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Venezuela: A House Divided

Latin America Briefing N°28 16 May 2013

OVERVIEW

The death from cancer on 5 March of President Hugo Chávez triggered a snap presidential election just 40 days later that his anointed successor, Nicolás Maduro, won by a margin of less than 1.5 per cent over Henrique Capriles of the Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance. But the tight result and legal challenges to the validity of the vote cast a shadow over the sustainability of the new administration. A country already deeply polarised is now clearly divided into two almost equal halves that appear irreconcilable. The validity of the election result remains to be clarified and the full independence of the electoral authorities, judiciary, and other key institutions restored. But to address the governance crisis and allow Venezuela to tackle its serious economic and social problems, national dialogue must prevail over confrontation and consensus over partisan violence.

With institutions weakened by the Chávez government’s long-term policy of presidential co-optation, the MUD may ultimately have little practical recourse at the domestic legal level, leaving – it believes – few options but a policy of peaceful street demonstrations and other forms of political pressure, including appeal to international public opinion. When political discourse takes the form of large-scale street protest, there is always a risk of violence. There have already been several deaths and numerous injuries, often in confused circumstances, that the government seems keen to exploit so as to discredit the opposition.

The power vacuum produced by Chávez’s death is a fundamental source of potential instability. His personal authority over his movement, the armed forces and the state bureaucracy is irreplaceable for the regime, certainly in the short term. This vacuum is particularly grave because the country is on the brink of a recession, has a large public-sector deficit and suffers from a growing scarcity of basic goods and one of the world’s highest inflation rates.

An extremely personalised political regime has been replaced by an unpredictable collection of group and even individual interests. The costs of having dismantled important elements of democracy and the rule of law over the past fourteen years are being paid by both the regime and the political opposition. Venezuela is ill-prepared for the post-Chávez transition and urgently needs to reconstruct its social and political fabric. The immediate efforts need to focus on avoiding escalation of extreme polarisation into political violence, complemented by a strong push for a basic understanding on how to coexist without Chávez.

Short-sighted behaviour by either side could propel the country into a political and economic crisis from which it would be difficult to recover. It is encouraging that the opposition leadership has emphasised non-violent forms of dissent. There have also been indications from the government that some of its members understand the need for dialogue and consensus, though this has not yet been followed by corresponding actions. Ideally Maduro would appoint some opposition figures to his government, but at the very least those in position to do so on both sides need to initiate dialogue and consensus building now.

Most of the international community, particularly regional partners and neighbours, have tended to look the other way when assessing democracy and human rights in Venezuela. This must change. Instability would at the least further undermine the regional consensus on democratic norms. Multilateral organisations, such as the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Organisation of American States (OAS), and regional powers, such as Brazil, need to make clear that they will not tolerate further destruction of the rule of law and democratic values.

To avoid unpredictable escalation of the polarisation and political violence:

  • Government and opposition must express commitment publicly to peaceful means of resolving the political crisis, instructing followers that violence – and confrontational rhetoric that could incite violence – is not permissible, and those who engage in it will be treated in full accordance with the law.
  • The government should recognise that the sharp division of the electorate necessitates consensus building, not a partisan agenda. It should build bridges to the opposition, the private sector and civil society, conducting a dialogue to reduce tensions and find common ground. The Catholic Church, regional partners and the international community in general should support this approach and be ready, if asked, to provide mediation at an appropriate point.
  • To clear the way for dialogue, doubts surrounding the election must be clarified. The Supreme Court’s electoral chamber should deal fully and transparently with all complaints of violence, intimidation and irregularities, if necessary ordering a re-vote in centres where such incidents cast substantial doubt on the original. The government should make clear that it supports such measures, and, if they are taken, all sides should immediately recognise the election’s validity.
  • The government should provide guarantees for lawful exercise of the right to protest and freedom of expression, abstaining from threats and legal proceedings against the independent media and reprisals against public employees suspected of opposition sympathies; and the armed forces must act fully within the constitution, which prohibits their participation in partisan politics.
  • The international community, in particular neighbours such as Brazil, the OAS and UNASUR, should encourage a non-violent solution of the political crisis and offer themselves as facilitators and mediators.

None of this will be easy, not least because there is a potentially dangerous gulf between the regime’s insistence that the election result be recognised as a condition for accepting the opposition as a force with which to do business and the opposition’s understandable insistence that it can accept the election result only after a full and transparent review shows that any irregularities that occurred did not alter the final outcome. If the worst is to be avoided, the moderates (or pragmatists) on both sides need to find a way to bridge that chasm.

Caracas/Bogotá/Brussels, 16 May 2013

 
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