Shuttle Diplomacy in Venezuela

William Ury

Director of the Global Negotiation Project, Program on Negotiation, Harvard Law School 

Interviewed by Julian Portilla 2003

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This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: Now when you say working with the President, the ministers, the media, first of all, what does that mean? And the second part of that question is, when you met with the media moguls and they were very skeptical but ultimately decided that they wanted to open up some kind of chain of dialogue, and I'm assuming that "working with" has similar connotations in both of those contexts, what are you saying to these people and why are they buying it?

A: Yeah, well, first of all, never underestimate how difficult this is. I'm talking in retrospect. You never know if any of this is ever going to work. But for them, and again, coming at this from a third side perspective - you're on the balcony, like you can see more opportunities - when I met with the media I always tried to put myself in their shoes. I'm not there saying, "You should do this," and "You should do that." In fact, if you go in there, thinking you're going to give advice to people - at least that's my own impression, you don't get very far. But at the same time, what I said to them was, "Who am I? Yankee professor from Harvard..." It doesn't get you very far. I'll put it that way...

Q: They're not very impressed.

A: Not very impressed... right. So with them it was a breakfast meeting and they were sitting around the table, maybe 20 of them. And a lot of them, I knew, didn't want to be there necessarily, you know, "We're wasting our time here."

Q: Talking about the media?

A: Yeah, the media. But it was like, I thought, "How am I going to get to them? How am I going to persuade them? And it was ... and I'll just say to them, "Look I'm not an expert on this country, but I'll tell you what I've seen in other situations around the world, and here are the signs of potential major civil violence." And I named a series of signs: The population starts arming themselves, the rumors start flying that the other side is about to attack, the media gets polarized, the military gets polarized, things like that.

Q: Those are the early warning indicators that...

A: Yeah, and as I looked around the theatre, I asked, "How many people know someone who just bought weapons?" Almost all the hands go up. How many people heard a rumor in the last few months? So these were things to get people to go, "Yeah." So people could see the handwriting on the wall. When you're in a situation like Venezuela where people haven't experienced civil war, they don't think it's possible. So then I was just there, and then I looked around at them and looked them all in the eye and said, "The future of this country is in your hands. Whether or not this country - whether or not your children have a future is in your hands. And you can decide. Right now. Because you have a lot of power and the way you respond and the way you respond to the other side..." (because they felt Chavez at that time was provoking them). And I said, "From a negotiator point of view, let me just put myself in your shoes. You're going to play right into his hands, the way you respond. You're going to play right into his hands." So you take one side. Then you go to the other side and say, "Look, what are you trying to achieve?" So it's not about begging people for mercy or for peace - but think about, "What is in your interest to do right now? What is your interest? And what is the best way to advance your interest?" And then you sit down with the other side. I had a chance to meet with President Chavez and the same thing - what is the best strategic move for him to advance his vision, which was of a Bulivarian Revolution. Then you look for, where is there an intersection there? It's not an agreement - in fact, we were far from an agreement - but what I did get them to consider... They certainly weren't ready to sit down with each other and they certainly weren't ready for an agreement, but I said, "Could you name me five steps, any one of which if President Chavez took, that would send you a signal that he was ready to do business in a different way? And what are five steps you could take?" And I asked him the same question. And we did a little bit of proximity negotiation, shuttle diplomacy. I was staying at a little tiny bed-and-breakfast in Caracas and there was a garden outside, no one knew about it, it opened up and was behind some walls and so there we were able to bring some government ministers and sit them on the terrace outside my room and some of the media people and do a kind of shuttle diplomacy around trying to figure out what these steps were. And into the wee hours of the night. And in the end when we got these five steps from each side, they were pretty similar. They were pretty similar. These people were asking for respect, is basically what it was. Things like, no incitement to the military to overthrow the government could be broadcast on the TV. Or no calling the President an animal or a pig or something like that. And the same thing on the other side. No... and it started to... and again, everything was imperfect and incomplete... that process started to defuse perhaps the main tension point in the society at that point which was between the private media and the President. Which might have been the tension point which could have led to major violence. If he had closed down the stations, there might have been blood in the streets, so... just kind of working step by step.