Saturday, May 06, 2017

What "Dialogue" Should Mean in Venezuela

A few days ago Dany Bahar, a fellow at the Brookings Institute, had a Twitter thread about the need to reassure possible dissenters in the Venezuelan military. When people write about what needs to happen, we often hear about "dialogue." That conjures up images of having the opposition and government leaders sit down and talk. Typically we would think that such talk focuses on points of disagreement and compromise solutions to move forward. But as the crisis deepens, that makes no sense anymore.

Instead, dialogue should really consist of the opposition sending strong, clear, and targeted signals to members of the government, both civilian and military. Steve Levitsky talks about elite defection in a New York Times article today.

“Defection is harder when the other side isn’t just some guy you disagree with about tax policy but rather is the enemy,” Mr. Levitsky said. “Moving to opposition, calling for Maduro’s fall, is still akin to treason. That atmosphere makes defection much harder.”

In other words, it is time for the opposition to reassure potential Chavista defectors. They may be nervous about the situation but more nervous about what the opposition will do to them if they break ranks. But if they break ranks in large numbers, then the government loses its moral authority, so the opposite should encourage it.

This is the same dynamic that civilian opposition had when trying to end military dictatorships in Latin America. An essential difference, though, is that the crimes of those regimes revolved around torture and murder. In Venezuela it is mostly corruption and drug trafficking, so it's potentially easier to accept the possible lack of accountability. The ultimate goal is a presidential election, and swallowing the freedom of some drug traffickers and money launderers may well be worth achieving it.

A final note is that even if you reassure them now, it's entirely possible--maybe even likely--that they will be tried eventually. Another lesson from Latin America is that memories are long, and courts are stronger than you think. The question, then, is whether that possible long-term accountability is enough to convince the opposite to lure Chavistas away from the government.


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