Friday, February 23, 2018

Dialogue is the only path to take

 THE demonstrations in various cities in Venezuela in recent days have been impressive due to the number of people involved, unacceptable for the persistent violence that accompanied them, and painful due to the loss of young Venezuelan lives, which we all lament.

They are not, however, new to the region. In recent years, in Chile, Mexico, and Brazil we have seen students and young people take to the streets to protest and demand solutions, other social sectors accompanying them, clashes with the police, arrests of leaders, and isolated groups encouraging acts of vandalism at the end of peaceful marches, distorting their intent.

In Venezuela, too, there are real grounds for protest, including a dire economic situation, with inflation, shortages, and sharp spikes in the exchange rate or rationing of access to dollars. As all sides admit, the crime rate has surged.

Why then, does this confrontation bring so much violence? Why are so many who normally say nothing about other violations today calling vociferously for freedom and democracy and even demanding foreign intervention? Why are so many others, including the protagonists of protests in other places, now condemning the protesters and denouncing totalitarian intentions? What makes the crisis in Venezuela different?

Between this and other explosions of unrest there is one key difference: the protest in Venezuela is laying bare a political and ideological confrontation that is far broader in scope and is the real underlying factor. The protest marches have been countered by others in support of the government.

The competing marches testify to splits among social sectors not seen on such a scale in any other country in South America. The radical nature of the confrontation is evident in the stances taken by all those involved. And that prevents Venezuela from handling a situation that could be overcome, with the resources at its disposal, if the country were united.

The opposition talks of an attempt by the government to establish a “communist dictatorship” in Venezuela, to nationalise the economy and suppress democracy, respect for human rights, and freedom of expression. For their part, the government and its supporters claim that a “fascist coup” is being planned to overthrow the government by force and re-impose the old corrupt and unequal system.

All agree on proclaiming their support for peace and dialogue but they exacerbate the conflict, some by calling for the overthrow of a government that was only recently elected and others by denying representation to an opposition that received a very large number of votes.

All want to win, to defeat the enemy. Yet the truth of the matter is that if one side wins society will remain irremediably split, for many years to come, between the conquerors and the conquered. This is not a struggle by many against a few; it is a struggle of many against many, all equally entitled to live and prosper in their country, regardless of their ideology or social position. Neither victory nor defeat is an option for Venezuela.

It is that division that explains the alleged ambiguity of governments, international organisations, civil society and other actors, who want to help but cannot find a way to do so. If they don’t condemn the government outright, they are “cowards” and “accomplices”. If they dare to utter the slightest criticism, they are “interfering in internal affairs” or “allies of imperialism”.

The attitude taken by both sides makes it harder for the international community to make a useful contribution to rapprochement and reconciliation. The initiatives they propose we should take would in fact add to the divisiveness.

That is why we have insisted so much on dialogue and will continue to do so. We think it is possible to advance toward democracy, if room for real trust is generated, in which diversity of opinions is accepted, citizens’ rights are fully respected, the quest for solutions is channelled through institutions that offer guarantees for all.

The entire international community has called for dialogue and civil concord; everyone has called for respect for human rights and an end to the violence; everyone wants Venezuela to live in peace and is ready to help bring it about. 

But it is up to the Venezuelans to reach that agreement and to do so before it is too late. However, if there is no trust in anybody, no institution or persons that guarantee equanimity and fairness, perhaps resorting to outside players from our own region and appointed by common consent might constitute a feasible option.

Let us not forget that the saddest chapters in the recent history of some of our countries began with events stained by violence and intolerance, like those we are witnessing now in Venezuela, which opened wounds in our region that have yet to heal completely.

Let nobody expect the OAS to issue condemnations, deepen the divide, or reject legitimate protest. What people have every right to expect from us is unconditional defence of human rights, freedom of expression, defence of institutions, and the rule of law; not that we should label the government a “dictatorship” or the opposition “fascist”, because that is the language of hate, which serves no useful purpose.

Above all, what people can expect from us is a persistent, stubborn call for reconciliation, dialogue, and agreement, which is the only path Venezuela can take today. “Victory” may sound more heroic than “agreement”; but agreement is the only way to go.

• José Miguel Insulza is 

secretary general of the Organisation of American States