The visit of UNASUR foreign ministers to Caracas provides an opportunity for the regional organization to promote dialogue in Venezuela’s polarized political climate, potentially proving itself to be a more credible and effective arbiter in the country than the OAS.
Yesterday, the delegation began its two-day country visit to Venezuela, in accordance with a recent agreement made in Santiago, Chile. According to the text of the March 12 statement, the foreign ministers of UNASUR member states are there to “accompany, support and advise” the Venezuelan government’s efforts to promote dialogue with opposition sectors, along with President Nicolas Maduro’s “national peace conference.”
But with this goal in mind, the visit got off to a bad start yesterday. The delegation’s preliminary agenda -- set by the government of Suriname, the current UNASUR president pro tempore -- excluded several major opposition groups, like the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD). This was challenged yesterday by the foreign ministers of Colombia and Paraguay, who called on Suriname to broaden the schedule of their 48-hour visit to include the MUD and other opposition voices in the country.
It appears this request was granted, as after the delegates met with Maduro, religious leaders, and members of the government-sponsored peace conference, El Universal reports that they met with MUD leaders in the Meliá Caracas hotel yesterday evening. The issues discussed reportedly included the recent ouster of opposition mayors and the move to strip lawmaker Maria Corina Machado of her seat. The meeting lasted over three hours, after which MUD Secretary Ramon Guillermo Aveledo told journalists that the opposition coalition was open to a dialogue with the government and “a third party in good faith,” according to EFE.
Not only was the MUD meeting a valuable step towards tackling Venezuela’s polarization, it also provides some reassurance to the opposition that UNASUR might serve as that objective third party. Prior to the visit, the MUD called this into question, sending a letter to the UNASUR president pro tempore requesting that the regional bloc not be used as a “propaganda tool.”
According to Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño, the second half of the delegation’s visit will continue today with meetings with student leaders and ruling party activists.
Once the visit comes to an end today, it is unclear what exactly will follow. The delegation’s mandate is fairly vague, and says nothing about issuing recommendations. It does, however, mention concern for any threat to Venezuela’s “independence and sovereignty,” and considering how prickly Maduro has been with regard to OAS statements on Venezuela, recommendations may be off the table.
Harold Trinkunas, director of the Brookings Institute’s Latin America Initiative, argues that the delegation should adopt a wide interpretation of its mandate, as doing otherwise would weaken UNASUR’s credibility and potential to address future conflicts in the region. As he suggests, this might include widening the current dialogues, or even creating a new forum which would include those opposition sectors not currently participating in the peace conference (a move which the MUD’s Aveledo now seems to favor).
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