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

Violence and Politics in Venezuela

Crime and violence seriously threaten Venezuela’s medium and long-term stability, regardless of whether or not President Hugo Chávez retains power in the 2012 election.

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Executive Summary

Every half hour, a person is killed in Venezuela. The presence of organised crime combined with an enormous number of firearms in civilian hands and impunity, as well as police corruption and brutality, have entrenched violence in society. While such problems did not begin with President Hugo Chávez, his government has to account for its ambiguity towards various armed groups, its inability or unwillingness to tackle corruption and criminal complicity in parts of the security forces, its policy to arm civilians “in defence of the revolution”, and – last but not least – the president’s own confrontational rhetoric. Positive steps such as constructive engagement with Colombia as well as some limited security reform do not compensate for these failures. While the prospect of presidential elections in 2012 could postpone social explosion, the deterioration of the president’s health has added considerable uncertainty. In any event, the degree of polarisation and militarisation in society is likely to undermine the chances for either a non-violent continuation of the current regime or a peaceful transition to a post-Chávez era.

A significant part of the problem was inherited from previous administrations. In 1999, the incoming President Chávez was faced with a country in which homicide rates had tripled in less than two decades, and many institutions were in the process of collapse, eroded by corruption and impunity. During the “Bolivarian revolution”, however, these problems have become substantially worse. Today, more than ten people are murdered on the streets of Caracas every day – the majority by individual criminals, members of street gangs or the police themselves – while kidnapping and robbery rates are soaring. By attributing the problem to “social perceptions of insecurity”, or structural causes, such as widespread poverty, inherited from past governments, the government is downplaying the magnitude and destructive extent of criminal violence. The massive, but temporary, deployment of security forces in highly visible operations, and even police reform and disarmament programs, will have little impact if they are not part of an integrated strategy to reduce crime, end impunity and protect citizens.

The presence of international organised crime groups is also nothing new, but there is evidence of increased activity during the past decade that in turn has contributed not only to the rise in homicides, kidnappings and extortion rates, but also to a growth in micro drug trafficking, making poor and urban neighbourhoods more violent. Venezuela has become a major drug trafficking corridor, and different groups, including Colombian guerrillas, paramilitaries and their successors, have been joined by mafia gangs from Mexico and elsewhere in benefiting from widespread corruption and complicity on the part of security forces, some of it seemingly tolerated by individuals in the highest spheres of government.

The government has displayed a particular ambiguity toward non-state armed groups that sympathise with its political project. Urban “colectivos” combining political and criminal activities, including armed actions against opposition targets, operate largely unchallenged and with broad impunity. The Bolivarian Liberation Forces have established control over parts of the border with Colombia, while the FARC and ELN guerrillas from the other side have long found shelter and aid on Venezuelan soil. In the context of the rapprochement between Presidents Chávez and Santos, the cost-benefit ratio behind the unacknowledged alliance between Colombian guerrillas and the Venezuelan government appears to have changed. However, it is still too early to be certain whether the government is willing and able to translate positive commitments and some initial promising steps into effective, sustainable action against such groups.

Violence and corruption have been facilitated by a steady process of institutional erosion that has become particularly manifest in the justice system and the security forces. While impunity levels soar, highly dysfunctional and abusive police have endangered citizen security. Heavily politicised, the armed forces are increasingly seen as part of the problem, enmeshed with organised crime and pressed by the president to commit themselves to the partisan defence of his “revolution”. The creation, arming and training of pro-governmental militias further increase the danger that political differences may ultimately be settled outside the constitutional framework, through deadly force.

In this highly charged environment, political violence has so far remained more a latent threat than a reality. However, as the country heads into what promises to be a fiercely contested presidential election, with very high stakes for both sides, this fragile equilibrium may not hold. Moreover, uncertainties provoked by the president’s illness have compounded short- and medium-term prospects. The greatest danger is likely to come after the election, regardless of who wins, since the entrenched levels of violence are prone to undermine either peaceful regime continuity, hand-over to a successor or any transitional arrangement. Moreover, whatever the political complexion of a future government, the extensive presence of organised crime networks is likely to seriously threaten medium- and long-term stability. The necessary actions to avoid that scenario must begin with a commitment by all sides to peaceful constitutional means of conflict resolution and with effective government measures to disarm and dismantle criminal structures, restore the rule of law and root out corruption in state institutions.

Bogotá/Brussels, 17 August 2011

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.