- By Juan Cristóbal NagelJuan Cristóbal Nagel is a professor of economics at the Universidad de los Andes in Santiago, Chile, editor of Caracas Chronicles, and co-author of the book Blogging the Revolution.
On Tuesday, April 1, the New York Times published a rare opinion piece by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. In it, Maduro lays out his view of the two-month old protests that have left dozens dead and hundreds wounded. He also makes a plea to the United States Congress, which is currently pondering sanctions, not to punish his regime. Yet as the international community continues to tip-toe toward engagement, a bit more clarity is called for.
Venezuela is currently more polarized than at any time in its recent history. The divide between the regime and the opposition is deeper than ever. What do the two sides believe? Can they find common ground on anything? If they cannot, is dialogue even possible? The Maduro piece, with its outline of the government’s main points, offers a good starting point for parsing these questions.
Maduro begins by saying Venezuelans are proud of the democracy they have built. He should have qualified that: Chavistas are proud of the democracy they have built. They, indeed, believe their government is democratic, more so than the preceding ones.
The opposition, in turn, believes democracy has been severely degraded during the chavista era, and many are now openly calling Maduro a dictator. While the government is proud of its high-tech electoral system, the opposition thinks it is grossly unfair: Numerous irregularities are routinely reported, but they are seldom investigated.
Both positions are therefore irreconcilable. Either Venezuela has a strong democracy or it does not. A recent opinion poll by local pollster IVAD suggests that a majority of Venezuelans (55 percent) share the opposition’s view on democracy in the country. The government claims to believe that the right to protest is legitimate, but the opposition, currently under siege in the streets of Venezuela’s main cities, strongly disputes that.
There is no common ground when it comes to the media landscape either. The opposition believes the media is under pressure and heavily censored. The government disputes this by saying the media market is "thriving," pointing to private ownership of media outlets. The opposition claim that the private media are actually controlled by government figureheads is dismissed by the government. The irony is that, even as Maduro takes to a foreign newspaper to get his message out, Venezuela’s independent newspapers are running out of newsprint because the government refuses to allow them to import it. In fact, the same day Maduro was praising Venezuela’s democracy, a donation of newsprint from Colombian newspapers was being held up at the border.
The government claims that Chávez significantly lowered poverty, and the data supports this. The opposition either brushes this away as an accounting gimmick, or points out that poverty reduction is simply the result of a commodities boom, and that it will go away once the boom is over. They usually point to the fact that, while people may have more disposable income, Venezuela is not a middle-class country, with many of the country’s "former poor" just a small slip in the oil price away from poverty once more.
When it comes to crime, both sides recognize the seriousness of the problem. But while Maduro calls the problem "intractable," the opposition points to serious failings in the country’s police and judicial system as the root cause. Ever since the protests began, little to nothing has been said about a problem that continues unabated. And while both sides acknowledge the economic difficulties the country faces, the government insists that this is the result of an "economic war" being waged by the opposition in cahoots with private business, and that its responsibility is little to none.
Finally, the government believes the protests are part of a coup, led by "terrorists" and "fascists" financially supported by the United States. The opposition insists the protests are peaceful. They clearly want to end the Maduro government, but in the government’s eyes, asking for the president’s resignation is unconstitutional and tantamount to a violent coup. The two sides can’t even agree on how the recent deaths linked to the protests came about. (The photo above shows protesters holding paper tombstones during an anti-Maduro demonstration.)
Whether it is any of these issues or others — the influence of Cuba, for example, or the role of private property — there is little common ground to speak of between the two sides.
In order for Venezuela to be viable, dialogue needs to happen. But with the two sides’ positions so diametrically opposed to each other, there is little hope that a solution can be found.
Judging by recent electoral outcomes, the two sides in this struggle are of roughly equal size. But their outlooks are so radically different that it sometimes seems as if they live in different countries altogether.
As the international community tries to separate truth from fiction and play a constructive role in trying to foster dialogue, they would be well served in keeping their expectations low. Judging by where the two sides stand, dialogue has never seemed less possible.