Last week, as Venezuela’s political crisis was stoking fears of bloody clashes between the opposition, security forces and armed pro-government supporters, Nicolás Maduro dedicated a song, “You’re crazy, crazy and I’m chill”, to his political foes on his new salsa radio show.
“Gosh, Maduro is just hopeless,” said Henrique Capriles, the former presidential candidate, who was convincing the opposition coalition to call off a march on the presidential palace and delay a parliamentary trial against the president in order to allow Vatican-mediated talks.
The moderate opposition leader spearheaded a campaign for a referendum, allowed under the constitution, to oust the president, which the government-controlled electoral authority has quashed. He admits he may not be chilled but says he is not crazy.
“We are democrats with common sense,” he said. “It is the government that has the weapons, that controls all of the powers. It is not the opposition boycotting the government, it is the government that stepped out of the constitution putting us in this situation.
“I called for the march, and the Vatican was very insistent in the need to postpone it, not cancelling but postponing it, because so much tension in the air would have led to clashes during which anything could have happened. So we decided to hear the Catholic church’s petition and give us a few days,” Mr Capriles said.
The clock is ticking for such dialogue, brokered by the Vatican and the Union of South American Nations, and backed by the US. “We are giving a chance to the Catholic church because what has to be done is to build a negotiation from where we can build a solution. The situation is unviable, it is either this or war.”
But with members of the opposition party led by the imprisoned Leopoldo Lópezexpressing scepticism about the talks, and many supporters believing Mr Maduro is simply playing for oxygen as the crisis deepens, Mr Capriles is under pressure to show results. His side has given the socialist government until Friday to meet certain demands.
Those include freeing more jailed dissidents, among them Antonio Ledezma, the mayor of Caracas; granting the opposition more seats in the electoral council, and establishing an electoral calendar that might include reviving the referendum or early presidential elections, scheduled for late 2018.
“What if they don’t grant us that? My thesis that the negotiating table will be suspended. Ergo, we’ll go back to an agenda of civil resistance, with a very high risk [of social explosion for the government] and a cost for the opposition that agreed to this dialogue,” Mr Capriles warned. “This will take us to more crises, more uncertainty. It could end in a violent confrontation.”
“I can contain, but my capacity to contain could be overcome,” he said.
International brokers agree. Claudio Maria Celli, the Vatican emissary, reportedly said this weekend that an end to the talks may open a path that “could truly be one of blood”. Tom Shannon, a top US Latin America diplomat, said that “absent a negotiation process, mobilisation is unpredictable and can be very dangerous”.
But too much salsa music may have deafened Mr Maduro, who dismissed the opposition’s November 11 deadline, saying: “There can be no ultimatums.”
With 90 per cent of Venezuelans believing the country is going in the wrong direction amid triple-digit inflation, double-digit recession and food shortages, some of Mr Capriles’s critics in the opposition argue dialogue with a ruler they label a “dictator” is pointless. Because Mr Maduro has grown so unpopular, they feel an uprising is likely.
Mr Capriles would rather give peace a chance: “Let’s see if this effort by the Catholic church achieves something,” he said. “Just having people in the street is insufficient and could end in the confrontation we are trying to avoid. We’ll rethink a phase of civil resistance through mobilisation and pressure from the international community to get elections.”
Even amid fears of a default on Venezuela’s near-$100bn in foreign borrowings, which could further strain the economy, Mr Maduro is not flummoxed: he still has the courts, the army, controls food imports and distribution. The opposition, he said, will never enter the presidential palace, “with neither votes nor bullets”.
Mr Capriles wonders if the successor to Hugo Chávez, after blocking an attempt to hold a referendum on his rule, will not cross another “red line” by cancelling presidential elections, or by neutralising opposition parties, akin to what Daniel Ortega, his socialist ally, has done in Nicaragua.
“I’ve always warned that stealing [from] us the right to vote meant crossing the line into something utterly uncertain and dangerous, because you are stripping me of the possibility of resolving this [crisis] with votes,” he said. “If I cannot solve it with votes, how do it do it? With bullets? I don’t want to, but it could happen.”
Many contend Venezuela is now a dictatorship. To which Mr Capriles replied: “Democracy is more than voting, but without voting, there’s no democracy.”