Following initial talks in Oslo (Norway), Venezuela seems to be moving towards change. These meetings represent an attempt to solve the crisis in Venezuela together with the government of a neutral European country. According to José Virtuoso, rector of Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas (Venezuela), these are “exploratory talks” between the representatives of the government of Nicolás Maduro on the one hand and the opposition on the other. As the Jesuit priest explained in an interview with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), they are a “small ray of hope”.
- How confident are you about the talks being held in Oslo?
- We know that informal meetings between the opposition and Maduro’s government have already taken place. If anything, these were exploratory talks – no commitments were made. However, the talks in Oslo imply the “official” commitment of a government, specifically, that of the government of Norway. This can be considered positive.
Secondly, it also shows that both President Maduro’s government and President Guaidó are open to exploring possibilities for reaching an understanding. Anything that has even the slightest chance of resolving the Venezuelan crisis needs to be considered.
- However, these talks are currently at a very early stage. Have any concrete measures been proposed?
Nothing definite has been suggested. A decision has not even been made on how to proceed. Steps have only been taken towards holding exploratory talks. All involved – both the Norwegian government as well as Maduro’s government and President Guaidó – have talked about an exploratory process. We are still far away from a process of dialogue or negotiation.
- Does the progress that has been made towards rapprochement have anything to do with the step taken by Juan Guaidó on 30 April, when he called on the army to support him?
- In my opinion, what has become clear since 30 April is that we are at an impasse: neither Maduro’s government nor Interim President Guaidó have made any progress. We now have to look for other ways out of this deadlock, we have to find other possibilities.
- What is the standpoint of the Church? Almost two years ago, the Church was involved in the attempts to start a dialogue. However, the Church later withdrew because it felt that it was being exploited…
- Past attempts – the talks in which the Vatican initially took part and later the talks between the government and the opposition in Santo Domingo – all failed. I don’t believe that these meetings were properly prepared for and developed.
For example, if we take a look at Columbia: there, the talks and agreements between the Columbian government and the FARC were the culmination of a very long and meticulously prepared process. These talks only took place when all parties were genuinely interested in negotiating. The same cannot be said about Venezuela at the moment. This willingness first has to be developed and strengthened.
The process should not be pushed forward too quickly, because that makes it too easy to abandon. We have to try to build a solid foundation to enable an agreement. That is why I say that it will be a slow, a difficult process. But I believe that the Venezuelans finally want it to happen.
- Based on past experiences, do you believe that things will be different this time because Nicolás Maduro has realised that things cannot continue as they are at the moment?
- I believe that not only the opposition, but the Venezuelans as a whole are watching the progress of these processes very closely and with a great deal of scepticism. The government is still adamantly refusing to recognise both the opposition and the possibility of a deal. This is why we continue to view the situation with scepticism. However, this is the route we seem to be taking. As a small ray of hope has appeared, I believe that we now have to keep it from being extinguished and instead keep it shining brightly.
I believe that the international community and also the United States, which have taken a tougher stance, agree that a peaceful solution is much better than a violent one. That is also the standpoint of the Church: relief, assistance and the establishment of the conditions necessary to resolve the Venezuelan conflict peacefully.
- Let’s talk about the situation of the general population. The international press reported on the nationwide blackouts that persisted for days. What is the current situation in the country in terms of energy and food?
- In the large cities, in particular those located in the centre of the country such as Caracas and other important cities, the power supply is back to normal. However, the situation is more dramatic in the border regions. At the border with Columbia, in Zulia state, the power supply is deplorable. Although it is the country’s most densely populated state with the second most important city, the power supply remains erratic. A similar situation can be found in the two western states Táchira and Mérida, where a large part of the population lives.
- Maduro has now given the Red Cross permission to enter the country to provide humanitarian aid. Is this a solution?
- In practice, the humanitarian aid is greatly curtailed; that is, a number of medical goods and generators were brought into the country for hospitals, which is good. However, I have the feeling that many countries would like to get a lot more involved by sending medical supplies, medicines and food to the people, but they do not have the possibility to do so.
- As rector of the university you are very concerned about education: what is happening in this area?
I am very concerned about the deteriorating educational system in Venezuela. Children and adolescents cannot attend classes regularly, either because of problems with transportation or food. Our schools, secondary schools and universities are suffering terrible consequences from the emigration of teachers and professors. Getting a degree in Venezuela is practically a heroic feat.
- We have been talking about the situation in Venezuela for almost two years now. People may one day say, “Well, nothing can be done.” How do you avoid becoming discouraged?
- Venezuela urgently needs the world’s support. Many Europeans came to Venezuela after World War II and during the terrible 1950s, the years of reconstruction. I myself am the son of a European immigrant, an Italian from Sicily. Many Venezuelans are the children or grandchildren of immigrants who did a great deal for the country. It is now time for Europe to repay the support that it got from Venezuela in the past. I am talking about solidarity and economic support, which can be offered in many areas. I would like to encourage people to continue with it because it gives rise to a feeling of solidarity.