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Venezuela: “Zero hour”
Venezuela: “Zero hour”
A Venezuelan soldier stands guard next to people forming a line to try to buy cornmeal flour and margarine at a pharmacy in Caracas, 15 March 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Venezuela: al borde del precipicio

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Resumen

En diciembre de 2015, el presidente Nicolás Maduro reconoció inmediatamente la contundente victoria electoral de la coalición opositora Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD). Por primera vez en más de dieciséis años, se planteó la posibilidad de la convivencia política entre la alianza liderada por el gobernante Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) y sus opositores, y con ella una oportunidad única de resolver la prolongada crisis política por medios pacíficos y democráticos. Sin embargo, el Gobierno ha elegido la confrontación, usando su control del poder judicial y otros poderes del Estado nominalmente autónomos para neutralizar el control de la Asamblea Nacional por parte de la oposición. La MUD busca convocar un referendo revocatorio, que la Constitución permite pasada la mitad del mandato de cualquier cargo electo. Teniendo en cuenta las posiciones tomadas, ambas partes tratan muchas de las decisiones de la otra como ilegales e inaplicables. El Gobierno debería desistir de sus esfuerzos por bloquear el referendo, y la comunidad internacional debería insistir en un diálogo oportuno y eficaz con facilitadores aceptables para ambas partes.

El conflicto de poderes es más perjudicial debido a que la crisis económica y social ha empeorado significativamente. El Banco Mundial estima que en 2016 el PIB se reducirá en más de un 10 por ciento, y el Fondo Monetario Internacional (FMI) que la inflación se aproximará al 500 por ciento en 2016 y superará el 1.500 por ciento en 2017. A falta de indexación salarial, la población que vive por debajo del umbral de la pobreza está aumentando rápidamente. Los alimentos y otros productos básicos escasean, y la mayoría de los venezolanos no pueden permitirse comprar suficientes cuando los encuentran. Los servicios de salud están al borde del colapso – la mayoría de los medicamentos esenciales no están disponibles y los hospitales están experimentando un marcado aumento en el número de muertes de pacientes. Muchos ciudadanos hacen cola durante horas cada día para obtener productos a precios controlados, sin ninguna garantía de éxito. El Gobierno se ha negado a permitir que los donantes, privados o públicos, envíen alimentos o ayuda médica, alegando que la presión para que lo haga es una pantalla para encubrir una intervención extranjera que tendría por objeto perjudicar su reputación y finalmente derrocarlo.

Desde hace tiempo es evidente que, sin ningún mecanismo de participación internacional, es improbable que la crisis termine de forma pacífica y constitucional. El Gobierno está haciendo todo lo posible por dificultar los esfuerzos de la MUD por interrumpir la presidencia de Maduro por medios legales. Si el referendo revocatorio no se celebrara este año, perdería gran parte de su eficacia, dado que la Constitución prevé que el vicepresidente tome el relevo si el presidente abandona el cargo durante los dos últimos años de su mandato, que finaliza en enero de 2019. Si, por el contrario, Maduro fuera removido por referendo en 2016, sería necesario celebrar elecciones presidenciales en 30 días. Si el resultado fuera un sucesor de la MUD, la respuesta de los partidarios del Gobierno podría provocar graves problemas de gobernabilidad. 

El secretario general de la Organización de Estados Americanos (OEA) ha pedido la aplicación de la Carta Democrática Interamericana, que contempla iniciativas diplomáticas, incluidos los buenos oficios, en caso de una interrupción del orden democrático en un Estado miembro. En paralelo, dos expresidentes latinoamericanos y un expresidente del Gobierno español, a pedido de la Unión de Naciones Suramericanas (UNASUR), y con el respaldo de la Asamblea General de la OEA celebrada en la República Dominicana en junio de 2016, están buscando promover el diálogo entre el Gobierno y la oposición. 

Para evitar un desenlace antidemocrático posiblemente violento y facilitar una solución inmediata a la crisis humanitaria que está empeorando rápidamente: 

El Gobierno debería:

  • declarar una emergencia humanitaria y permitir la entrega de ayuda alimentaria y médica externa y su distribución por parte de agencias no gubernamentales;
     
  • abstenerse de usar el Tribunal Supremo para neutralizar a la legislatura electa y permitir una solución electoral pacífica a la crisis dejando que el Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE) ejerza su función constitucional; y
     
  • liberar a todos los presos políticos, permitir el retorno de los exiliados políticos sin represalias, y participar en un diálogo directo, eficaz y oportuno con la oposición. 

La MUD y los líderes de la Asamblea Nacional deberían:

  • priorizar el interés nacional sobre los objetivos partidistas;
     
  • mantener su compromiso declarado con la resolución pacífica y constitucional de la crisis; y
     
  • hacer todos los esfuerzos posibles por buscar un diálogo eficaz con el Gobierno.

La comunidad regional debería:

  • insistir en que el Gobierno permita la entrega de ayuda alimentaria y médica de emergencia y preparar una evaluación detallada de las principales necesidades humanitarias y cómo atenderlas;
     
  • examinar la crisis en el marco de la Carta Democrática Interamericana y brindar asistencia urgente para restaurar las normas constitucionales y el Estado de derecho; y
     
  • apoyar los esfuerzos por buscar un diálogo estructurado y oportuno entre las dos partes y presionar al CNE para que siga el cronograma constitucional para celebrar un referendo revocatorio en 2016.

Caracas/Bruselas, 23 de junio de 2016

Venezuela: “Zero hour”

As the Venezuelan government prepares to create an all-powerful constituent assembly to replace the country’s democracy, unrest is likely to reach new levels of violence. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2017 – Second Update early warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to support regional actors’ efforts to bring about genuine negotiations while insisting on the restoration of constitutional rule.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2017 – Second Update.

Venezuela approaches a key moment in its protracted political crisis: the government is preparing to replace the country’s ailing democracy with a full-fledged dictatorship by means of an all-powerful constituent assembly, due to be elected on 30 July under rules that effectively exclude the opposition. Nearly 100 people have died in over three months of street demonstrations across the country, many of them shot dead by police, national guard or civilian gunmen. Beginning a week before polling day, the army will be deployed on the streets to guard against any disruption. There is a grave danger of violence on a scale so far unseen, and a fresh wave of emigration is probably imminent. The accelerating breakdown of health services and other vital infrastructure, growing hunger and shortages of basic goods, along with surging rates of violent crime, pose an evident threat not only to Venezuelans but to neighbouring countries and the international community generally.

Democracy Dismantled

In December 2015, the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance won a two-thirds majority in the single-chamber National Assembly, but the government has used its control of the Supreme Court to block every move by parliament since then. When the opposition responded by attempting to trigger a recall referendum against President Maduro, this too was blocked, using the courts and the government-controlled electoral authority (CNE). Elections for state governors, due in December 2016, were suspended. Some opposition leaders have been banned from holding office and/or banned from leaving the country. Others have had their passports annulled and some have been imprisoned. In late March, the Supreme Court attempted to transfer to itself all the assembly’s powers, causing the once loyal attorney general, Luisa Ortega, to declare that constitutional rule had been interrupted and the Organization of American States (OAS) to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter, devised to deal with the breakdown of democracy in a member state.

The opposition alliance launched a campaign of mass demonstrations to demand the restoration of democracy, but the response from the government has been violent. In addition to the deaths, thousands have been injured and thousands more arrested; security forces and civilian gunmen have invaded private residences, destroying and stealing property and carrying out warrantless detentions. Hundreds have been subjected to trial by military courts, and the legal aid organisation Foro Penal puts the number of political prisoners at around 400. On 1 May, Maduro announced he was convening an assembly to rewrite the constitution. The assembly, to be elected on 30 July, will be supra-constitutional and there is no time limit on its authority. Government leaders have said it will be empowered to close down parliament, stripping members of their parliamentary immunity, and “turn upside down” the attorney general’s office, which has declined to prosecute peaceful demonstrators and charged senior military figures with human rights abuses.

With millions of illegal weapons in private hands, arming urban guerrillas might not be difficult.

Around two fifths of constituent assembly members will be elected by “sectors” (including trade union members and “communes”) largely controlled by the government. The remainder will be elected by municipality, under a system that vastly over-represents the rural areas where the government is strongest. The MUD is boycotting the election, which it says the president has no right to convene without a prior referendum. Polls suggest only around 20 per cent of the electorate intend to vote. Fringe elements in the opposition (collectively referred to as La Resistencia), frustrated with the MUD’s non-violent approach, talk in private of armed resistance. With millions of illegal weapons in private hands, arming urban guerrillas might not be difficult. Nor is the MUD itself united: while some parties support a negotiated transition, others are opposed. Despite abundant evidence of discontent in military ranks (including dozens of arrested officers), there has so far been no split in the armed forces. The officer corps would nonetheless be faced with a dilemma if the army were called on to restore public order. Such a move would inevitably bring much higher casualty figures and some would be reluctant to obey.

A ray of light came on 16 July with a massive turnout for a “consultation” of voters ordered by the National Assembly. Over seven million voted to reject the constituent assembly, call on the armed forces to obey the constitution, not the government, and mandate parliament to appoint a new Supreme Court and electoral authority and form a government of national unity. While the government sought to downplay the event, it strengthened demands both internal and external for a last-minute u-turn.

Growing Hunger

Economists project that by the end of 2017 the Venezuelan economy will have shrunk by around 30 per cent in three years. Manufacturing industries are producing at 20-30 per cent of capacity and the main farmers’ federation says only about a quarter of the normal acreage will be planted, due to lack of seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, as well as agricultural equipment. Outbreaks of mass looting in many cities have badly hit wholesale and retail food outlets, while imports of food have slumped. The government’s failure to provide enough emergency rations through its CLAP (Local Provision and Production Committee) system of food parcels has led to protests in many poorer areas. Studies show half the population living in extreme poverty. Rare official figures show an alarming increase in infant and maternal mortality. Child malnutrition rose by over 11 per cent from 2015-2016 and nutritionists are beginning to predict famine if trends continue. Shortages of essential medicines continue at critical levels and hospital infrastructure is collapsing. A shortage of vaccines has contributed to outbreaks of formerly eradicated diseases such as diphtheria, while farmers warn that livestock too is vulnerable to epidemics due to the lack of veterinary vaccines.

In the medium term there is a possibility that the Venezuelan government might collapse under the burden of an unpayable foreign debt and domestic ungovernability, although without necessarily triggering a restoration of democracy. While most analysts believe Caracas can make this year’s debt service payments, it faces a severe challenge in October/November, when around US$3.5 billion come due.

Responding to the Emergency

The OAS has so far failed to reach consensus on how to approach the crisis. A handful of mostly Caribbean states, beholden to Caracas for cheap energy supplies and other benefits, have blocked what they call an excessively “interventionist” approach. Without a split in the government (and in particular the military), the constituent assembly plan appears unstoppable, and further violence is likely; the 8 July release into house arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo López notwithstanding, the government’s attitude does not appear to have changed.

Still, concerned governments nonetheless should prepare a negotiating structure for when conditions change. In this context, the European Union (EU) should back a proposal by a large group of OAS members, including the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Peru and Colombia, to form a “contact group” comprising four or five governments agreed on by both sides to the conflict; its goal would be to promote negotiations aimed at averting more violence and restoring democracy. This group probably would have to be created outside the formal framework of the OAS. The EU and EU member states with close ties to the region (in particular to the Caribbean) should use their influence to widen support for this proposal, especially among OAS countries close to the Maduro government.

In addition, the EU, with regional governments in the lead, should develop a concerted response and attempt to bring Russia and China on board insofar as they have greater leverage over Caracas and hold large quantities of Venezuelan debt. Involvement by either or both of these countries in a plan to avert violence and promote genuine negotiations would have a major positive impact. On 16 July, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos reportedly sought Cuban government support for a regional plan to resolve the crisis. As Venezuela’s closest ally, Cuba is in a unique position to influence the outcome, and Santos’ initiative should be supported by the EU and member states.

The EU should make plain that free and fair elections and the restoration of constitutional rule are essential pre-requisites for normal relations.

As an immediate response, the EU and the wider international community should assist front-line states in dealing with the humanitarian and security consequences of the crisis. Colombia, with its delicate post-conflict situation, is highly vulnerable to refugee flows, possible border clashes if the Caracas government seeks an external distraction, and increased activity of non-state armed groups. Although the Venezuelan government has consistently rejected humanitarian aid, some NGOs have been permitted to provide small-scale humanitarian assistance on condition it is not publicised. The EU should seek ways to facilitate this process even as it continues to press publicly for aid to be allowed in.

The EU should make plain that free and fair elections and the restoration of constitutional rule are essential pre-requisites for normal relations as well as for emergency financial support. The EU and member states also should be prepared to offer advice and technical assistance to a transitional government, should one be set up. There is no quick fix for the multi-layered crisis Venezuela is facing. But inaction is no longer an option.