By Michael McCarthy*
The gruesome murder of a pro-government Socialist Party deputy and the decision by the opposition coalition’s Mesa de Unidad Democrática (MUD) to suspend a rally in light of the tragedy foretold an opportunity to restart a national dialogue. But unlike in January 2014, when the murder of beauty queen Monica Spears and her family created momentum for talks on security between the government and opposition, an unfortunate and familiar downward spiral has begun. High-level government officials’ provocative accusations that the murder of Robert Serra, one of the Venezuelan Parliament’s youngest members, was the work of right-wing actors have deepened yet again the political polarization in Venezuela. UNASUR’s new Secretary General, former Colombian President Ernesto Samper, surprisingly weighed in, strongly implying that Colombian paramilitaries were involved in Serra’s murder. The government has long attempted to link members of Venezuela’s opposition with paramilitary groups, and Samper’s impartiality will forever be questioned by the opposition if the allegation is not proven. At Serra’s funeral, President Maduro described the MUD’s new Executive Secretary, Jesús “Chuo” Torrealba, as a piece of “garbage.” Maduro’s name-calling is another example of the government using polarization as a tool to encourage supporters to close ranks.
Before the stabbing deaths of Serra and his female companion by unidentified assailants, the government was attempting to build momentum to resume the UNASUR-sponsored talks that had been frozen since May 3. Samper had informed the MUD and opposition members of his intention to restart talks, and had described Maduro as “a man of dialogue, a man of peace,” adding that there were good prospects for “working a lot of things for the good of the region.” But at this point any good will among the parties seems to have evaporated. Moreover, for MUD secretary Torrealba, who originally said his goal was to change the MUD’s profile to mobilize a wider base of support, the primary task remains building MUD unity at a moment when different factions of the opposition are promoting widely varying initiatives. Torrealba has little negotiating experience and does not enjoy the same access to elite sectors as his predecessor did. His precarious position calls into question whether the MUD could negotiate as a coalition even if talks restarted.
Once again, centrifugal forces seem to be prevailing in Venezuela. This trend raises the question of whether Venezuelan society is not only “wounded and resentful,” as Jesuit Political Scientist Arturo Sosa says, but on the verge of an estallido social – social explosion. Mechanisms for mediating conflict through political discussion remain in place and appear unlikely to disappear completely, but confrontations are likely to continue flaring up regularly.
*Michael McCarthy is a CLALS Research Fellow.
October 7, 2014