Venezuela: Tipping Point
Latin America Briefing N°30
21 May 2014
This briefing is also available in Spanish.
Violence has exacerbated an already tense political situation in Venezuela and made finding a solution both more urgent and more complex. Nationwide unrest, following deaths at a protest called by student leaders and a sector of the opposition on 12 February, sparked a political crisis that involved Venezuela’s neighbours in efforts to find a negotiated settlement. By early May it had cost around 40 lives and led to scores of human rights violations. Failure to end the violence through negotiations has hindered the task of resolving serious social and economic problems. It has also damaged the credibility of regional institutions. To reverse the crisis and turn this tipping point into an opportunity, both parties must commit to a political dialogue based on the constitution; the government must abide by its human rights commitments and restore the rule of law and the separation of powers; the international community must provide both sides with guarantees, technical assistance and political impetus.
Long anticipated, by Crisis Group among others, the unrest is the result of two irreconcilable interpretations of recent Venezuelan history. According to the government of President Nicolás Maduro, its origins lie in a conspiracy by members of the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance and foreign powers (in particular the U.S.) to overthrow his government and restore the “oligarchic” regime that lost power to Maduro’s predecessor and mentor Hugo Chávez in the 1998 elections. Their prime motivation, according to this interpretation, is control of the country’s reserves of crude oil, by some estimates the biggest in the world. For the MUD, whose principal leaders were caught off-guard by the intensity and duration of the protests, the root cause is the government’s insistence on radical socialist policies and its lack of respect for the constitution; consequent economic hardship, crime and political feuding exacerbate matters.
This polarisation reverberated beyond Venezuela’s borders. Some allies in the region rallied to support a beleaguered, elected government and initially dismissed the opposition as a violent minority, while others deplored an excessive use of force, alleged human rights violations by government security forces and advocated a mediated settlement. International actors are increasingly concerned, and with good reason, that a failure to contain, and ultimately resolve, the crisis, could have serious, region-wide consequences. A number of important pending issues in the region, including the current peace talks aimed at ending Colombia’s decades-old guerrilla war and the incipient reform process in Cuba, have a significant Venezuelan dimension.
A still fragile dialogue, which began in late March and is facilitated by the foreign ministers of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Vatican, has brought the government and at least a part of the MUD leadership to the negotiating table. To be successful, it must address the key factors that led to the crisis. It needs to lay the basis for the political consensus that is vital if the economic crisis, as well as violent crime, are to be tackled effectively. Above all, it must restore the autonomy of key state institutions, especially the Supreme Court (TSJ), the Office of the Attorney General (Fiscalía General) and the electoral authority (CNE), and staff them with genuinely independent, respected professionals. The violence on the streets is partly a consequence of the fact that peaceful conflict resolution has been blocked by the government’s direct, executive control of the channels through which it would normally be effected.
This briefing sets out to answer key questions relating to the crisis, analysing the origins of the conflict, the detonators of violence and the most relevant players. Looking ahead at the options available for Venezuela and providing an assessment of the current dialogue, it formulates ideas regarding the essential elements required to secure a lasting peace and how the region and broader international community may best contribute.
Caracas/Bogotá/Brussels, 21 May 2014