Can Brazil pull it off in Venezuela?
Luiz Alberto Figueiredo is facing the most challenging task since taking over Brazil's embattled Foreign Ministry. After being roundly criticized for his initially timid reaction to mounting violence in Venezuela in early February, Figueiredo has now turned into a key actor in UNASUR's attempt to restart a constructive dialogue between President Maduro and the opposition. In addition to Brazil's top diplomat, Colombia's Foreign Minister María Ángela Holguín and Equador's Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño are meant to assure a positive outcome of the negotiations.
In mid-April, after the first meeting between government and the opposition in Caracas, Figueiredo expressed optimism, arguing that both sides seemed willing to talk to each other. In early May, he attributed lower levels of violence in Venezuela to UNASUR's efforts.
Yet it seems unclear in how far the situation has really improved. As The Economist writes today, the situation has deteriorated since the beginning of the talks on April 10:
The room for moderate opposition leaders is shrinking. The talks have failed to achieve the release of a single political prisoner, and more are jailed almost daily. Moves to appoint non-partisan figures to the Supreme Court, the electoral authority and other institutions have yet to bear fruit. Armed pro-government gangs continue to harass demonstrators, as do the security forces. The act of protesting has been turned into a criminal offence. The threat of imprisonment as a coup plotter hangs over every opposition leader.
Venezuela's society has been profoundly polarized for years, and Brazil has frequently tried, with varying success, to avoid political crises there. After a failed coup d'état in April 2002 against President Chavez, Brazil continuously sought to establish a meaningful dialogue between government and opposition. Newspaper articles from that period are conspicuously similar to those published these days. One interesting difference between 2002 and 2014 is that UNASUR has replaced the OAS as the institutional framework of the talks. It remains to be seen how this new regional dynamic - namely, the absence of the United States from the talks - affects the situation.
It would be unfair to blame Figueiredo alone should talks fail to restore political stability. Venezuela will take years, if not decades, to overcome the divisions that have developed over the past years. That does not change the fact that the political crisis in Venezuela is a litmus test of Brazil's capacity to defend human rights, democracy and political stability in South America. Brazil, along with Colombia and Ecuador, must convince both sides to establish a real dialogue and involves serious and measurable commitments, and help articulate a way out of the most immediate crisis. Brazil's standing, both regionally and globally, will in no small part be affected by the outcome of the negotiations in Caracas.
Photo credit: Ramon Espinosa/AP