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Final Curtain for Venezuela’s Democracy as Parliament is Dissolved
Final Curtain for Venezuela’s Democracy as Parliament is Dissolved
Briefing 31 / Latin America & Caribbean

Venezuela: Dangerous Inertia

The end of street protests does not mean the end of Venezuela’s crisis. Rising economic problems and unaddressed political demands could lead to renewed violence and threaten national stability.

I. Overview

The streets of Venezuela’s major cities are now largely calm, following several months of violent clashes between opposition demonstrators, security forces and civilian gunmen that left more than 40 dead. The crisis, however, is not over. The opposition is demanding freedom for several dozen activists jailed during the unrest and an end to the threat of prosecution against more than 2,000. The underlying causes have not been addressed, and calls to restore autonomy and independence to the justice system and other key institutions have not been heeded. Living standards continue to decline due to economic recession; violent crime remains at record levels, and labour unrest and protests over poor-quality public services are often dealt with harshly. Greater international efforts are required to bring the sides back to the negotiating table, since the alternative to dialogue is likely to be further violence sooner or later.

Talks between the government and leaders of the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance, facilitated by the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Vatican broke down in May 2014, when the MUD announced a “freeze” on its participation, citing repression of student protesters. The internal dissent faced by the MUD – whose executive secretary and deputy executive secretary recently resigned – and the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) has further complicated returning the parties to negotiations. The UNASUR foreign ministers charged with accompanying the process (from Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador) have not formally met with them since shortly after the talks broke down.

It remains important for the international community to play a role in facilitating the political dialogue and to suggest avenues for agreement on pending tasks. The recent appointment of a new UNASUR Secretary General should provide a renewed impetus. Furthermore, this regional organisation would greatly benefit from technical and political support from the UN system, which has much greater experience of advising on public policies and legal reforms, as it did in Venezuela in 2002. This assistance might initially focus, for example, on reinforcing the capacity of UNASUR to produce analysis and policy recommendations and, at a later stage, on helping to design a credible framework for talks. Both sides, as well as Venezuelan society at large, would benefit. The opposition clearly requires an impartial observer, able to offer reassurances, while the government would benefit by bringing in credible external actors, such as UNASUR, to bolster it in some of the difficult decisions it faces.

The most urgent of the pending tasks is to complete the appointment of respected, independent figures to the Supreme Court (TSJ), the electoral authority (CNE) and other constitutionally autonomous state bodies – a process that received a boost from the initial round of talks but now threatens to become bogged down. With the government’s popularity suffering in the crisis, the need for autonomous institutions capable of fulfilling their constitutional roles is becoming ever more critical.

As Crisis Group has argued since May, the international community – particularly UNASUR but including also the UN system – needs to:

  • press both sides to agree on a concise, viable timeframe and a trustworthy mechanism for appointing new members of the key rule-of-law institutions;
  • urge the government to release those detained for non-violent political protest;
  • call on the opposition to reassert and act on its commitment to resort exclusively to constitutional channels; and
  • redouble, through UNASUR and with the assistance of the UN system, efforts to help Venezuela move beyond its current polarisation in order to promote democracy, human rights and stability in a country still very much in crisis.

Caracas/Bogotá/Brussels, 23 September 2014

Opposition supporters confront riot security forces with a sign that reads "No to constituent assembly, yes to food and medicines" while rallying against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, on 12 May 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Final Curtain for Venezuela’s Democracy as Parliament is Dissolved

The Venezuelan government has dissolved the elected, opposition-led parliament and initiated de facto rule. Foreign governments and multilateral organisations should regard all government actions carried out in contravention of the 1999 constitution as invalid and press the government to take urgent steps toward the restoration of democracy.

On 19 August, Venezuela’s self-styled Constituent Assembly, installed two weeks earlier by the government of President Nicolás Maduro, announced that it was taking over the functions of the country’s opposition-led parliament, elected in December 2015. Although the government insists it has not dissolved the legislature, that is a mere technicality. Ever since the opposition Democratic Unity coalition took over, parliament has been prevented by the government-controlled Supreme Court (TSJ) from exercising its constitutional functions. Now it has been formally stripped of all its powers.

The Constituent Assembly’s move effaces any lingering pretence that Venezuela remains a democracy. Without a single seat in the assembly, the opposition movement has no meaningful foothold in national institutions and is subject to increasing judicial and police harassment. The assembly’s 545 members appear to be there solely to approve by acclamation any government proposal, since there have been no actual debates.

An unfettered and unpopular government is likely to further exacerbate the political violence and emigration flows of recent months.

Venezuela’s increasingly grave crisis – whose effects are felt not only in disappearing civil liberties but also in growing poverty, hunger, disease and crime – can only be resolved through a negotiated restoration of democracy. An unfettered and unpopular government is likely to further exacerbate the political violence and emigration flows of recent months. Preventing this will require outside mediation, and will almost inevitably involve the establishment of a transitional regime with international guarantors. No “winner-take-all” scenario, whether it be a coup d’état or a general election, is either plausible or likely to produce a stable outcome.

For now, the chavista government holds absolute power, unrestricted by any judicial or parliamentary checks and balances. The president called the 30 July elections in contravention of a constitutional requirement that the electorate first decide whether such an assembly should be convened. The opposition then boycotted the vote amid a surge of anti-government protest marches across the country that were met with violent repression. Although the government claimed that over eight million of the country’s twenty million voters took part, independent estimates suggest a figure of around half that. The opposition claimed more than seven million rejected the proposal in an informal poll it mounted on 16 July.

A so-called Commission for Truth, Justice, Peace and Public Tranquillity, installed by the assembly, is charged with investigating the violence that took more than 120 lives during four months of opposition-led protests prior to 30 July. But the commission’s one-sided nature, and the government’s statements on the issue, make it clear that the aim is to pin blame for the bloodshed on the opposition and even to charge and imprison its leaders for allegedly inciting violence. Human rights organisations have reported that witness testimony and other evidence shows government security forces and their associated civilian gunmen were to blame in most cases.

The government has said any opposition politicians seeking to stand in forthcoming regional elections will need a certificate of good conduct from the assembly stating that they did not take part in violence. Together with other actions, such as arbitrarily banning the most popular opposition leaders and either jailing others or forcing them into exile, this will enable the government to compete only against candidates of its own choosing. The government-controlled election authority has violated the law by scheduling or suspending elections according to the political convenience of the ruling party and has – with the help of the TSJ – cancelled or denied the registration of many parties, preventing them from participating.

At the same time, the assembly has targeted the main source of dissent from within the government: the public prosecution service (fiscalía). Attorney General Luisa Ortega had become an acerbic critic of the government and was investigating senior figures for corruption and human rights abuses. Ortega and her husband, a dissident MP from the government party, fled to Colombia on 18 August after she was unconstitutionally removed from office in the assembly’s first resolution. Both have been threatened with prosecution.

As [the Venezuelan government] has become more unpopular, it has simply cancelled free and fair elections and persecuted those who object.

The Venezuelan government has for many years openly defied the principles of democracy and human rights on which the Inter-American system is based. As it has become more unpopular, it has simply cancelled free and fair elections and persecuted those who object. The region is bound by its own rules and morally obligated to act. That does not mean intervening with military force – a possibility mooted by U.S. President Trump, but resisted across the region – nor should it involve economic sanctions, such as on the oil trade, which would inflict further pain on an already suffering population while allowing the government to pose as a victim. It does mean insisting that the prerogatives of parliament be respected and declaring invalid any government actions that usurp the parliament’s constitutional powers.

To negotiate the restoration of democracy, it will be essential not only to raise the cost of consolidating dictatorship but also to lower the cost of relinquishing power by offering the government credible guarantees that its members will not face witch-hunts and that their rights will be respected.

The region should build on the initiative launched on 8 August by the twelve Latin American nations that signed the Lima Declaration, which included a proposal to deny support for Venezuelan candidates for international organisations and ban arms sales to the country. It should also support the formation of a “contact group” whose purpose would be to bring the Venezuelan government and opposition to the table for substantive negotiations leading to a democratic transition. The group should comprise both allies and adversaries of the Venezuelan government. The governments of key allies Cuba, Russia and China, although potentially reluctant to take part in such an initiative, should not stand in its way. The contact group should at the least hold informal talks with all three with a view to addressing their respective concerns.

It is likely that the Venezuelan crisis will exceed the capacity of regional bodies to contain and address it. The Secretary-General of the UN should take steps to prepare for the possibility that the various components of the UN will be called upon to assist. He should initiate the process of appointing a special envoy to engage with those seeking a solution, as well as preparing the UN Country Team in Venezuela for a possible role in mediation and activating mechanisms to deal with the humanitarian emergency that is already taking shape.

There is no quick fix for the Venezuelan crisis, but while pushing for a negotiated solution the international community must also deal with its immediate impact. That means aiding neighbouring countries that are trying to cope with a refugee exodus (above all Colombia), providing support and solidarity for human rights and democracy activists on the ground and seeking creative ways to alleviate the hunger, malnutrition and disease that increasingly afflict the population. The government’s persistent refusal to engage with its critics, both domestically and internationally, must not become an excuse for inaction.