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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An extremely personalised political regime has been replaced by an unpredictable collection of group and even individual interests.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

Cuyuní River from the plane between Georgetown and the Etheringbang airstrip. CRISISGROUP/Bram Ebus

Troubled Waters along the Guyana-Venezuela Border

Gold and migrants stream across the stretch of the Cuyuní river that marks the Guyana-Venezuela border. Guerrillas and criminal organisations control much of the flow. Their turf wars are already spilling over and could intensify if foreign powers intervene to topple Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

Just outside Etheringbang, a tiny Guyanese outpost in the jungle on the Venezuelan border, the Cuyuní river that separates Guyana from Venezuela winds through banks thick with undergrowth. On the northern side, locals tell me, lies a camp for Colombian guerrillas living some 700km away from their homes, while other armed groups also operate nearby. From my vantage point by the water I cannot discern the camp, but I do see three men dressed in black – one carrying a large-calibre firearm – standing in a small clearing. I keep a safe distance and watch as a passenger boat putters by and the men in black demand that the captain stop. It is the first of a series of checkpoints – this one manned by the guerrillas, another by criminal gang members and a third by Venezuelan security forces – where passing boats submit to extortion before reaching the gold mines further along the river.

Etheringbang sits on the western edge of the Essequibo region, 160,000 square kilometres of nearly impenetrable rainforest. Along with an offshore oil field, Essequibo is the subject of a territorial dispute between Guyana and Venezuela, predating the former country’s independence from Britain in 1966 and now pending before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. But to the Guyanese authorities, that legal battle is a less immediate concern than their frequent skirmishes with the illicit profit seekers who work along the Cuyuní.

The river snakes through landscapes filled with lush vegetation but overrun by criminal enterprises.

The river snakes through landscapes filled with lush vegetation but overrun by criminal enterprises, primarily in illegal gold mining and human trafficking. The latter business is fuelled by the crisis in Venezuela, where government and opposition are slugging it out amid an economic catastrophe that is producing mass emigration, including to Guyana.

Even though Washington has seemingly dialed back its bellicosity toward Caracas, senior military officers in the Guyanan capital Georgetown worry about the possibility of a foreign military intervention to topple the government of President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas. An army major tells me about his concern that intervention could push various non-state armed actors now sheltering in Venezuela into Guyana. These actors would likely include members of the Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN), guerilla opponents of the government in Bogotá who have long been in Venezuela, but have expanded their presence in the past three years and aligned with Maduro in the face of the international pressure upon him to step down. They would also include organised crime groups known as sindicatos that feed off the explosion of the illicit economy in Venezuela’s mining regions.

On his smartphone the major flips through pictures of armed men he says are now active on the border, taken from social media accounts. Foreign intervention, in the major’s words, could spark the “synchronisation of all Venezuelan criminal elements” as they push into Guyana. Even absent an intervention, the complex and violent dynamics among the groups sparring to control Venezuela’s mineral wealth are already pushing armed actors over the border into this small Caribbean state with only 3,500 men under arms.

Streets of Gold

It is hard to overstate the remoteness of Etheringbang.

It is hard to overstate the remoteness of Etheringbang or how far it seems from the authorities in Georgetown. The town doesn’t appear on many maps. The small aircraft that I take to the outpost carries four other people – a Guyanese miner and two Venezuelan women accompanied by a man. The other seven seats are stacked with vegetables and mining equipment.

Throughout the 90-minute flight from Georgetown, our plane never climbs above the clouds, giving us an unrivalled view of the rainforest. Some distance to the right of our flight path is the site of Jonestown, where an infamous mass suicide by a fanatical U.S. sect claimed over 900 lives in 1978. Every few minutes, a patch of brown appears in the green vastness, pitted with pools of stagnant water, sometimes stretching along a dried-out riverbed or creek. These are the scars of gold mining, a major driver of environmental degradation in the Amazon basin.

After making a sharp turn above Venezuela, our plane heads for an unpaved airstrip, an ochre scratch in the verdant carpet below. Next to our landing spot is an office of Guyana’s Geology and Mines Commission and another building shared by the local police and a single migration officer.

Etheringbang, which is a one street town by the Cuyuní River. You can't find Etheringbang on google maps, but it's located across San Martín de Turumbán, which lies on the Venezuelan side of the Cuyuní. CRISISGROUP/Bram Ebus

Etheringbang has no mayor. The town is not much more than one unpaved street along the Cuyuní, lined with nightclubs, brothels and restaurants as well as humble convenience stores and a few palm trees. Around 8pm, reggaeton starts blasting through the wooden dance palaces’ speakers, drowning out the generators growling along the riverbank.

The main currency in Etheringbang is gold.

The main currency in Etheringbang is gold. At the convenience stores, the prices are even denominated in it – 0.2g for a big jar of Nescafé, 0.3g for peanut butter. The town is far from any bank dispensing Guyanese dollars; the more readily available Venezuelan bolívar is nearly worthless, given the hyperinflation across the river.

Twice a day, in the morning and at the end of the afternoon, a few police officers take a tour of town. They walk down the main street in shorts and flip-flops, sporting machine guns. On my second day in town, as I browse a convenience store’s wares, I meet the police chief, who wears dark sunglasses after twilight, a thick gold necklace, watch and wristband, and a ring with a big Mercedes-Benz logo. He greets me suspiciously, and his body language tells me that he has no interest in conversation.

Tied up outside the store, dozens of motorised canoes cluttered with empty plastic oil barrels float on the Cuyuní’s calm waters. The men who operate these improvised riverine fuel trucks are temporarily out of work because fuel supplies from Venezuela have been paralysed. The collapse of the Venezuelan oil industry due to the country’s political and economic implosion, exacerbated by U.S. oil sanctions imposed in January, halted the flow of both oil and gasoline across the border. Deprived of Venezuelan fuel, a main prop of the local economy, Etheringbang’s people are left with just a few means of survival: gold mining, work in the music-blaring bars and the sex industry.

Migration and Exploitation

There are more than 36,000 Venezuelans in Guyana, a country of 780,000. Some are refugees who have come themselves; others are victims of human trafficking. The Cuyuní is one of three major migration routes from Venezuela into Guyana. From San Martin de Turumbán, the Venezuelan town nearest to Etheringbang, migrants and refugees cross the river, which demarcates the border for a 100km stretch before curving inland. They can reach Guyanese cities after three days by boat.

The second route goes through Brazil, traversing Roraima state and its capital Boa Vista, and entering Guyana through a village called Lethem. A bus then takes the migrants and refugees on an eighteen-hour drive through the jungle to Georgetown. Guyanese media warn of corrupt police officers “shaking down” foreigners on this route and demanding cash or gold payments at checkpoints. I ask a local NGO employee working with refugees if the shakedowns are frequent. “It is the rule”, she answers. A representative of the International Organization of Migration confirms that extortion is common at checkpoints.

The third means of entry is by sea. In one of the places where the boats arrive, the town of Mabaruma near the border, hundreds of Venezuelan refugees sleep on the streets, as the Guyanese police have barred them from travelling further. Since a ferry bearing some 140 Venezuelans arrived in Georgetown in May 2019, the authorities have tried to halt the influx of migrants into the capital.

On any given day, Etheringbang itself hosts over 500 people who mostly do not live in town.

On any given day, Etheringbang itself hosts over 500 people who mostly do not live in town, according to a local doctor’s estimate. Most of them are Venezuelans, of whom many are female sex workers. The other temporary residents come to town to rest, buy supplies or look for entertainment after weeks or even months of hard labour in the mining pits scattered nearby.

Juliette (not her real name) is a 22-year-old mother of two from Caracas. Five months have passed since she arrived in Etheringbang. Before then, she worked in the illegal gold mines of Bolívar state, Venezuela, which she left after contracting malaria. She then spent time as a migrant in Colombia before she returned to Venezuela and eventually crossed into Guyana.

“Survival sex” is the term that local sex workers give their occupation. Each client used to pay her about one gram of gold, but because of the fuel shortages clients now tend to pay 0.5g or less. “It barely covers room and board”, Juliette complains. She is three days late with her rent, and may be unable to send money home to her kids.

Etheringbang, which is a one street town by the Cuyuní River. Most inhabitants are Venezuelan sex workers and Guyanese miners. CRISISGROUP/Bram Ebus

“This Constant Threat”

The roots of this border outpost’s burdens and challenges – the population influx, the sublimation of legal currency to gold, the police venality, the prostitution – lie in the southern Venezuelan states of Bolívar and Amazonas, which border Brazil and Colombia, as well as Guyana. In 2016, President Maduro’s government, seeking to compensate for the country’s severe economic contraction, designated a massive area in these states for extraction of gold, coltan, diamonds, rare earths and other valuable minerals, branding it the Orinoco Mining Arc. Foreign investors have generally steered clear of the initiative, but non-state armed groups, often in cahoots with local security forces, have expanded their reach across these territories and captured much of the mineral wealth. In so doing, they have exploited the stream of migrant workers fleeing the desperate lack of economic opportunity elsewhere in Venezuela.

In Venezuela’s mines, Colombian guerrillas, above all the ELN, and, to a lesser extent, dissidents from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (whose main body demobilised in 2016) clash for control with Venezuelan sindicatos. Their firefights have pushed the latter – as well as many ordinary Venezuelans looking to make a living – toward the disputed border with Guyana.

To ward off intruders, Guyanese soldiers are deployed deep in the jungle, but they tend to avoid actions that might lead to escalation with any potential foe. “They do not want to rock the boat”, explains a Guyanese entrepreneur, who owns a mine close to Venezuela. He crosses the Cuyuní with drums of fuel, equipment and food for his workers, navigating the three checkpoints along the way. All are armed with rifles while the guerrillas also carry grenades, he says. “We have this constant threat”, he adds, referring to the various armed actors situated along the border.

The expanding violence in southern Venezuela has already spilled across the river. In November 2018, a Guyanese policeman in a boat was shot from the Venezuelan bank of the Cuyuní. Sindicatos attacked Guyanese mining camps in January, and one of their members was killed in the shoot-out.

Containing the Risks of Violence

Authorities in Guyana are hard-pressed to contain the risks lurking in the beautiful rainforest that surrounds Etheringbang. The border with Venezuela is distant from the capital and hard for state institutions to reach. Guyanans tend to agree that the solution for Etheringbang’s problems lies not in Georgetown but in Caracas – and in hopes for a political settlement that could end Venezuela’s economic freefall and allow the state to wrest control back from armed actors that prey on the region’s population. Conversely, any attempt to end Venezuela’s political showdown by force, whether a coup attempt or foreign intervention, could have disastrous consequences for Guyana’s security.

Life along the Cuyuní ebbs and flows according to the state of the criminal economy.

In the meantime, life along the Cuyuní ebbs and flows according to the state of the criminal economy. Back in Georgetown, I swap messages with a mine owner I met in Etheringbang. Without fuel to run his operations his business is languishing. But a few weeks later, word arrives that fuel is coming in to the outpost again. Straight away, he boards a plane back to the jungle. The wheels of Etheringbang are spinning once more – the mines are up and running, gold is moving along the river and parties are raging at night on the southern bank.

Etheringbang, which is a one street town by the Cuyuní River. You can't find Etheringbang on google maps, but it's located across San Martín de Turumbán, which lies on the Venezuelan side of the Cuyuní. CRISISGROUP/Bram Ebus