government did not build on this gesture. No further meetings between the two have taken place.

Maduro claims to want dialogue, and the international community says they want to foster it. The opposition has presented ten points for discussion, and even the Catholic Church has weighed in. But the fact is that as violence, both real and rhetorical, continues unabated, talks are highly unlikely.

They say they want to focus on steps that slowly build trust, but they should forget “steps.” Venezuelans need a step, a first step, any step. And right now, the country seems light years away from that.