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Dangerous Uncertainty ahead of Venezuela’s Elections
Dangerous Uncertainty ahead of Venezuela’s Elections
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Venezuela: A Regional Solution to the Political Standoff
Venezuela: A Regional Solution to the Political Standoff

Dangerous Uncertainty ahead of Venezuela’s Elections

Uncertainty over President Hugo Chávez’s health deepens Venezuela’s fragility ahead of presidential elections in October and sparks fears of instability.

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Executive Summary

Uncertainty over President Hugo Chávez’s health adds to Venezuela’s fragility in the run-up to October’s presidential election. Amid deep polarisation, his illness overshadows the campaign, while the personalised nature of his rule, weakened institutions, and high levels of criminal violence bode ill for stability even beyond the polls. Brazen violation of the constitution would probably require army support, which not even the president can bank on; regional powers, too, would eye such action warily. But with much at stake, upheaval, even a violent political crisis, remain dangerous possibilities. Political leaders should condemn violence and pledge publicly to respect the constitution – whatever lies ahead. Venezuela’s partners in the region should press for international observation and signal clearly they will not condone unconstitutional acts.

The coming months could prove to be Hugo Chávez’s toughest yet. The opposition is united behind a presidential candidate. Its youthful contender, Henrique Capriles – like Chávez – has never lost an election. His moderation, a far cry from opposition tactics of the past, should resonate with swing voters. Moreover, elections in Venezuela, despite Chávez’s narrowing of political space, are not easy to rig. The opposition has won before and in the most recent, the 2010 parliamentary elections, its share of the popular vote matched that of the ruling party.

But a presidential contest against Chávez is a different matter. Under normal conditions, he would likely win. He is a formidable campaigner and still enjoys strong emotional ties to many Venezuelans, especially his poor base. He also has loyal institutions and a powerful state media machine, and openly uses the public purse for campaign purposes, notably by dispensing largesse through social welfare programs. Even opposition loyalists admit a healthy Chávez in full campaign swing would be almost unbeatable.

However, the president faces not only Capriles, but also cancer, which could pose a graver threat to his reign. Only his doctors and close family know the prognosis, but the illness has already required extended absences for treatments in Cuba and has thus far kept him off the campaign trail. The ruling party, with no clear succession mechanism or obvious heir – certainly none that could easily defeat Capriles – is jittery: Chavismo would be in trouble without Chávez. Many around him have much to lose, and while the party maintains public unity, speculation about infighting and jostling for influence behind the scenes is rife. The recently-appointed Council of State, a body of top presidential advisers, could possibly become a mechanism through which to negotiate succession if Chávez’s health fails, but its creation does not appear to have calmed nerves.

The president’s sickness threatens not only his party but also October’s vote and even the country’s stability. His rule is highly personalised, with power concentrated in his office and checks and balances steadily eroded. Institutions are ill-equipped to manage a transition or contain conflict. Politics are polarised, society divided. The proliferation of weapons and of pro-government armed groups offers opportunities for stoking violence. Indeed, sparks have already hit the campaign; shots were fired at an opposition rally in Cotiza, a Caracas suburb in early March. The president’s fiery rhetoric does little to discourage such incidents.

Many in Venezuela, including in the Capriles camp, stress a major breakdown of order is unlikely. Chávez has always rooted his legitimacy in the ballot box and promises to accept the result in October. The electoral authorities are, perhaps, more resistant to his meddling than other institutions. The opposition swears there will be no witch hunts if it wins; if it loses, it appears to have little stomach for a fight, particularly if the vote is clean. Many citizens are tired of confrontation. While senior generals are loyal to the president, with the defence minister suspected of ties to drug-trafficking, the armed forces’ middle and lower ranks would not necessarily follow them into blatant violations of the constitution. Nor would regional powers condone a power grab or welcome Venezuela’s slide from flawed democracy into turmoil or dictatorship.

But Chávez’s illness takes Venezuela onto unknown – and unpredictable – terrain. At stake is not only his rule but also a model of governance that many Venezuelans perceive to serve their interests. One scenario, were the president or a late stand-in defeated, would see the ruling party seek to force the electoral authorities to suppress results or itself stir up violence as a pretext to retain power by extraordinary means. A second, especially if the president’s health should decline rapidly, would have it delay the vote – perhaps through a decision by the partisan judiciary – in order to buy time to select and drum up support for a replacement. Either scenario could stimulate opposition protests and escalating confrontation with government loyalists.

The prospect of upheaval thus cannot be discounted. Political leaders, especially the president, should tone down their rhetoric and condemn any violence. Venezuela’s constitution, passed by Chávez himself, provides for all contingencies, and all political leaders, authorities and the armed forces should pledge publicly to adhere to it.

Caracas/Bogotá/Brussels, 26 June 2012

Venezuela: A Regional Solution to the Political Standoff

Facing social and economic collapse, Venezuela is likely to continue to be Latin America's most urgent crisis in 2017. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2017 annual early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to work closely with governments in the region, particularly Caribbean nations with close ties to Caracas, toward the restoration of democracy in Venezuela.

This commentary on the worsening crisis in Venezuela is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2017.

The dismantling of Venezuelan democracy, together with the country’s acute social, economic and humanitarian crisis, represents South America’s biggest challenge for regional institutions and the wider international community in 2017. The failure, thus far, to achieve a peaceful, democratic solution to Venezuela’s political conflict risks provoking severe civil unrest and possible divisions in the armed forces, with uncertain consequences. Venezuela’s neighbours – especially Colombia, only now emerging from decades of guerrilla war – have good reason to fear possible spillover in the form of mass emigration and the proliferation of non-state armed groups on their borders, as well as uncontrolled epidemics as Venezuela’s health services break down.

A Political Standoff

The presidency of Nicolás Maduro, an elected civilian whose cabinet is nevertheless packed with military officers, has entered its final two years amid widespread unpopularity. By using its control of the judiciary and the electoral authority (CNE) to block a presidential recall referendum in 2016, the administration has ensured that there is no constitutional means of removing it from power ahead of presidential elections scheduled for December 2018. Ruling by decree, Maduro has stripped the opposition-led National Assembly of its powers and threatened to close it down. Parliament has responded by declaring that Maduro has “abandoned” the presidency in constitutional terms by failing to fulfil his duties.

The appointment in early January of Aragua state governor (and former Interior Minister) Tareck el Aissami as vice-president is perhaps the clearest sign that hardliners now have the upper hand within the government. Charged by Maduro with heading a so-called “Anti-Coup Command”, Aissami immediately deployed the national intelligence service, SEBIN, to pursue and arrest opposition politicians, picking up six of them in the first week alone. He has also hinted at banning opposition parties. In short, the new vice president’s interest in a negotiated transition appears slim.

Talks which began at the end of October between the government and the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance, brokered by the Vatican and a team from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), quickly broke down, and there seems little prospect of reviving them in the short term. For the MUD the talks proved costly in terms of popular support and exacerbated deep divisions within the alliance over the way forward: one very vocal wing favours mass direct action while others advocate dialogue or the electoral route.

The government, having lost its electoral base (Maduro’s popularity stands at around 10 per cent, the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) around 25 per cent), shows little interest in appealing to voters, perhaps in the belief it can bypass them at least in the short term. Elections for state governors due in December 2016 were postponed on a promise to hold them in mid-2017, but the CNE has yet to set a date. Political parties have been ordered to renew their registration, in a complex process which may be used as a pretext for further delay and/or to proscribe some parties.

Economic and Humanitarian Meltdown

Venezuela’s economy shrank considerably in 2016 – some estimates suggest by as much as 18 per cent – with annual inflation running at several hundred per cent and real wages shrinking fast. Imports have collapsed from over $60 billion in 2012 to under $18 billion in 2016, which combined with the slump in domestic production means acute shortages of food, medicines and other basic goods. About a fifth of the population eats only one meal a day. Malnutrition and preventable diseases have risen sharply, and the health service is close to collapse.
 

The broad contours of a lasting solution will require negotiations between the government and opposition, facilitated by external actors

In mid-2016 shortages, particularly of food, led to rioting and looting in a number of cities. The government responded by replacing a large part of the retail food distribution network with Local Supply and Production Committees (CLAPs), using both the military and political organisations affiliated to the PSUV. The private sector is now legally obliged to sell 50 per cent of its production to the government for distribution through this network. The scheme appears to have reduced looting, not because it has satisfied demand (the CLAPs are plagued by corruption and inefficiency) but because it reduced the number and length of queues, a frequent trigger for riots. The scheme also enables the government to use food as a political weapon, favouring its supporters and the politically docile.

Getting Out of the Mess: The Elements for Long-term Stability

The broad contours of a lasting solution will require negotiations between the government and opposition, facilitated by external actors, and will probably involve a transitional phase with a degree of power-sharing and economic reforms, leading to free and fair presidential elections under international supervision. High-profile civilian and military leaders, probably including the president, will need to be offered credible guarantees regarding their physical and financial well-being should they lose these elections, possibly including offers of exile. Such an arrangement would offer the best hope of restoring democracy and also stability. To avoid talks for talks’ sake, these negotiations will need to quickly establish a clear calendar for the way forward.

Toward this end, the European Union (EU) should work with regional governments to encourage the application of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, especially its procedures for taking “diplomatic initiatives, including good offices, to foster the restoration of democracy” where this has broken down. They should reserve as a last resort sanctions such as the suspension of Venezuela’s membership of the Organization of American States (OAS).

In forging regional and international cooperation, particular attention should be paid to securing the support of Caribbean nations currently receiving subsidised Venezuelan energy. They will need to be reassured that they will be offered international financial assistance to make up for any loss of access to cheap oil that may accompany a transition in Caracas. In particular Cuba, Venezuela’s closest ally, plays an important role in shoring up the Maduro government through the provision of intelligence and other advisory services, and could potentially contribute to a solution. Economically reliant on dwindling shipments of cheap Venezuelan oil, Havana is unlikely to support a political transition unless its interests are protected. Looking north, meanwhile, it remains unclear whether the new U.S. administration will be willing to continue its predecessor’s approach to working in a multilateral fashion.

The transition process is likely to be protracted, and donors need to identify creative means of alleviating the suffering of ordinary Venezuelans.

The transition process is likely to be protracted, and donors need to identify creative means of alleviating the suffering of ordinary Venezuelans, both in terms of hunger and lack of medical supplies and facilities. EU member states are among the largest contributors to the UN’s humanitarian and specialist agencies, and should encourage them to scale up their response to the crisis commensurate with its severity, and explore with partners ways of overcoming government resistance to outside aid.

The presidential elections scheduled for December 2018 will be crucial, and it will be important to apply early and sustained pressure for the government to relax its current ban on professional observation missions. If the EU is unable to obtain permission for its own observers it should seek to work with those from credible regional organisations, in particular the OAS.