Venezuela to Continue Opposition Talks as Expectations Wane

Venezuela’s government is set to continue talks with the political opposition next week after two initial meetings failed to end 10 weeks of protests that have left at least 41 people dead.

Both sides agreed to work together on initiatives including the government’s anti-crime plans and the process to renew Supreme Court justices, opposition alliance secretary Ramon Guillermo Aveledo said last night after a closed-door meeting in Caracas hosted by Vice President Jorge Arreaza.

“This path we have all dared to undertake isn’t easy, it’s not simple for anyone,” Aveledo said close to midnight on state television. “But we have shown today that we are willing to look for openings, paths, to try building solutions. The important thing is that the process not stop.”

The opposition will also cooperate with a so-called truth committee to investigate protest-related violence by submitting alleged cases of torture and cruel treatment, he said. Still, the government has been firm in stating that it won’t meet opposition demands to release political prisoners and jailed protesters, fueling skepticism that the talks will lead to a breakthrough, said political scientist Edgar Gutierrez.

Demonstrations by students that began in early February over safety at universities have turned into a nationwide protest against President Nicolas Maduro’s handling of crime and the economy resulting in near daily clashes between protesters and the national guard.

‘Advancing Positively’

“We are advancing positively,” Vice President Arreaza said on state television after the meeting last night. “This is a good sign to the country.”

The meeting lasted three and a half hours and was accompanied by the foreign ministers of Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador and a Vatican representative. Venezuela’s government held televised talks last week with the opposition for the first time in a six-hour national broadcast that went past midnight.

“The first meeting wasn’t a dialog or a debate, but a series of televised speeches,” Gutierrez, a political science professor at the Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas, said today in a telephone interview. “Yesterday the dialog started, and I’m pessimistic about the fruit that these meetings can produce.”

The government has been firm in stating that it won’t accept an amnesty proposal from the opposition, he said.

Stalemate

Among other demands, the opposition is pushing for the release of political prisoners and jailed protesters including Leopoldo Lopez, leader of the Popular Will party, and two opposition mayors, who have been charged with inciting violence.

“The government can’t meet the opposition demands because then it will admit to having political prisoners and its narrative falls through,” Gutierrez said. “The opposition’s base is going to demand these results from their leaders to continue. And that’s how the game will be brought to a stalemate.”

While both parties have strong incentives to continue talks, little is likely to come from the meetings, Eurasia Group analyst Risa Grais-Targow said yesterday in an e-mailed note, adding that protests would probably continue.

“The government is highly unlikely to concede to the opposition’s demands,” she said. “Ongoing protests actually provide the government with a distraction from a very difficult economic situation, including a politically costly devaluation.”

Economic Crisis

Venezuela last month allowed the bolivar to weaken 88 percent on a new currency market designed to allow companies to obtain dollars in a country where shortages have stoked the world’s fastest inflation. Consumer prices rose 57.3 percent in February.

Opposition Governor Henrique Capriles, who lost to Maduro last year in the narrowest election in 45 years, spoke at about 12:40 a.m. during the last meeting with the government that ended in the early hours of April 11.

“They let Capriles speak at 1:00 a.m. so that no one would listen to him,” Gloria Cuenca, a journalism ethics professor at Venezuela’s Central University in Caracas, said in a telephone interview. “An enormous number of people didn’t hear him speak that day.”

Maduro had been pressured into a dialogue with the opposition by his international allies after his government was viewed to have used excessive force against protesters, said Diego Moya-Ocampos, a London-based political risk analyst at the consultancy IHS Global Insight.

Catholic Church

“It’s not a dialogue out of good faith or coming from a government that wants to change directions,” he said. “The latent risk that these middle-class protests expand to popular sectors and unions still exists. In Venezuela, the perfect storm is forming.”

The yield on Venezuela’s benchmark 9.25 percent dollar bond due 2027 fell 12 basis points to 11.92 percent at 4:20 p.m. in New York today, the lowest since October. Venezuelan bonds have returned 11 percent this year, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s EMBIG Diversified index.

“The government’s strategy has been to buy time,” Gutierrez said. “They’ve managed to make it to the Easter week holiday, and after that they’ll try to calm the protests when the World Cup starts. The government is waiting for the protests to tire out, and that could happen.”

Venezuela’s Catholic Church today called on the government to pass the opposition’s amnesty proposal and release political prisoners.

“The country needs an amnesty law that will resolve the plight of many prisoners who are in an impossible situation,” Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino, honorary president of the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference, said today in comments broadcast on the Globovision television network. “I don’t understand why they have to have Leopoldo Lopez and the mayors isolated.”

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