The Vatican, Dialogue and Dictatorships: Venezuela & Nicaragua

The Vatican representative Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag along with the political prisoners Irlanda Jerez, Lucia Pineda Ubau, Maria Adila Peralta, Amaya Eva Coppens, Nelly Marilly Roque during a visit to the La Esperanza women’s prison.


In 2016 in Venezuela, the ambassador to the pope announced the Maduro government and the Venezuelan opposition had agreed on an exit strategy or road map.


By Enrique Sáenz (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – “Cuando veas las barbas de tu vecino arder, poné las tuyas a remojar” is an old Spanish saying which roughly translates that “to be forewarned is to be forearmed”. With time, Spanish speakers only utter the shorthand “poner la barba en remojo”. This old proverb advises us to take notice of other people’s troubles.

I bring up this proverb in the midst of the current negotiations that since being publicly announced have gone through many ups and downs.

Take the political dialogue in Venezuela. Venezuela’s reality is very close to Nicaraguan reality. After this brief overview, may the reader draw his/her own conclusions.

As many know, during the ongoing Maduro crisis, both sides of the aisle attempted to dialogue with the purported goal of finding a peaceful solution. The premise, of course, was that the dialogue was the only acceptable alternative because otherwise Venezuela would spiral into more violence.

This argument has been one of the best ploys of dictatorial regimes. It has the appearance of being irrefutable, even though the reader may suspect a fallacy lurking underneath. It’s cogency stems from the belief that the opposition’s recourse to violence is irrational and illegitimate. The regime can then claim its interested in peace, using dialogue as an alibi, all the while resorting to systematic and criminal violence to insure its grip on power. In this way, violence becomes the preserve of those who have lost all legitimate claims to govern to maintain a corrupt status quo.

Of course, I am not trying to legitimize violence for political change, least of all in Nicaragua, where history has a lot to teach us. I’ve advocated on a number of occasions that the best option to Nicaragua’s crisis is a peaceful resolution. I am simply pointing to how calls for dialogue can be easily used to deceive.

Let me digress: In December 2015, Maduro’s regime suffered a huge setback in the parliamentary elections. The election’s result gave the opposition coalition The Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) a majority rule in the National Assembly. The regime’s reaction was to strip the National Assembly’s legal authority through a series of rulings by crony judges on the Supreme Court.

One of the several crises was caused by an illegal ruling by the National Electoral Board that prohibited a constitutional recall referendum. Again, the parties called for dialogue to “solve” the crisis. On this occasion, The Vatican was called to mediate through the pope´s envoy, Monsignor Claudio Mari Celli. Former presidents Leonel Fernandez from the Dominican Republic, Jose Rodriguez Zapatero from Spain and Martin Torrijos from Panama, as well as the UNASUR General Secretary, were invited as observers. These last two had varying degrees of sympathy for Maduro.

On November 12, 2016, the pope’s envoy announced that an agreement was reached. The preamble stated that “the national government and the Democratic Unity Roundtable agreed to a roadmap […]”.

Is it coincidence that Venezuela’s political players also agreed to a roadmap [like happened recently in Nicaragua]?

The first agreement stated that the parties “decided to prioritize short term measures to provide medical and food supplies…”.

We all know what happened and what continues to happen. Global media provided us with images of arson attacks and obstacles to prevent humanitarian aid from entering the country.

The following agreement was that both parties “would work together in accordance to the Constitution, to nominate two National Electoral Board magistrates once the current magistrates’ terms expire in December 2016”.

Obviously, the goal of the democratic opposition was to have two independent magistrates in a body that was controlled by three magistrates loyal to the regime.

The third agreement pertained to unblocking the impasse provoked by the Supreme Court ruling stripping the National Assembly of its powers.

We all know what happened afterwards. To annihilate the National Assembly, Maduro called for a new Constituent Assembly. Later, he called for a presidential election that was widely seen as fraudulent. Such elections are at the root of the current crisis.

The other agreements called for a cessation of sanctions imposed against Maduro who like Ortega today, wanted to get the opposition on-board against sanctions. A declaration for territorial sovereignty and another lofty declaration for “peaceful coexistence” were signed by the parties.

Once they were announced, the agreements were subject to a storm of criticism by many opposition and grassroots organizations for neglecting three crucial issues: the recall referendum, the presidential election timeline and the fate of political prisoners.

The negotiators defended their outcomes arguing that the government had agreed to free political prisoners “within a few hours”. They added that they had achieved an “acknowledgment for the autonomy, legality and powers of the National Assembly, a window towards having an “impartial” electoral board, and the opening of a humanitarian supply channel for medicines and food provided by international solidarity and Venezuelans abroad”.

Maduro did not come through on any of his commitments.

The Apostolic Administrator of Caracas, Cardinal Baltazar Porras, said it clearly when he stated that what the Vatican obtained from Maduro was a “sham […] when the Vatican has been called to mediate there has been nothing but a charade”.

The aftermath of that negotiation was a divided opposition and MUD losing all remaining credibility to the point of disbanding. In the meantime, the Venezuelan people continued to pay a high price in blood, prison, hardship and exile. Yet again Maduro, two years later, is calling for a new dialogue.

I started this piece with an old proverb about learning from other’s mistakes. But there is also another proverb; “you can only learn from your own mistakes”. Let the reader choose the more sensible of the two at his/her own peril.