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Dangerous Uncertainty ahead of Venezuela’s Elections
Dangerous Uncertainty ahead of Venezuela’s Elections
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Maduro Finds a “New Opposition” to Negotiate With
Maduro Finds a “New Opposition” to Negotiate With

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

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza looks at opposition member Javier Bertucci during the signing of the dialogue agreement between the government and the opposition in Caracas,18 September 2019. AFP/Matias Delacroix
Q&A / Latin America & Caribbean

Maduro Finds a “New Opposition” to Negotiate With

Talks to resolve Venezuela’s impasse collapsed on 15 September only for the government to announce a deal – with a different set of opponents. In this Q&A, Crisis Group Senior Andes Analyst Phil Gunson explains what these developments mean for the country’s political and socio-economic crisis.

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What happened?

On 15 September, Venezuela’s opposition leadership, under National Assembly chair Juan Guaidó, announced that it was pulling out of negotiations in Barbados with the government of President Nicolás Maduro. The government side had suspended its own participation over a month earlier, after Washington announced sweeping new sanctions. According to the opposition’s announcement, “the Barbados mechanism is exhausted”. Within hours, the government revealed that it had been negotiating in parallel with a group of small opposition parties that were not involved in the Barbados talks. The members of this National Dialogue (Mesa Nacional de Diálogo) immediately announced an agreement calling for government legislators to once again take up their seats in the National Assembly, which they have boycotted since mid-2017, and requesting release of an undetermined number of political prisoners and relaxation of the government’s grip on the electoral authority. The agreement also speaks of a potential “oil-for-food” program to alleviate Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis.

Why did the Barbados talks break down, and could they restart?

According to President Maduro, the opposition failed to fulfil its promise to persuade the U.S. government to relax sanctions. According to Guaidó, whom the U.S., most EU member states and numerous Latin American countries recognise as the legitimate acting president, the government was at fault, because it never responded to a detailed proposal from the opposition side. The key conditions put forward by Guaidó’s negotiating team were that both he and Maduro would step aside pending free and fair elections within nine months under international supervision. Meanwhile, a transitional Governing Council, comprising representatives of chavismo – the movement created by Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez – and the opposition, as well as the armed forces, would run the country. The Norwegian government, which was still sponsoring the Barbados talks after they had moved from Oslo, has indicated that it remains available if the parties decide to return to the table. Maduro has said the government will do so if the opportunity arises. And even the opposition appears only to have ruled out the format for talks applied in Barbados, rather than negotiations in general. A redesign of the process, perhaps to encompass a wider range of Venezuelan and foreign parties, would probably be required, however.

Who is involved in the National Dialogue?

So far, five small parties have signed the agreement with the government. Only two have seats in parliament. They are Avanzada Progresista, led by Henri Falcón, a former chavista state governor who broke with the government in 2007, and Cambiemos, led by Timoteo Zambrano, a one-time opposition negotiator who is close to the former Spanish premier (and one-time mediator in the Venezuelan crisis), José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. Between them they have eight seats in the 167-seat Assembly. The main opposition alliance expelled both Falcón and Zambrano in recent years, the former because he took part in the May 2018 presidential election despite the government’s refusal to accept opposition demands for a level playing field, and the latter for disagreeing in 2016 with the decision by the customs union Mercosur to take punitive action against Venezuela. Falcón obtained 21 per cent to Maduro’s 68 per cent in last year’s poll, but he refused to accept the result, saying the government had violated the electoral law.

Other leading figures who support the agreement are Claudio Fermín, a veteran social democrat and long-time presidential aspirant who now heads a party called Soluciones para Venezuela, and Javier Bertucci, an evangelical pastor who also stood against Maduro in 2018. The parties involved have expressed support for the seemingly defunct Norwegian initiative, as well as inviting other opposition forces to join them. “We are the new opposition”, declared Fermín.

What is the government trying to achieve?

Having failed for now to achieve sanctions relief, the government seems focused on achieving domestic political stability. Next year’s parliamentary elections, which will probably be brought forward to March or April (they are due in December), are an opportunity for chavismo to regain control of the only branch of government that remains independent. Although opinion polls suggest that over 80 per cent of Venezuelans disapprove of Maduro’s rule, the government can win back parliament by dissuading opposition voters from turning out and/or provoking the mainstream opposition under Guaidó into boycotting the election. Holding elections, however controversial, also helps it keep dissent under control within its own ranks, both civilian and military. By presenting at least a façade of pluralism and legitimacy, it promotes a narrative for supporters at home and abroad according to which the government is the victim of an international conspiracy abetted by domestic traitors.

Has implementation of the agreement begun?

Government parliamentarians did not take their seats the day after the agreement was announced, and it is not clear when they will do so or what other effect the deal will have. All the National Assembly’s acts will still be officially null and void unless the Supreme Court declares that the legislature is no longer in contempt. One political prisoner – Assembly vice-president Edgar Zambrano, arrested for his part in the failed 30 April uprising against Maduro’s rule – has been let go and more are supposedly due for release shortly. But close to 500 remain in jail, including another opposition MP and a top aide to Guaidó. In all, some two dozen opposition members of the Assembly are either in jail, in exile, in hiding or on the premises of foreign missions. The government has no majority in parliament with which to appoint a new electoral authority, meaning that any reform would remain in the hands of the government-controlled Supreme Court. And an oil-for-food program, as one of its principal advocates has pointed out, would require the assent of the opposition and its foreign allies.

Could this development lead to a resolution of the crisis?

There is no indication that the government is moving in the direction of Maduro’s departure followed by a genuinely competitive presidential election under international supervision, the conditions which Guaidó and his foreign allies define as the sine qua non for the lifting of sanctions. The breakdown of the Norwegian-sponsored talks is likely to bring more sanctions, rather than fewer, both from the EU and from Venezuela’s Latin American neighbours. With the exception of Panama, the latter have so far shied away from imposing sanctions, but signatories to the Rio Treaty of 1947 – also known as the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, a Cold War-era regional defence pact – recently agreed to take the first step toward activating it in Venezuela’s case, which could lead to a tougher stance in the region. But while the new agreement will neither placate the mainstream opposition and its foreign allies nor resolve the country’s colossal socio-economic crisis, it could allow Maduro to keep a lid on domestic challenges to his rule if the government succeeds in forcing its more confrontational opponents into exile, replacing them with a more compliant cast of politicians and claiming that it has restored constitutional normality.