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Picking Up the Pieces After Venezuela’s Quashed Uprising
Picking Up the Pieces After Venezuela’s Quashed Uprising
Venezuelan national flag. CRISIS GROUP/Sofia Martinez

Venezuela on the Edge

The 6 December parliamentary election in which the Venezuelan opposition won a landslide victory and a two-thirds legislative majority, combined with the ongoing economic meltdown, should have encouraged a more conciliatory stance by the government and a mutual search for a basic political agreement. But it has not, and the country is very near political and economic implosion. As the risk of an extra-constitutional response by either side or a military coup increases, the Organization of American States (OAS) should take up the matter urgently and prepare an emergency political and humanitarian initiative to prevent serious violence and a collapse that would bring instability to the region and deepen the misery of Venezuelans themselves.

The opposition coalition took control of the National Assembly on 5 January. The election had given it a sweeping mandate not only to legislate but to act as a check on the power of the executive under President Nicolás Maduro. For the first time since 1999 the ruling party had lost control of one of the branches of state. From the outset, however, the National Assembly has been subjected to a campaign of harassment, ranging from physical attacks on opposition legislators to adverse rulings by the Supreme Court (TSJ), which the government controls through compliant, often politically aligned judges.

President Maduro has declared himself “in rebellion” against the legislature and announced that he will refuse to sign, or abide by, laws he opposes, such as an amnesty for political prisoners or a bill to grant property rights to occupants of public housing projects. Government ministers have disobeyed summonses to attend parliamentary hearings. The TSJ approved an emergency presidential decree after it was vetoed by the assembly.

With parliament at risk of being reduced to a talking shop, the opposition has announced plans to remove Supreme Court justices whose appointments were made in violation of procedural rules. It has also outlined alternative methods of bringing forward the end of the Maduro administration. The constitution provides several ways to trigger a popular vote, including a mid-term recall of the president, a constitutional amendment and the convening of a constituent assembly.

The bottom line is that a major constitutional confrontation is under way that threatens to exacerbate the country’s other woes and provoke violence on the streets. Some observers fear the armed forces may intervene if the deadlock is not resolved.

The crisis might be considered purely political if it were not for Venezuela’s dire economic and social predicament. There are acute shortages of food, medicines and other vital supplies, including those needed to cope with the spread of the Zika virus, which recently arrived in Latin America and the Caribbean and is spreading fast, posing a serious threat to unborn babies in particular. On 17 February, the chairman of the parliamentary health commission asked the World Health Organization to provide humanitarian assistance and send a technical mission to Venezuela to examine the situation. But unless the government agrees to the request, the WHO cannot act. And while political paralysis continues, there is little hope of effectively addressing humanitarian concerns.

The time has come for regional organisations and the wider international community to act. The Inter-American Democratic Charter authorises an OAS response in the event of an “unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime that seriously impairs the democratic order in a member state”. What is in process and fast approaching the critical point in Venezuela is just such a situation. The OAS Permanent Council should debate this as a matter of urgency and entrust its secretary general with an international mission to serve as a springboard for the implementation of institutional arrangements for overcoming the crisis.

All in Venezuela must meanwhile refrain from extra-constitutional measures. The government must acknowledge the new political situation and behave accordingly, respecting in full the authority of the parliament. The new legislative majority and the opposition at large must adhere to legal mechanisms. The armed forces must abstain from taking sides and abide by lawful procedures.

Venezuela’s hemispheric neighbours and the broader international community need to act now, both to head off violence and to provide humanitarian assistance to alleviate critical shortages of food and medicines. The region has so far failed to foster a functional dialogue in Caracas. Further inaction would undermine the norms and values that Latin American countries are sworn to uphold.

Caracas/Brussels

An opposition demonstrator waves a Venezuelan national flag during clashes with soldiers loyal to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro April 30 2019 Federico PARRA / AFP

Picking Up the Pieces After Venezuela’s Quashed Uprising

 A failed uprising by Venezuelan National Assembly Chair Juan Guaidó has emboldened President Nicolás Maduro and deepened the country's political deadlock. However difficult, outside actors should continue to press the two sides to form a transitional cabinet, stabilise Venezuela’s economy and hold elections.

The events that shook Caracas on 30 April remain shrouded in mystery, but their immediate impact seems clear: further polarising a political stand-off and raising the likelihood of domestic or international escalation. They began with the opposition leadership’s dramatic announcement that the country had entered the “final phase” of what it calls “Operation Freedom”, aimed at ousting President Nicolás Maduro. They continued with claims that the effort enjoyed the support of the military high command. They ended with what, at the time of writing, appears to have been an easily subdued, poorly conceived revolt that left National Assembly chair Juan Guaidó, his regional allies and the U.S. looking outmanoeuvred.  Maduro and his own domestic and international partners may well feel empowered and emboldened, with little incentive to talk to a disorganised and ineffectual opposition.

That would be a miscalculation. Security forces easily subdued the uprising, but the fact that it followed a series of efforts since early this year to isolate, destabilise and split the government underlines not only the opposition’s inability to dislodge Maduro but also the government’s powerlessness to stifle its political foes. Much as talks between two deeply polarised sides and their respective foreign allies appear far-fetched, the stalemate in which they are locked, the high costs borne by the Venezuelan people and the risk of local or even international escalation mean that the country’s stability continues to depend on a negotiated settlement.

U.S. officials also have suggested, without offering proof, that several senior officials had promised to defect, but failed to do so.

The haphazard quality of the uprising has several potential explanations. The opposition moved a day earlier than planned (mass demonstrations were already scheduled for May 1), harming its chances. U.S. officials also have suggested, without offering proof, that several senior officials had promised to defect, but failed to do so. Clarification as to the actual reason will need to await.

For Maduro and his allies – among which the U.S. singled out Cuba but also Russia – this was a triumphal turn of events. In the end, the protests were small and easily dispersed by security forces. It also quickly became apparent that only a few low-ranking soldiers had actually broken away from the government. As the day came to a close, the country’s most famous political prisoner, Leopoldo López, who had emerged from house arrest at dawn to lead the protests, was compelled to seek refuge at the Spanish ambassador’s residence. Maduro – who had remained behind the scenes all day – emerged to declare victory and mock claims by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that he had been ready to go into exile only to be dissuaded by Russia.

But the problems that have plagued the government are far from being resolved. His failure aside, Guaidó remains the country’s legitimate president in the eyes of several dozen nations, including the U.S., most Latin American countries and most EU member states. His stature might well be diminished by the unhappy outcome, but he has succeeded in uniting the fractious opposition and galvanising popular support. His success notwithstanding, Maduro still faces diplomatic isolation, a collapsing economy and a sanctions regime that has severely curtailed Venezuela’s ability to export its dwindling oil production, on which it depends for almost all its foreign currency earnings. After years of economic decline, more than a tenth of the population has fled the country and the UN estimates that 7 million people are in need of humanitarian aid.

The clear lesson from the 30 April events is that there can be no “winner-take-all” solution in Venezuela. The government remains in control of security forces, the electoral authority and the supreme court, but it cannot fix the economy without a political settlement that enables sanctions to be lifted and a competent team of technocrats to begin implementing a recovery programme. Nor can it silence public dissent except through repression. The opposition can still count on the devastating effect of sanctions, the threat of a U.S. military intervention (made more explicit than ever by Secretary Pompeo) and the belief that the armed forces will ultimately force Maduro out. But there is no evidence sanctions will bring the government down; repeated attempts to win over elements of the military have failed, and external armed intervention still seems a remote possibility that – if employed – would almost certainly fuel further instability through triggering prolonged conflict with pro-government armed groups and militias.

As Crisis Group has consistently argued, the best way forward lies in negotiations between chavistas and the opposition.

As Crisis Group has consistently argued, the best way forward lies in negotiations between chavistas and the opposition. True, previous rounds of dialogue have embittered the opposition, with many in its ranks convinced that the government has no intention of compromising and will use protracted talks to buy time, exacerbate splits among its foes and defuse mass protests. Even opposition leaders who privately accept the need for talks fear being labelled “collaborators” by more hardline elements.

Left to their own devices, in other words, the two sides are unlikely to reach a workable agreement. The onus is on external actors who, regrettably, have been as divided as Venezuelans themselves.  Countries close to Guaidó, those supportive of Maduro and those in between should seize this moment to put aside any maximalist position and nudge their respective allies to compromise. That will require the U.S. and its Latin American partners to rule out any suggestion of military intervention and abandon the demand that Maduro immediately resign. It will require Russia, China and Cuba to accept the need for Maduro to initiate a process leading to credible and internationally-monitored presidential elections.  It will require all stakeholders to push for the following:

  • Formation of a transitional cabinet including representatives of both chavismo and the opposition, focused on economic stabilisation, humanitarian assistance, internal security and institutional reform; ideally, neither Maduro nor Guaidó would hold the presidency during this period, though agreement on this point ought not to be a precondition for negotiations to commence; 
  • Guarantees to the military in the form of a clear framework for their future role;
  • Presidential elections under a reformed electoral commission and international monitoring.

The EU-led International Contact Group could help jump-start this process through its own quiet diplomacy.

Maduro almost certainly feels he won this round and sees little need to compromise. The opposition, weaker than it was a couple of months ago, likely is as wary as ever of negotiations. If their external allies endorse these views, nobody should hold out hope for a mutually agreed solution. But then all would have to be prepared to live with a deepening stalemate, a growing humanitarian toll, and the very real possibility of internal armed confrontation or even outside military intervention. It should not be a difficult choice.