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Venezuela: A Regional Solution to the Political Standoff
Venezuela: A Regional Solution to the Political Standoff

Venezuela: A House Divided

Legal challenges to the close 14 April presidential election and the government’s reluctance to commit to a full review cast a shadow over the sustainability of the new administration in an already deeply polarised Venezuela.

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I. Overview

The death from cancer on 5 March of President Hugo Chávez triggered a snap presidential election just 40 days later that his anointed successor, Nicolás Maduro, won by a margin of less than 1.5 per cent over Henrique Capriles of the Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance. But the tight result and legal challenges to the validity of the vote cast a shadow over the sustainability of the new administration. A country already deeply polarised is now clearly divided into two almost equal halves that appear irreconcilable. The validity of the election result remains to be clarified and the full independence of the electoral authorities, judiciary, and other key institutions restored. But to address the governance crisis and allow Venezuela to tackle its serious economic and social problems, national dialogue must prevail over confrontation and consensus over partisan violence.

With institutions weakened by the Chávez government’s long-term policy of presidential co-optation, the MUD may ultimately have little practical recourse at the domestic legal level, leaving – it believes – few options but a policy of peaceful street demonstrations and other forms of political pressure, including appeal to international public opinion. When political discourse takes the form of large-scale street protest, there is always a risk of violence. There have already been several deaths and numerous injuries, often in confused circumstances, that the government seems keen to exploit so as to discredit the opposition.

The power vacuum produced by Chávez’s death is a fundamental source of potential instability. His personal authority over his movement, the armed forces and the state bureaucracy is irreplaceable for the regime, certainly in the short term. This vacuum is particularly grave because the country is on the brink of a recession, has a large public-sector deficit and suffers from a growing scarcity of basic goods and one of the world’s highest inflation rates.

An extremely personalised political regime has been replaced by an unpredictable collection of group and even individual interests. The costs of having dismantled important elements of democracy and the rule of law over the past fourteen years are being paid by both the regime and the political opposition. Venezuela is ill-prepared for the post-Chávez transition and urgently needs to reconstruct its social and political fabric. The immediate efforts need to focus on avoiding escalation of extreme polarisation into political violence, complemented by a strong push for a basic understanding on how to coexist without Chávez.

Short-sighted behaviour by either side could propel the country into a political and economic crisis from which it would be difficult to recover. It is encouraging that the opposition leadership has emphasised non-violent forms of dissent. There have also been indications from the government that some of its members understand the need for dialogue and consensus, though this has not yet been followed by corresponding actions. Ideally Maduro would appoint some opposition figures to his government, but at the very least those in position to do so on both sides need to initiate dialogue and consensus building now.

Most of the international community, particularly regional partners and neighbours, have tended to look the other way when assessing democracy and human rights in Venezuela. This must change. Instability would at the least further undermine the regional consensus on democratic norms. Multilateral organisations, such as the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Organisation of American States (OAS), and regional powers, such as Brazil, need to make clear that they will not tolerate further destruction of the rule of law and democratic values.

To avoid unpredictable escalation of the polarisation and political violence:

  • Government and opposition must express commitment publicly to peaceful means of resolving the political crisis, instructing followers that violence – and confrontational rhetoric that could incite violence – is not permissible, and those who engage in it will be treated in full accordance with the law.
  • The government should recognise that the sharp division of the electorate necessitates consensus building, not a partisan agenda. It should build bridges to the opposition, the private sector and civil society, conducting a dialogue to reduce tensions and find common ground. The Catholic Church, regional partners and the international community in general should support this approach and be ready, if asked, to provide mediation at an appropriate point.
  • To clear the way for dialogue, doubts surrounding the election must be clarified. The Supreme Court’s electoral chamber should deal fully and transparently with all complaints of violence, intimidation and irregularities, if necessary ordering a re-vote in centres where such incidents cast substantial doubt on the original. The government should make clear that it supports such measures, and, if they are taken, all sides should immediately recognise the election’s validity.
  • The government should provide guarantees for lawful exercise of the right to protest and freedom of expression, abstaining from threats and legal proceedings against the independent media and reprisals against public employees suspected of opposition sympathies; and the armed forces must act fully within the constitution, which prohibits their participation in partisan politics.
  • The international community, in particular neighbours such as Brazil, the OAS and UNASUR, should encourage a non-violent solution of the political crisis and offer themselves as facilitators and mediators.

None of this will be easy, not least because there is a potentially dangerous gulf between the regime’s insistence that the election result be recognised as a condition for accepting the opposition as a force with which to do business and the opposition’s understandable insistence that it can accept the election result only after a full and transparent review shows that any irregularities that occurred did not alter the final outcome. If the worst is to be avoided, the moderates (or pragmatists) on both sides need to find a way to bridge that chasm.

Caracas/Bogotá/Brussels, 16 May 2013

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.