On Thursday night, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, along with several members of his political party, hosted a night of "dialogue" with the opposition. Of course, this was no real dialogue. The evening showed that the two players in Venezuelan politics cannot agree on anything -- and might have even helped entrench each side's already radicalized positions.
The meeting was the brain child of a group of foreign ministers from Unasur, a regional body of South American nations. Worried about the ongoing violence caused by a rapidly deteriorating political crisis, the ministers agreed to "mediate" a meeting with opposition leaders, headed by the defeated presidential candidate Henrique Capriles. The six-hour ordeal was broadcast live, nationwide, on all radio and TV channels, per the opposition's request.
The opposition seized the rare opportunity to hammer its basic talking points. They repeated claims that the election in April 2013, which saw Maduro (officially) win by a small margin of votes, was fraudulent. They talked about the country's deep economic crisis, its crime wave, and the lack of respect for the separation of powers consecrated in the constitution.
Meanwhile, the government repeated their talking points: The opposition is violent, they want to overthrow the government, they are not democratic, and they are corrupt. They repeated claims that the governments before Hugo Chávez came to power were repressive and dishonest. In spite of pledges to give equal time to each side, chavismo was clearly in control -- Maduro himself spoke for 27 percent of the time.
The problem for the government is that their audience had already heard their story a million times before. There was nothing new in the government's talking points. On the other hand, due to Venezuela's asphyxiated media market, many people had not heard the opposition express their views. The government had little to gain, and the opposition had nothing to lose.
The night was not without its lighter moments. Capriles, when addressing Maduro directly, kept referring to him as "Nicolás," a deliberate tactic to belittle someone he considers illegitimate. An intimidating member of a pro-government paramilitary militia called the "Tupamaros" actually suggested nominating Maduro for the Nobel Peace Prize. And a member of the opposition said he would exceed his allotted time limit because "he had been listening to mandatory broadcasts for fifteen years," and now he had the chance to speak and was not going to let go of the microphone.
All in all, it was a rare, uniquely Venezuelan brand of political theater. But did it amount to anything?
Neither side did anything to engage the other. Whoever came in supporting the opposition probably came out more convinced than ever that chavismo is on the wrong side of history. And while radical chavistas were probably not swayed, wavering chavista supporters may have found the opposition's views interesting -- at several points, the opposition acknowledged that protests have sometimes been violent, particularly some of the barricades. (In the photo above, protesters in Caracas aim a catapult at riot police.) However, the opposition's inclusion of too many speakers -- all of them male -- and their inability to stay on message probably did not help them convince people in the middle.
Nevertheless, two people came out as winners from the opposition side. One was Capriles.
Since this political crisis began in February, Capriles has come to be seen as an indecisive, lukewarm supporter of the people in the streets. Last night, Capriles had a spring in his step, and he tore into the government with gusto. Judging by the reaction in social media, part of the opposition's base seemed happy with his performance.
The second impressive performance came from the Governor of Lara, Henry Falcón. Falcón is a man of humble origins, a former chavista who broke with the revolution a few years ago due to incompetence and corruption. His impeccable suit, mild-mannered demeanor, and ability to convey his disappointment with a revolution that has not delivered on its promises was one of the evening's highlights. "Either we engage in dialogue, or we end up killing ourselves," he said, echoing a recurrent theme of the night.
The opposition may have scored some points, but there was one clear loser last night: Venezuela. The evening served to underscore just how deeply divided the country is. Both sides cannot agree on the truth, nor on what matters for the future. Neither side seems willing to acknowledge the other as a valid partner. And many key players -- such as the student leaders and legislator María Corina Machado -- chose not to attend. Their absence, along with that of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López, meant that a significant portion of the protest movement did not have a seat at the table, limiting the effectiveness of the dialogue process. Protest leaders viewed the event as a sham, which means that it probably did nothing to defuse the crisis in Venezuela's streets.
Venezuela desperately needs dialogue. What it got last night was theater, dueling monologues, and sometimes debate -- but it was not dialogue. The main takeaway from this awkward séance -- the first of more to come -- was that hope for peaceful coexistence has taken yet another beating.
The same day of the meeting, Pope Francis wrote a letter to Venezuelans on both sides of the aisle, urging them to find common ground and become "authentic builders of peace." The Pope's ambassador, who was in the room yesterday, will probably convey a stark message back to His Holiness -- that although Venezuelans may still have a few things in common with each other, finding out what those things are and using them as building blocks to peace is going to require a lot of work.
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