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Venezuela: “Zero hour”
Venezuela: “Zero hour”

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An extremely personalised political regime has been replaced by an unpredictable collection of group and even individual interests.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: “Zero hour”

As the Venezuelan government prepares to create an all-powerful constituent assembly to replace the country’s democracy, unrest is likely to reach new levels of violence. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2017 – Second Update early warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to support regional actors’ efforts to bring about genuine negotiations while insisting on the restoration of constitutional rule.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2017 – Second Update.

Venezuela approaches a key moment in its protracted political crisis: the government is preparing to replace the country’s ailing democracy with a full-fledged dictatorship by means of an all-powerful constituent assembly, due to be elected on 30 July under rules that effectively exclude the opposition. Nearly 100 people have died in over three months of street demonstrations across the country, many of them shot dead by police, national guard or civilian gunmen. Beginning a week before polling day, the army will be deployed on the streets to guard against any disruption. There is a grave danger of violence on a scale so far unseen, and a fresh wave of emigration is probably imminent. The accelerating breakdown of health services and other vital infrastructure, growing hunger and shortages of basic goods, along with surging rates of violent crime, pose an evident threat not only to Venezuelans but to neighbouring countries and the international community generally.

Democracy Dismantled

In December 2015, the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance won a two-thirds majority in the single-chamber National Assembly, but the government has used its control of the Supreme Court to block every move by parliament since then. When the opposition responded by attempting to trigger a recall referendum against President Maduro, this too was blocked, using the courts and the government-controlled electoral authority (CNE). Elections for state governors, due in December 2016, were suspended. Some opposition leaders have been banned from holding office and/or banned from leaving the country. Others have had their passports annulled and some have been imprisoned. In late March, the Supreme Court attempted to transfer to itself all the assembly’s powers, causing the once loyal attorney general, Luisa Ortega, to declare that constitutional rule had been interrupted and the Organization of American States (OAS) to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter, devised to deal with the breakdown of democracy in a member state.

The opposition alliance launched a campaign of mass demonstrations to demand the restoration of democracy, but the response from the government has been violent. In addition to the deaths, thousands have been injured and thousands more arrested; security forces and civilian gunmen have invaded private residences, destroying and stealing property and carrying out warrantless detentions. Hundreds have been subjected to trial by military courts, and the legal aid organisation Foro Penal puts the number of political prisoners at around 400. On 1 May, Maduro announced he was convening an assembly to rewrite the constitution. The assembly, to be elected on 30 July, will be supra-constitutional and there is no time limit on its authority. Government leaders have said it will be empowered to close down parliament, stripping members of their parliamentary immunity, and “turn upside down” the attorney general’s office, which has declined to prosecute peaceful demonstrators and charged senior military figures with human rights abuses.

With millions of illegal weapons in private hands, arming urban guerrillas might not be difficult.

Around two fifths of constituent assembly members will be elected by “sectors” (including trade union members and “communes”) largely controlled by the government. The remainder will be elected by municipality, under a system that vastly over-represents the rural areas where the government is strongest. The MUD is boycotting the election, which it says the president has no right to convene without a prior referendum. Polls suggest only around 20 per cent of the electorate intend to vote. Fringe elements in the opposition (collectively referred to as La Resistencia), frustrated with the MUD’s non-violent approach, talk in private of armed resistance. With millions of illegal weapons in private hands, arming urban guerrillas might not be difficult. Nor is the MUD itself united: while some parties support a negotiated transition, others are opposed. Despite abundant evidence of discontent in military ranks (including dozens of arrested officers), there has so far been no split in the armed forces. The officer corps would nonetheless be faced with a dilemma if the army were called on to restore public order. Such a move would inevitably bring much higher casualty figures and some would be reluctant to obey.

A ray of light came on 16 July with a massive turnout for a “consultation” of voters ordered by the National Assembly. Over seven million voted to reject the constituent assembly, call on the armed forces to obey the constitution, not the government, and mandate parliament to appoint a new Supreme Court and electoral authority and form a government of national unity. While the government sought to downplay the event, it strengthened demands both internal and external for a last-minute u-turn.

Growing Hunger

Economists project that by the end of 2017 the Venezuelan economy will have shrunk by around 30 per cent in three years. Manufacturing industries are producing at 20-30 per cent of capacity and the main farmers’ federation says only about a quarter of the normal acreage will be planted, due to lack of seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, as well as agricultural equipment. Outbreaks of mass looting in many cities have badly hit wholesale and retail food outlets, while imports of food have slumped. The government’s failure to provide enough emergency rations through its CLAP (Local Provision and Production Committee) system of food parcels has led to protests in many poorer areas. Studies show half the population living in extreme poverty. Rare official figures show an alarming increase in infant and maternal mortality. Child malnutrition rose by over 11 per cent from 2015-2016 and nutritionists are beginning to predict famine if trends continue. Shortages of essential medicines continue at critical levels and hospital infrastructure is collapsing. A shortage of vaccines has contributed to outbreaks of formerly eradicated diseases such as diphtheria, while farmers warn that livestock too is vulnerable to epidemics due to the lack of veterinary vaccines.

In the medium term there is a possibility that the Venezuelan government might collapse under the burden of an unpayable foreign debt and domestic ungovernability, although without necessarily triggering a restoration of democracy. While most analysts believe Caracas can make this year’s debt service payments, it faces a severe challenge in October/November, when around US$3.5 billion come due.

Responding to the Emergency

The OAS has so far failed to reach consensus on how to approach the crisis. A handful of mostly Caribbean states, beholden to Caracas for cheap energy supplies and other benefits, have blocked what they call an excessively “interventionist” approach. Without a split in the government (and in particular the military), the constituent assembly plan appears unstoppable, and further violence is likely; the 8 July release into house arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo López notwithstanding, the government’s attitude does not appear to have changed.

Still, concerned governments nonetheless should prepare a negotiating structure for when conditions change. In this context, the European Union (EU) should back a proposal by a large group of OAS members, including the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Peru and Colombia, to form a “contact group” comprising four or five governments agreed on by both sides to the conflict; its goal would be to promote negotiations aimed at averting more violence and restoring democracy. This group probably would have to be created outside the formal framework of the OAS. The EU and EU member states with close ties to the region (in particular to the Caribbean) should use their influence to widen support for this proposal, especially among OAS countries close to the Maduro government.

In addition, the EU, with regional governments in the lead, should develop a concerted response and attempt to bring Russia and China on board insofar as they have greater leverage over Caracas and hold large quantities of Venezuelan debt. Involvement by either or both of these countries in a plan to avert violence and promote genuine negotiations would have a major positive impact. On 16 July, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos reportedly sought Cuban government support for a regional plan to resolve the crisis. As Venezuela’s closest ally, Cuba is in a unique position to influence the outcome, and Santos’ initiative should be supported by the EU and member states.

The EU should make plain that free and fair elections and the restoration of constitutional rule are essential pre-requisites for normal relations.

As an immediate response, the EU and the wider international community should assist front-line states in dealing with the humanitarian and security consequences of the crisis. Colombia, with its delicate post-conflict situation, is highly vulnerable to refugee flows, possible border clashes if the Caracas government seeks an external distraction, and increased activity of non-state armed groups. Although the Venezuelan government has consistently rejected humanitarian aid, some NGOs have been permitted to provide small-scale humanitarian assistance on condition it is not publicised. The EU should seek ways to facilitate this process even as it continues to press publicly for aid to be allowed in.

The EU should make plain that free and fair elections and the restoration of constitutional rule are essential pre-requisites for normal relations as well as for emergency financial support. The EU and member states also should be prepared to offer advice and technical assistance to a transitional government, should one be set up. There is no quick fix for the multi-layered crisis Venezuela is facing. But inaction is no longer an option.