When I was doing my dissertation research in Argentina, I was hired by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to evaluate their rule of law programs in the Southern Cone. One of those projects was a mediation project outside Buenos Aires to relieve backlogged courts by shunting small cases off to a nearby mediation center. Included in those “small cases” were instances of spousal abuse. I remember asking the project director, how can you mediate a case supposedly among moral equals when clearly one party—often the husband—has criminally brutalized the other?
Some things just can’t be mediated without punishment or the threat of it.
Under the repeated, failed efforts to establish a dialogue out of the current Venezuelan crisis, the Venezuelan political opposition and a majority of the population seeking change is a battered wife. Last week, Primero Justicia formally pulled out of the Vatican-UNASUR sponsored mediation process citing the failure of the government to comply with any of the basic original demands, including the release of political prisoners, the restoration of the National Assembly’s constitutional powers, and the creation of an electoral timetable. Those were on the table at the beginning; none of them were met by the government, even after the opposition agreed to put a hold on street protests. While necessary to cool the tensions, what the Vatican/UNASUR and their enablers in the U.S. State Department did was effectively get the opposition to give up their one remaining democratic channel and a democratic right to get no rights restored in return.
All of this was conducted with a blind faith that the government of President Nicolás Maduro— which has shown no evidence that it was willing to negotiate in good faith, respect democratic rights and accept as legitimate a political opposition—would suddenly be willing to make concessions out of the kindness of its heart. Who thought this would work? Maybe we can forgive the Catholic Church, a faith based on the idea that while man is fallen, sins can be forgiven easily through a confession that cleanses the soul. (Perhaps Maduro slipped into a confession booth next to Pope Francis, “Forgive me father for I have sinned; I physically beat my opponents, imprisoned innocent politicians, trampled on my own constitution, and I aid and abet narcotics traffickers in my own government and family.” And with a few Hail Maries was absolved, ready to sin again.) And we can forgive UNASUR because sheltering and favoring unaccountable governments at the expense of democratic and human rights is their stock in trade. But the U.S. State Department and senior diplomats? That they also managed to convince the respected and thorough Bello columnist at The Economist that this time was different is even more surprising…. if not saddening.
In what world of realpolitik does mediation and dialogue work without the credible threat of sanctions on either side? To quote Elie Wiesel, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
This week the Vatican issued a statement saying that it hoped to reconvene the dialogue on January 13, 2017. In artfully oblique language, the Vatican official in charge of the initiative, Monsignor Claudio Maria Celli, said that “there are still issues on the agenda that are still pending.” Yes, like that one of the partners in the initiative isn’t negotiating in good faith.
And by the way, in case anyone missed it, while the sham dialogue was going on, Venezuela managed to score what it was praying for all along: a cut in production by OPEC that will increase the price of the country’s only export. Many people thought it couldn’t happen, but a few days after the agreement was announced oil prices surged 5 percent.
Now that was a real Hail Mary… but in this case a pass not a prayer. The government’s plan has become a little closer: delay any real dialogue or elections long enough that it can engage in another round of petro-populist patronage to shore up its support. Never mind that the economy is in too much disarray for a new round of spending to make much of a difference. The mediators and the enablers played right into the government’s hands.
Before January 13th expect another confession to allow Maduro to sin again. Forgive me father for I have sinned, and will continue to, as long as I can get off this scot-free.