'Dialogue' Means Nothing in Venezuela

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.

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions, editor of Caracas Chronicles, and author of Blogging the Revolution. Read the rest of his posts here.



Desperate for Coffee in Caracas

CARACAS — Tío Conejo, or "Uncle Rabbit," is among the most celebrated characters in Venezuelan folklore. Perpetually under threat from his nemesis, the powerful "Uncle Tiger," the hero manages -- through guile, charm, and no small amount of luck -- to consistently seize the upper hand from his mighty adversary.

These days, Venezuelans must increasingly channel their own inner Uncle Rabbits in order to survive. The country is suffering from unprecedented and appalling shortages of basic goods (including rice, flour, sugar, toilet paper, cooking oil, milk, and chicken), stemming from the distortionary effects of an increasingly unmanageable currency control policy and heavy-handed government price controls. Yet while much ink has been spilled discussing the causes of the shortages in Venezuela, little attention has been paid to the desperate strategies ordinary Venezuelans rely on to get by.

When my wife and I returned to Venezuela earlier this month, our trip began with a five-hour odyssey from Maiquetía National Airport to our destination in the Caracas suburb of El Hatillo -- a journey of just over twenty miles. The nightmarish traffic congestion was the result of multiple road closures caused by opposition protests and guarimba barricades. While mired in traffic, I suggested to our driver that we might just as well put the time to good use by paying a visit to a grocery store. Stopping at a supermarket in a middle-class neighborhood, our driver asked that we let him know immediately should we come across any milk, coffee, or baby food. The driver explained that his brother had recently become the father of twin girls, and that the entire family had been alerted to keep an eye out for provisions for the little ones. (The coffee, of course, would be for the family's adults, although in a part of the world where coffee represents a crucial part of the social fabric, and the cornerstone of in-house hospitality, this did little to lessen its importance.)

As it happened, milk and coffee were nowhere to be seen. But there was at least some consolation for our driver: a small cache of baby food (all of it Gerber and all plum-flavored). The lines at the cash registers were immense, snaking back into the interior of the store. Nonetheless, my wife, the driver, and I made a point of joining separate lines -- a seeming inefficiency that garnered the driver's hungry nieces a total of 18 small jars of plum puree, three times the rationing limit of six units. (In the photo above, a supermarket employee writes numbers on the wrists of patrons as they stand in line to enter the store.)

For certain scarce goods like baby food, the Venezuelan government has set strict limits on the amounts that can be procured by an individual at a given time. As a result, Venezuelans are incentivized (as we were) to go shopping in groups but to check out as individuals. The resultant logjam from the flood of additional patrons at checkout -- having their credit cards verified, or counting out currency -- is further exacerbated by any solo shoppers attempting to charm, threaten, or beg cashiers into making exceptions. Sick grandmothers and children abound, as do those who claim to be related to well-known government figures or members of the feared pro-government paramilitary "colectivos." Some folks even sweet-talk (or bribe) cashiers into storing their confiscated excess goods under the checkout lane temporarily, while the person goes through the line once more: a workaround that can easily turn a grocery shopping trip into an all-day affair.

The government recently announced that it will be rolling out a controversial new Consumer ID system that should assuage the inconvenience somewhat. Publicly the response from the regime and its supporters to growing complaints about these lines has ranged from the dismissive ("People gladly wait in lines at the bank, concerts, and the cinema; why then do they complain about lines to feed themselves?") to the downright Panglossian ("It means the people [finally] have money to buy things!").

And yet the sluggish super-lines that result can become dangerous to the storeowners themselves. Alejandro Pasos, who himself runs a confectionary store in the pro-government district of Carapita, told me about one recent episode at a Caracas supermarket. People had been queued up for so many hours at checkout that they were very hungry. Some began taking food from the shelves near the line and just eating it, bananas, crackers, chocolate, and so on, dropping the wrappers when they were done. "The store did nothing," he said, "probably because they didn't want a riot or to draw the government's attention. There have been some sackings lately."

Frustrated customers are likewise resorting to some clever strategies. Let's say a lone shopper stumbles across a rare good such as toilet paper. She may fill up her entire cart, far in excess of the four rolls allowed for individual purchase, then phone or text friends or relatives to come by to aid with the checkout (and in turn then distribute a bit of the bounty among themselves). For those awaiting such reinforcements, however, vigilance is key. Once the shelves have been stripped bare, fellow shoppers may well become confrontational, seeking to beg, barter, or even steal their erstwhile windfalls away.

To avoid conflicts, people sometimes stash goods in seldom-used aisles of the supermarket for later purchase or for an incoming friend. When I finally found some coffee (three days, four supermarkets, and two breakfast Red Bulls after landing), it was because I'd actively decided to search the entire store for some, eventually finding the half-dozen packs of ground beans artfully tucked away under a stack of off-brand cat food.

Some of the most interesting shenanigans still occur at checkout time. Juan Paz, a doctor, admits to sometimes flashing an "official looking" I.D. (actually a laminated membership pass to a local sports club) at unwary cashiers, claiming to be a member of Venezuela's dreaded Consumer Protection Bureau. "They never actually check," he tells me, "on the chance that I may really be an official. They're afraid that I might get angry at having my credentials called into question."

Another trickster is Andrés Díaz (a pseudonym), a U.S.-educated entrepreneur. He is also quite well-off, a fact which enables him to pay inflated black-market prices or else rely on restaurants (often more likely to be stocked) if he needs to. But he also divulges an occasional recourse to what he calls "the nuclear option": pretending to be a non-Venezuelan.

"If you fake being a foreigner who doesn't speak Spanish," says the fair skinned Caraqueño, "you can simply pretend not to comprehend why exactly they won't let you buy the goods. You just maintain a blank expression, holding out cash in your hand, and doing your best to sound indignant and perplexed in broken, idiot Spanish. These kinds of tourists are so rare these days in Venezuela, they'll have absolutely no idea what to do with you. Eventually they'll sell you whatever you want just to be done with the whole uncomfortable situation." He cautions against using this technique in a place where someone might recognize you: "You will look pretty ridiculous."

Intrigued, I decided to try this strategy myself later that same day. Sure enough, following a good ten minutes of pantomime, and a quick call to a manager who had apparently oversold somewhat her own familiarity with English, I eventually walked out the proud owner of six delicious bags of café San Domingo. Back home, after brewing myself a fine cup of coffee, I made a toast to Uncle Rabbit.

John Moore/Getty Images