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What is Happening in Venezuela?

By Consuelo Amat for Denver Dialogues.

Caracas, Venezuela. Photo via Wilfredorrh.

Venezuela has been inching toward authoritarianism for over a decade, but it is now firmly in dictatorship territory after President Nicolás Maduro illegitimately called for the creation of a constituent assembly in 2017. This move undermined the democratically elected legislative body, the National Assembly, the only balance to an increasingly authoritarian executive and judiciary. The new constituent assembly called for early presidential elections, a move that drew widespread condemnation from domestic and international actors, including the major election monitoring organizations.

The May 2018 presidential elections were a farce and saw the lowest voter turnout in Venezuela’s modern democratic history. In response, the National Assembly declared a state of emergency and the Organization of American States (OAS) announced that it would not recognize Maduro’s second term. Mass national-level protests swept across the country to denounce Maduro and to support the president of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó. The Venezuelan Constitution dictates that the president of the National Assembly should assume power if the President of Venezuela is absent. By the opposition’s interpretation of the Constitution, Juan Guaidó is the rightful interim president.

This impasse continues in the midst of an even worse crisis. Venezuelans have been suffering from an unprecedented economic and humanitarian crisis since the early 2010s. The economy has collapsed, with annual hyperinflation reaching 80,000% in 2018. Venezuela’s economy has shrunk to half its size since 2014, it is the most indebted country in the world, and oil production has plummeted to levels not seen in more than 50 years. There are severe food and medicine shortages. People are going hungry and seeing their family members die in hospitals due to a lack of medications.

Government repression has compounded people’s suffering. The press is under attack, hundreds of political figures and activists are in prison, and torture is commonplace in detention centers. Government security forces often meet protesters with violence and even deadly force. Research suggests that these conditions foreshadow continued or worse crackdowns. And yet, on January 23rd we saw mass demonstrations that spread to poorer neighborhoods and shantytowns, which used to be Chávez and Maduro’s strongholds.

What’s New About this Moment?

There is more hope for a return to democracy in Venezuela today than there was a year ago. However, despite some efforts to unify and reach out to moderates, the Venezuelan opposition remains fragmented. They have recently come together to reject Maduro’s second term, recognize Guaidó as interim president of Venezuela, and to organize free and fair elections within 30 days, as the Constitution mandates. During the January 23rd inauguration of Guaidó, however, some of the opposition leaders who spoke at the rally continued to use aggressive rhetoric and offensive language toward Maduro. This discourse may undermine their ability to reach a critical mass of people who no longer support Maduro but who faithfully followed Hugo Chávez until his passing in 2013.

On the other hand, Guaidó has been less combative. He has focused on universally appealing objectives of safety, democracy, freedom, and ending the humanitarian crisis, calling for national reconciliation rather than vengeance during the transition. Research suggests that these actions may bear fruit, as anti-regime campaigns tend to succeed when they are diverse and elicit large-scale defections from the security forces.

The extent of the power grab by the government is also new. Executive and judicial abuses have reached new heights while popular support slips away. Though President Hugo Chávez had clear authoritarian tendencies, Maduro has used significantly more violence to quell dissent and attempted to bypass the legislative branch.

Finally, the international community is stepping up to support the opposition in ways that we have not seen before. The many Latin American countries that have recognized the interim president are welcoming new Venezuelan diplomats appointed by Guaidó and approved by the National Assembly. The United States and the European Union have taken additional steps to undermine Maduro, including levying sanctions on the state-owned oil company, PDVSA, effectively preventing Maduro from accessing American oil payments. The United Kingdom blocked Maduro from accessing $1.2 billion of Venezuela’s foreign reserves in gold and the EU parliament has recognized Guaidó. In short, the steady flow of actions that the opposition is carrying out, alongside the international community, is keeping the momentum of the pro-democracy movement.

Things to Watch for

The military. Will the armed forces side with the pro-democracy movement? Social science research on mutinies suggests that members of the armed forces make calculations about the fragility of the regime and their self-preservation. Service members exit or switch loyalty when they believe that the regime may fall. The fragility of the regime depends on domestic and international factors. The stronger and more unified the opposition, and the broader the international support for the pro-democracy movement, the more fragile the Maduro regime appears.

Exit options. Maduro, his closest allies, and family members are also balancing power and self-preservation. Research shows that leaders will hold on to power at great cost if exiting means imprisonment or worse. If the opposition offers assurances to Maduro and his inner circle, and the international community can provide a safe haven for them, the survival concerns of losing office can be mitigated. Guaidó and the Venezuelan opposition seem to be betting on trading democracy for justice. It is less clear how the international community would react to this bargain if Maduro seeks refuge abroad.

The opposition, especially during elections. The main political parties of the opposition represent the pro-democracy movement in Venezuela. Political infighting, therefore, undermines the movement. Research shows that peaceful transitions to democracy in the past have required politicians to make painful grand bargains. Leaders of the opposition in Venezuela have not achieved such levels of agreement yet, though so far they have been savvy in leveraging popular support at specific instances to maintain the movement’s momentum.

The international community, especially the United States. A broad coalition of countries has so far acted in concert to back the opposition. The diversity of international voices and bold actions to support the pro-democracy movement is encouraging Venezuelans in the streets. However, Venezuelans do not support military intervention and are weary of international meddling during the democratic transition. The Trump administration has become increasingly aggressive toward Maduro, with John Bolton’s tweets and private notes suggesting that military actions are possible. Venezuelan army defectors are asking the US to supply arms to the opposition to counter Maduro. Given Maduro’s and the military’s logic of power and self-preservation, these actions may make a transition to democracy less likely.

Consuelo Amat holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Yale University and is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Stanford University.

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