“HERE WE are. The winners!” boomed Nicolás Maduro at a ceremony broadcast on state television on May 20th. It was the third anniversary of what the Venezuelan president describes as his “popular victory”: an election in 2018 which secured him a second presidential term. “The election had such an important impact for us,” agreed his wife, Cilia Flores, amiably. She was more right than she perhaps intended to be.

For it was that vote, a fraud managed by a biased electoral authority, that led dozens of Western countries to brand Mr Maduro a dictator and isolate his regime. The United States has imposed financial sanctions on him and most of his political allies, including Ms Flores. American companies, once the main buyers of Venezuela’s crude oil, are prohibited from all dealings with the regime. The American government has offered a $15m award for information leading to the arrest of Mr Maduro. Dozens of democracies have, to varying degrees, formally declared the head of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, to be the rightful leader of the country. The Venezuelan economy has continued its relentless collapse, shrinking by more than 70% since Mr Maduro took office in 2013. Oil production has fallen to levels last seen in the 1940s. One third of the population do not have reliable access to sufficient food.

Yet if it was not a “popular victory”, it was one for Mr Maduro. He has successfully neutralised the opposition, making a mockery of the internationally supported plan to replace him with Mr Guaidó. The latter’s hope—that an underpaid and demoralised army would switch sides and put him into power—now seems a fantasy. Of the almost 60 countries which at one stage accepted Mr Guaidó as president, all but seven have quietly dropped the designation from their official communiqués this year.

Mr Maduro, a former bus driver snobbishly dismissed as a “donkey” by his enemies, has proved far wilier than they had imagined. “He has uncanny situational intelligence, and is ruthless when necessary,” says a former senior official in his government. “If there are three people in a room and one must die, it won’t be him.” The key to his political survival has been his strategy of using the state for patronage. “The government is more like a clan now,” says the ex-official. Generals, governors and gang leaders rule parts of the country like mini-fiefdoms. With oil money running short, the state hands out land and development rights to buy loyalty instead. In Los Roques, a pristine Caribbean archipelago, mansions are being built in a national park. Across Bolivar state in the south, forests have been felled and rivers poisoned as part of a chaotic gold rush.

Having fended off the immediate threat to his survival, Mr Maduro now wants to reduce some of the international pressure on his regime. His officials speak of a plan to “turn the page”. The idea is that by holding slightly less rigged regional elections and sending a team to negotiate with the opposition, Mr Maduro may persuade the administration of President Joe Biden to pare back sanctions imposed by Donald Trump. Mr Maduro “wants to figure out a way to give up as little as possible but get some legitimacy”, says a senior official in America’s State Department. A significant easing of sanctions is unlikely. But there is no question that the threats emanating from the United States (Mr Trump mused about removing Mr Maduro from power by any means necessary, including an invasion) have diminished since Mr Biden came to office. Europe has also changed its tune. “The talk these days is of regime improvement, not regime change”, says one diplomat.

Mr Maduro’s campaign to burnish his image has been frenetic. After denying for years that Venezuela faces a humanitarian crisis, he agreed in April to allow the World Food Programme into the country to feed children. He hosted the WFP’s boss, David Beasley (an American) in Caracas, the capital. Eleven days later the government transferred six former executives of Citgo, an oil-refining firm based in America, from prison, where they had languished since 2017, to house arrest. Mr Maduro’s attorney-general said that he will investigate the security services’ role in three controversial killings, including the apparent torturing to death in custody of a dissident naval officer and the shooting of a protester at close range with a tear-gas canister in 2017. The move seems to be an attempt to head off a full investigation by the International Criminal Court.

In preparation for regional elections, the government and some elements of the opposition have agreed to empanel a new electoral council (CNE). It is still skewed in the regime’s favour, but two out of its five members are friendly to the opposition (previously just one was). The announcement has, as intended, divided the opposition. Mr Guaidó initially rejected it as an “imposition of the regime”, but others seem keen to participate. Henrique Capriles, a former presidential candidate who helped negotiate the deal, described it as the “least bad” CNE since Mr Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, won elections in 1998. Roberto Picón, a long-time adviser to the opposition on elections, who is on the new council, says that the government “could afford to lose” some relatively low-level mayoral races and may even be prepared to give up several governorships. Progress depends on the opposition “changing its narrative” of abrupt political change, he says.

Supporters of a parallel effort to get both sides negotiating, a process which will be sponsored by the government of Norway and probably take place in Mexico, make a similar argument: that there is little to lose. Mr Guaidó’s popular support has sunk from a high of over 60% in 2019 to around 15%, according to Datanalisis, a polling firm in Caracas. His “mandate” as interim president is conditional on his leadership of the National Assembly which was elected in 2015. That term expired in January 2021. The assembly granted itself an extension on the basis that no credible new elections could be held under Mr Maduro. But many of the governments that publicly support him, and even some allies in the opposition, think it would be inappropriate to extend it again.

If the talks go ahead, the opposition’s demands would include the release of political prisoners, perhaps a further overhaul of the CNE, early presidential elections (the next is currently scheduled for 2024) and the admission of foreign observers for all future polls. In return the regime is seeking the removal of all sanctions, the release of funds frozen by the United States and other countries, and the acceptance of a rival National Assembly, created by Mr Maduro to replace Mr Guaidó’s following a vote the opposition boycotted.

The United States has indicated that it would contemplate some modifications, at least, to the sanctions. Mr Guaidó has moderated his earlier all-or-nothing approach to talks. Whereas he once insisted that Mr Maduro must step down, full-stop, he now endorses a more gradual approach, in which the regime makes concessions in return for some easing of sanctions.

Sceptics argue it is all a waste of time, and that Mr Maduro, who has held four rounds of negotiations with the opposition since 2013, has no intention of agreeing to anything that could see him lose power. But there is another view: that the president and his wife have their eyes on retirement, and would like to hand over to a palatable successor before new elections in 2024. Mr Maduro “wants to be remembered as the man who took on the United States and won”, says the former government official. Perhaps a wise strategy for the negotiators, and the best hope for Venezuela, would be to convince him that he has.

Source: The Economist