Leopoldo Martinez: A Way Out of Venezuela's Crisis

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After nearly three weeks of protests against Nicolás Maduro's regime, no reasonable person can deny the absurdity of the Venezuelan president's charge that these demonstrations have been stoked by a few "fascists" backed by the United States.

Last Saturday's opposition demonstration in Caracas brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets. With Lilian Tintori, the wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López, by his side, Henrique Capriles, the head of the opposition Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) coalition, pithily expressed the anger and frustration with a regime that demonizes its opponents.

What Maduro wanted was a photo opportunity, and Capriles knew it. "Nicolas, you are not going to use me: I am not going to the Federal Council to whitewash this moribund government," Capriles announced.

— Leopoldo Martinez

"Make no mistake, we love peace, but we’ll never get down on our knees," Capriles declared. "How long are we going to have to put up with turning on the television and hearing that the protesting students are 'fascists?'"

Accordingly, the MUD opposition coalition headed by Capriles has issued a list of ten points in a bid to prevent Venezuela's crisis from worsening. How Maduro responds will be a definitive test of whether his government will persist with the politics of denunciation, or whether it is finally ready for a meaningful dialogue.

The MUD wants to address both immediate and more long-term issues. Foremost, it is demanding the urgent release of political prisoners, including López and Ivan Simonovis, a former police official jailed on falsified charges of involvement in the failed coup against Hugo Chavez in 2002. Incarcerated in appalling conditions, Simonovis' health is rapidly deteriorating.

Additionally, Maduro would have to commit to dismantling the colectivos, the pro-regime paramilitary groups that are responsible for the violence and the abuse of human rights that we have witnessed these past weeks. Such a gesture would help persuade skeptical Venezuelans that his government is not entirely in the pockets of the Cubans, whose "rapid response brigades" the colectivos are modeled upon. In keeping with the opposition's rejection of Cuban intervention in Venezuela's internal affairs, the MUD also calls for the expulsion of Cuban military officers – some of whom have been accused of directly participating in the repression – from the country.

The MUD's ten point plan aims to secure firm assurances of political and civil rights, in accordance with Venezuela's democratic constitution. These would include a guarantee that independent media, like the NTN24 satellite broadcaster taken off the air after the protests started, can resume their coverage without harassment. Another, related measure the MUD is calling for would involve the restoration of an independent judiciary, by appointing political neutral officials to the Supreme Court and to the CNE, the body which controls elections.

Significantly, there are signs that the MUD's demands are resonating with regime figures. Julio Vielma Mora, the Governor of Tachira state and a long-serving chavista, expressed unusually strident displeasure with Maduro's strategy of repression - before backtracking somewhat twenty-four hours later, after the Venezuelan Foreign Minister, Elías Jaua, spoke ominously of calling Vielma "so he can give us the substance of his opinions."

Tachira – located in the west of Venezuela, along the border with Colombia – is a stronghold of the opposition and the birthplace of the current surge of protest. In early February, students at the university in San Cristobal, Tachira's main city, held demonstrations against the deteriorating security situation in the country after a young woman was raped on the campus. The violent police response simply stoked further protests, with the result that the regime declared a state of emergency in Tachira, sending thousands of troops to San Cristobal and even patrolling the skies above with fighter aircraft.

As far as Vielma was concerned, that was a step too far. "I am against using arms and repression against peaceful protests," Vielma stated, dramatically breaking with Maduro's depiction of the protestors as bent on violence. In that regard, Vielma was instrumental in securing the removal of Maj-Gen. Bermudez Pirela, the National Guard's regional commander for Tachira, who directed the excessive repression in the state.

Once the regime leaned on him, though, Vielma reverted back to party loyalty. "I want to congratulate the chavista people of Tachira," he said. "The only way out of this is through the Bolivarian Revolution."

But much as the regime might wish otherwise, Vielma's initial response to the repression remains on the record. That is why Vielma's welcome condemnation of Maduro, and his recognition that the peaceful protests are legitimately grounded, could yet pave the way to a much-needed national dialogue.

Such a dialogue is not what Maduro presently has in mind. That was why Capriles turned down Maduro's invitation to a meeting this week of the Federal Council. What Maduro wanted was a photo opportunity, and Capriles knew it. "Nicolas, you are not going to use me: I am not going to the Federal Council to whitewash this moribund government," Capriles announced. "They want me to shake hands as if the country was in a state of complete normality." But another dissenting voice, that of Henri Falcon, the Governor of the State of Lara, was present. Falcon denounced the violent actions of the National Guard and called for a proper dialogue that would "send a message of calm to the population.”

Hence, for any talks with the opposition to be truly significant, Maduro would have to change course. Outside parties, like the Organization of American States (OAS) and The Vatican, should therefore step up the pressure on his government, in order to prove that they are committed to helping the bruised Venezuelan nation bring about peaceful political change.