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Opinion and Analysis: Social Movements

A Third Side for Venezuela’s Conflict

An earlier version of this article was originally published in the Venezuelan monthly Question, March, 2003

According to some conflict resolution experts, Venezuela is at the edge of a civil war. One of the experts who has been issuing a warning and who has been working towards defusing the escalation of the Venezuelan conflict is William Ury, who has visited Venezuela on several occasions during 2003, at the invitation of the Carter Center, to consult with government and opposition leaders and to give public talks. Ury has outlined how a country can pacify a violent conflict or deescalate a conflict that threatens to become violent. Key to Ury’s approach is the strengthening of what he calls the “third side” in any conflict. In what follows, I will apply his approach to the Venezuelan situation.

The Danger

Based on his many yeas of experience, Ury says that there are three typical symptoms that are present before a country enters into civil war. The first symptom of impending civil war is that the general population begins to arm itself. In the case of Venezuela, it has become generally known that gun sales have increased. This is partly due to an explosion of rumors during the December 2002 work stoppage, when middle class neighborhoods were told to prepare for a possible attack on them by Chavista gangs from the barrios.

A second symptom of possible civil war, according to Ury, is that each side begins to dehumanize and impute evil intentions to the other side. Again, this has occurred over and over again in the Venezuelan case. Each side says that the other intends to destroy the country, that it is opposing the other simply because it wants money and power. As a result, neither side takes the actual arguments of the other side seriously.

The third symptom leading to violent confrontation is the politicization of the media. Ury explains that when the media take on openly partisan roles in a political conflict, the population can no longer trust that the media is reporting fairly and objectively. The loss of objectivity then leads to the proliferation of rumors, as a supplement to the mass media. Also, a partisan media means that there is no society-wide mechanism for transmitting the concerns and views between the opposing parties, thus making it even easier for each side to demonize the other. Clearly, in the case of Venezuela, the media have taken on a very partisan role in the conflict. Neither the government media, nor the private opposition media facilitate an on-going dialogue or mutual understanding between the parties.

Ury notes that while most conflicts that threaten to become violent are not mediated toward a peaceful resolution until after much blood has been spilt, Venezuela has a unique opportunity to break this pattern, by recognizing the danger signs and by engaging in conflict resolution before it is too late. To illustrate this point, Ury quoted the German poet Goethe, who said, “Only fools learn from their own mistakes. Wise people learn from the mistakes of others.”

De-Escalation and Reconciliation

Who is the Third Side?

According to William Ury, conflicts are de-escalated through the participation of a “third side.” This third side consists of anyone who wants to see a peaceful resolution to the conflict and who could influence their peers to take a non-violent and de-escalating approach to conflicts. That is, since people are most easily influenced by their peers, it is their peers who will have the greatest potential for de-escalating a conflict. Another important characteristic of “third siders” is that they are capable of taking the views of both sides seriously, of “putting themselves into the shoes of the other.” It is only once one has done this that one can begin to actually resolve a conflict. As long as one sees the other side as an incarnation of evil, no conflict resolution is possible. Taking the other side seriously also means that one believes that a peaceful resolution to the conflict is possible. Instead, if one sees the conflict in terms of mutually irreconcilable positions, then it does not really matter of one can take the other’s viewpoint or if one can take the other side seriously. The belief that a situation consists of mutually irreconcilable positions, one right and the other wrong, will ultimately mean that the only way to resolve the conflict is through sheer power or force.

In practical terms, according to Ury, those who are part of the third side will either be outsiders to the conflict, in the sense that they are non-partisans who are not directly affected by the conflict, or they are insiders who are directly affected by the conflict. Outsiders would become involved as a third side out of concern because the effect the conflict has on their community and on the well-being of those who are directly involved. Insiders, who can become part of the third side, are either partisans to the conflict or they are non-partisans who are directly affected, such as family members, friends, or associates of the conflicting parties. Whether insiders or outsiders, partisan or non-partisan, the key to being part of the third side is the desire to de-escalate the conflict and to have some ideas as to how to do this.

What Does the Third Side Do?

Conflict Containment

Ury outlines ten different roles that the third side can play, depending on the level of escalation of the conflict. The highest level of escalation—violent confrontation between the opposing parties, such as in a civil war—does not (yet) fully apply to the Venezuelan case. In the case of violent confrontation, the third side’s function is to contain the conflict and to de-escalate it. In the most serious of cases, when all else has failed to prevent the conflict, the third side must play the role of peace keeper, in the sense of keeping the clashing parties apart. A common example of the application of this role are UN peace keepers. If, however, the conflict is not yet full-blown, then the third side can attempt to play the role of referee. The referee sets up rules for the conflict, so that harm is kept at a minimum. Cesar Gaviria and the tri-partite commission (Carter Center, PNUD, and OAS), by convincing government and opposition negotiators to sign an agreement on non-violence, recently played the role of referee, in the sense of setting up mutually agreed-upon rules for the conflict in Venezuela. Also effective, at this level of escalation, can be the bearing of witness to the violence, which often has a strong de-escalatory effect because people generally do not want to be perceived as the perpetrators of violence. In the Venezuelan case, the international community plays this role in many ways.

Conflict Resolution

While the containment of violent conflict has not yet become the most important function that the third side can play in Venezuela, the other two functions that the third side can fulfill at lower levels of escalation are of utmost importance for Venezuela now: conflict resolution and conflict prevention. That is, the Venezuelan conflict has become an overt conflict and thus calls for the third side to aid in its resolution. Ury outlines four roles that the third side can play in conflict resolution: healing, equalizing, arbitrating, and mediating.

When an open conflict has left wounds, such as when people have been either physically or emotionally wounded by the conflict, then these wounds need to be healed. Ury explains that an important step to healing is to simply listen and to acknowledge the wounds. Applied to the Venezuelan conflict, this aspect has hardly been touched upon because each side appears to refuse to believe that the other has in some way been wounded. Chavistas tend to see the opposition as mostly being only interested in regaining old privileges and any talk of the president’s insults against the opposition or the deaths of opposition demonstrators on April 11th are seen as a smoke-screen for their actual aims. While it might be true that some opposition figures use these grievances opportunistically, for many among the opposition the emotional wounds that these grievances embody are very real and act as a barrier to trusting or understanding the government or anyone who supports it. Similarly, the opposition generally fails to recognize the emotional wounds it has caused, believing that Chavistas upset about the dead at their demonstrations and the persecutions of government officials on April 12th, for example, are smokescreens for their wanting to cling to power.

Some acknowledging of these wounds has already taken place in the case of the events of April 11th to 13th, 2002, in that both sides have recognized the need for a truth commission to investigate what happened. However, since neither side trusted the other enough to constitute an impartial truth commission, it never came into being. One could say that the climate for creating a truth commission currently does not exist in Venezuela, something Ury would say is an essential precondition for the healing of emotional wounds. If such a commission were ever to be constituted, its findings would contribute greatly to the healing of both opposition and government supporters’ wounds and would thus constitute an important step towards the de-escalation of the conflict.

Ury emphasizes that an agreement alone between leaders is not enough to end a conflict because the causes of the conflict, such as distrust, emotional wounds, and unmet needs, might still be present in the larger population. Nonetheless, negotiation is often absolutely necessary. Many times, though, one side will refuse to negotiate because it believes itself powerful enough to completely defeat the other side. The belief in the possibility of complete victory over one’s enemy is usually an illusion, which only prolongs and deepens the conflict. In such situations, Ury says, the third side must act as an “equalizer,” which equalizes the balance of power by bringing the apparently more powerful side to the negotiation table.

Applied to the situation in Venezuela, both sides of the conflict have continuously underestimated the power of the other side. The Chavez government underestimated just how far the opposition was willing to go and how many resources it would expend in order to oust the president. Also, the government believed that because it had near complete dominance in the political sphere, as a result of its electoral victories in the elections of 2000, the opposition was practically powerless. However, the opposition still had substantial power in the media and in economic institutions, especially in PDVSA, and to a limited extent within the military. Similarly, the opposition underestimated the government’s strength, believing that once the president’s popularity was lower, it would be able to drive the president out of office relatively easily. The role of the third side in such as situation, which the international community played in this case, is to bring the parties together to negotiate on a more or less even level.

If the conflict revolves around the violations of basic rights, there is nothing to negotiate, since rights and the rule of law are so fundamental to peaceful co-existence in modern societies that they cannot be the object of negotiation. In such cases, arbitration is needed, which is the function of the country’s judicial system. Not all arbitration has to involve the judiciary. Often conflicting parties can agree in advance to accept the ruling of an arbitrator they jointly determine. But, in essence, this is what a judicial system should be too.

Unfortunately, as is the case with Venezuela, the parties do not fully trust the judicial system because they believe that the other side has corrupted it. What this means is that part of any progress in de-escalating the conflict would have to be a strengthening of Venezuela’s judiciary. Here, the role of the third side could be to increase the transparency of judicial procedures and rulings. For many Venezuelans it is unclear as to where many legal proceedings are at and why they have not advanced much. Better reporting about the status of the investigations involving the deaths on April 11th to 13th, of the exactly where funds went that were allocated for the FIEM, the case against the assassin of Plaza Francia in Altamira, are just some of the recent cases where the status of the proceedings is quite unclear to the general public. Whether this is because of problems within the judiciary, disinterest among reporters, or the secrecy of the investigations itself is generally unknown. The media could play a strong third side role in strengthening the judicial system by reporting in greater detail and with more objectivity, thereby providing more transparency to the judicial system.

Finally, the fourth role Ury outlines for conflict resolution is mediation. The key to mediation, according to Ury, is to identify and address interests, not the overt demands. Most conflicts appear to be unresolvable because the parties focus on irreconcilable demands. Ury gives the example of an employee who asks his boss to give him a raise. The boss says that there is no money for the raise and the conflict, if it remains on the level of demands, has no resolution. However, if one examines the interests that lie behind the demand, it could very well be possible that a resolution can be found. In the example of the employee asking for a raise, his actual interest might be to find a way to help support a brother who has recently become unemployed. If this interest was explored, the parties might find the employee’s company could hire the brother, thereby providing for a better solution than the raise. A mediator’s role in such a situation would be to explore the different interests that lie behind the demands and help figure out if there is a mutually beneficial solution.

Of course, figuring out the interests in a complicated situation such as exists in Venezuela is extremely difficult. First of all, there are many actors with divergent interests within each side of the conflict. Not only that, it is quite likely that some participants in either side would rather not reveal their true interests, since these could be quite embarrassing if made public, such as interests based purely on the increase of personal wealth, power, or privilege. However, since most people recognize that conflict based on such interests has no legitimacy, mediation would only deal with the legitimate interests of the conflicting parties. Normally, such a conflict would be resolved within the existing democratic institutions, such as through elections and the legislative process. For a variety of reasons, though, this mode of conflict resolution has failed in the case of Venezuela. It is beyond the scope of this analysis to examine the reasons for this failure here, but analyzing these would be necessary so as to prevent future failures of the democratic conflict resolution process.

According to Ury, it would be a mistake to believe that a negotiated settlement that is based on the demands of the opposing parties would resolve the Venezuelan conflict. A negotiation based solely on demands, such as an early election, would, at most, lead to a compromise that leaves both parties unhappy because, in the end, it does not address their actual interests. A settlement that is based on the legitimate interests of the parties, though, would require that both sides are clear about these interests. In practice, this would mean that they would have to be clear about their political programs. While the government was vague, when it first came into office, as to what its program is, more recently this program has become clearer, especially with the passage of the 49 “leyes habilitante” and of other recent legislative projects, such as the “barrio law” and the law on social responsibility in television and radio. The opposition, however, for the most part, has not made its political program clear, making conflict resolution on the level of political programs practically impossible and turning the conflict into a game of negating the government’s program, without offering a positive alternative.

Conflict Prevention

Ideally, conflicts that lead to frustration, emotional wounds, and even violence would be avoided before they ever become that confrontational. The third function that the third side can fulfill is the prevention of conflict. Ury outlines three roles that contribute to the prevention of damaging conflict: bridge builder, teacher, and provider.

The bridge builder helps to establish open channels of communication between groups and individuals. Building bridges can prevent conflict because one of the main causes of conflict is the break-down of communication and trust. People are much more likely to enter into an antagonistic relationship if they cannot understand or trust their opponent. People on the third side of a conflict can help reestablish trust and communication by bringing the parties together.

The lack of trust and communication between the government and the opposition in Venezuela has been mentioned earlier, in the context of the existence of emotional wounds that each side carries around. However, the lack of trust and communication often predates the infliction of emotional wounds. A large part of this lack of trust can be traced to ideological taboos that each side carries around. That is, party discipline is usually such that one does not engage in meaningful dialogue with ones political opponents because the ideology says that these opponents are in some way inferior or deficient, either intellectually, culturally, or perhaps even racially. Bridge builders thus have to help overcome serious prejudices that exist on either side of the political divisions. Once again, a media that is part of the third side, instead of on one of the conflicting sides would be of tremendous help in building such bridges between the sides.

Another way to avoid destructive conflict is by teaching people how to avoid it. That is, if people were to learn the roles of the third side that are mentioned here, in their schools, universities, and workplaces, destructive conflict would become much less common. In addition to learning techniques for engaging in constructive dialogue, such as how to listen and understand before criticizing, schools need to teach children that violence is wrong and only leads to suffering. Children are constantly bombarded with messages from the popular culture that violence is a legitimate means for solving problems. It should then come as no surprise that destructive conflict becomes the norm, instead of constructive conflict. Schools can counteract the messages children receive from popular culture by integrating a teachings on non-violence in their curricula.

Finally, before groups or individuals turn towards destructive conflict because of a lack of conflict resolution skills, they are motivated to do so because of unmet needs, according to Ury. Borrowing from the psychologist Abraham Maslow, Ury says that violence and conflict are generally the result of unmet needs, such as food, safety, belonging, self-esteem, and freedom. If these needs are not met, people become frustrated and then often resort to violence or destructive conflict. The third side can help people meet their unfulfilled needs.

A large part of the Venezuelan conflict is rooted in poverty, which is, in essence, a condition in which basic needs, such as for food, shelter, and safety are not properly met. For many of Venezuela’s poor, Hugo Chavez has become their spokesperson. Chavez’ aggressive style speaks to their frustrations with not having their basic needs met. The Third Side, in its efforts to de-escalate the conflict would thus also have to address the unmet needs of the poor. On the other hand, Chavez’ aggressive style has caused the needs of other sectors of society to go unmet, such as those of the middle and upper class to be treated with respect. By calling his opponents terms such as “esqualidos” and “rancid oligarchs,” he dehumanizes them and frustrates their need for human dignity. Certainly, most of his opponents, particularly in the opposition’s leadership, have responded in kind, leading to an escalating spiral of venomous rhetoric, which leaves the need for dignity and respect unmet on all sides. This, in turn, fuels the flames of destructive conflict in Venezuela.

A Home for the Third Side

One of the greatest challenges to creating and strengthening the Third Side in Venezuela is that, as so many conflicts in the world, this is a very polarizing conflict. Anyone who does not take a hard line against one’s opponent is immediately suspected of working with the opponent. This principle applies not only to those who are affiliated with one side or the other in the conflict, but also to those who are in the middle or are unaffiliated with either side. Even though there are plenty of people who could form the Third Side, these individuals are intimidated into being quiet, into not playing any of the Third Side beneficial roles in de-escalating or resolving the conflict. This is precisely what happened in Yugoslavia during its escalation towards civil war, as people were forced to take sides and anyone who did not take sides strongly enough was considered to be an agent of the other side. In essence, this is how conflicts become polarized – not because of a lack of people who see the gray tones in the conflict, but because the more radical elements in each side either silence more moderate approaches or push them to become more radical.

What Venezuela thus needs is a stronger culture of acceptance and tolerance for those who want to treat both sides in the conflict with respect and dignity, who want to take the arguments of both sides seriously. As Ury emphasizes, this does not mean that one has to be in the middle or non-partisan. It is perfectly possible to be a strong partisan in the conflict and to still be a part of the third side, but only if it is safe to do so.


[1] His most recent book is: Getting to Peace (1999), also published as The Third Side: Why we Fight and How We Can Stop (2000), Penguin Books