Our man in Caracas
Update (October 20, 2015): Venezuela's decision to block Brazil's Special Envoy Nelson Jobim, tasked with monitoring the elections, (http://bit.ly/1W2j76D) is a diplomatic affront and should be publicly condemned by Dilma Rousseff. It's very bad news for democracy and human rights in South America.
September 17, 2015:
As Venezuela slides deeper into a toxic mix of political instability, economic uncertainty and violence, Brazil's President has appointed Nelson Jobim, former President of the Supreme Court, Minister of Justice and Minister of Defense as Special Envoy to Venezuela for the country's contested parliamentary elections in December.
Jobim's credentials are unquestionable. Throughout his career, he has won distinction by being able to work constructively with all sides of the ideological spectrum, being friends with politicians from both left and right who would barely speak to each other. As Minister of Defense, Jobim was essential in asserting civilian control over the military. Equally important, he advanced several key initiatives that today represent the foundation of Brazil's regional strategy: the Brazilian National Defense White Book, and UNASUR's South American Defense Council. Jobim successfully defused a few crises in the region, and emerged as an important interlocutor with the United States at times of diplomatic estrangement.
And yet, when it comes to his new mission to assure free and fair elections, the prospects are dim. Matias Spektor calls it a "mission impossible", underlining that Brazil has long lost leverage over the Venezuelan government by failing to speak up when Maduro began to violate human rights and meddle with the foundations of his country's democratic institutions -- redrawing voting districts, dismissing judges, and imprisoning political opponents.
At the height of violent clashes in Venezuela last year, Brazil failed to point out that both the opposition and the government were to blame. Instead, Brazil initially co-issued three rather bland communiqués (through UNASUR, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and Mercosur). The latter was particularly controversial, as it was generally interpreted as being soft on the Maduro government, characterizing protesters as anti-democratic forces.
In response, Brazil's then Foreign Minister Figueiredo defended his country's strategy, arguing in an interview with Folha de São Paulo that the Mercosur statement had been "misunderstood". Yet when the reporter asked whether Mercosur leaders had tried to send a message to President Maduro, the foreign minister replied that "Maduro did not need a message" – hardly a sign that Brazil was eager to get involved in Venezuela.
Indeed, Brazil has been so quiet about the crisis in Venezuela that some observers believe that Maduro would get away with declaring a state of emergency and postponing the elections in December. After all, even with the democratic system in shambles, Brazil has yet to issue a stern warning that further deterioration could lead to Venezuela's suspension from both Mercosur and UNASUR.
Such arguments are usually criticized by the Brazilian left, who look at the situation in Venezuela through an ideological lens, not understanding that Maduro has long lost support even among left-leaning leaders in the region. Brazil's opposition is often no better, not realizing that Maduro's opponents are far from ideal to restore genuine democracy. Such simplistic views overlook that today, the biggest threat to Maduro is not the opposition, but leaders in his own camp, led by Diosdado Cabello.
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 today is that UNASUR has replaced the OAS as the institutional framework of the talks, a change that has yet to produce any positive results.
Given the mess Venezuela finds itself in, what should we expect of Nelson Jobim?
It would be certainly unrealistic to ask Brazil's envoy to single-handedly assure free and fair elections in Venezuela. The country will take years, if not decades, to overcome the divisions that have developed since 2002.
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. Jobim must convince both sides to establish a real dialogue and involves serious and measurable commitments that allow for an honest political contest in December. One first task for Jobim will be to establish a direct channel of communication with the opposition, who today regards Brazil as timid, pro-Maduro, and lacking impartiality to act as an honest observer and mediator. That implies signaling that, unless the basic foundations for competitive elections are in place, Brazil is ready to openly question their legitimacy. As Rousseff is very well aware, Jobim is famous for not mincing his words in public, even on issues other politicians prefer not to comment on. The risks are considerable. With no other official observers in the country in December, Brazil will have a decisive role in providing an international seal of approval -- or not -- to the election results in one of the world's most polarized societies.
Photo credit: Folha de S.Paulo