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Venezuela: An Opportunity That Should Be Seized
Venezuela: An Opportunity That Should Be Seized

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

The president of the National Assembly, Jorge Rodriguez (C-top) swears in the new authorities of the National Electoral Council (CNE), during a special session at the National Assembly, in Caracas. 4 May 2021. Federico PARRA / AFP

Venezuela: An Opportunity That Should Be Seized

A series of gestures from Caracas suggests that President Nicolás Maduro’s government might be more willing to negotiate with rivals and enact partial reforms. Washington should respond in kind with phased sanctions relief and diplomatic gestures that can be reversed if Venezuela backslides.

On 4 May, Venezuela’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National Assembly, swore in a new electoral authority, two of whose five principal members are from the opposition. It was perhaps the most significant of a series of gestures by President Nicolás Maduro’s government over the past two weeks. While nothing suggests that Maduro is ready to make concessions that might threaten his grip on power, his recent moves do signal a willingness to negotiate and might provide a rare opportunity to temper a crisis that has brought the Venezuelan economy to its knees and caused Latin America’s worst humanitarian emergency. Reciprocal moves from foreign powers opposed to Maduro are necessary to ensure that this chance, however slim, is not missed. Washington is best placed to make comparably conciliatory moves by offering modest relief from the sanctions it has imposed and initiating low-profile diplomatic contacts to assess the odds of further progress.

These moves represent partial responses to demands laid down by the U.S.

Several other developments preceded the new election rectors’ appointment. The first came on 19 April, when Caracas finally signed a long-awaited agreement with the World Food Program, granting the agency access to the country to attend to the dire and growing child malnutrition crisis. The second occurred on 30 April, when the chavista government released six imprisoned oil executives from Venezuela’s Houston-based Citgo corporation – five of whom hold U.S. citizenship – into house arrest. A day later, the country’s chief prosecutor Tarek William Saab took a third step, announcing charges against low-ranking officials in three high-profile political killings for which the government had hitherto denied any responsibility. These moves represent partial responses to demands laid down by the U.S. and other external allies of the opposition movement led by former National Assembly chair Juan Guaidó, who since 2019 has asserted a claim to the “interim presidency” of the country.

The changes to Venezuela’s National Electoral Council, or CNE, by its Spanish acronym, were the most significant concession yet. Chavista domination of the CNE has been crucial to the government’s campaign to shut down any and all electoral threats. It ultimately led to the standoff with Guaidó and pushed many other opposition figures into exile. Opposition parties mostly boycotted parliamentary elections in early December 2020 – as they had the presidential contest in 2018 – and the small number that took part in the poll, some of them mere appendages of the government, obtained only twenty seats in a 277-seat Assembly. Even today, conditions for the opposition remain forbidding. Despite the new rectors, the electoral playing field remains deeply skewed in Maduro’s favour. Still, permitting a more balanced electoral authority marks a tentative step toward restoration of political competition.

For Maduro, greater opposition representation on the CNE could have benefits. First, this year’s elections, due in December, are local and regional, so there is less at stake for the president in any case. Moreover, he can sell the CNE deal to his own supporters as opposition recognition of government institutions and a strategy for reducing Venezuela’s international isolation. 

News of the reformed electoral board has divided opposition ranks. Even before Maduro announced the new CNE line-up, the alliance headed by Guaidó had rejected it as illegitimate. Its stance has not changed since, despite the two new opposition rectors’ strong credentials. (One is an experienced politician and former deputy chair of the Assembly; the other is a systems engineer whose role as an opposition elections expert was so important that the government jailed him for six months in 2017.) The opposition alliance maintains that the Guaidó-led parliament, a rump of which continues to meet, is the only body with the power to approve a new CNE. Guaidó himself, whom Washington recognises as the country’s legitimate president, blasted the appointment via Twitter, saying it would “drag the country toward a greater disaster”. 

Others take a different view. Notable among them is two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who, prior to the December elections, made fruitless efforts, with EU backing, to negotiate conditions that would allow his party to take part. Together with other opposition politicians, some of whom prefer for now to remain anonymous, Capriles rejects the “all-or-nothing” approach of Guaidó and his party, Voluntad Popular, which is led by the exiled Leopoldo López and has campaigned without success for Maduro’s immediate overthrow. Support for the new electoral board is also strong among regional and municipal politicians and party activists, especially those in opposition-held states and municipalities, who fear oblivion if the policy of boycotting elections is maintained. The issue threatens to fracture several parties, and could even lead to a formal split in the opposition coalition as a whole, which would also favour the government.

Venezuelan civil society is increasingly emerging as a significant, autonomous force.

Another important element in this complex equation is Venezuelan civil society, which is increasingly emerging as a significant, autonomous force, committed to a negotiated resolution of the country’s protracted political crisis. Four of the fifteen CNE members (the five principal rectors plus ten reserve members) appointed on 4 May were proposed by groups linked to the recently launched Foro Cívico, which brings together NGOs, trade unions, the main employers’ federation, professional syndicates, faith-based organisations and others. The Foro has played a role not only in the CNE negotiations but also in pushing for agreement between the government and opposition on importing COVID-19 vaccines, seeking economic reforms and setting up mechanisms for attending to the humanitarian emergency. Broadly speaking, the Foro leaders support a more conciliatory approach, along the lines of that promoted by Capriles, seeking areas where they can engage the government to alleviate ordinary Venezuelans’ suffering. 

Yet it is Washington’s response that is most keenly awaited. Under President Donald Trump the U.S. pursued a “maximum pressure” policy toward Venezuela, on the assumption that external action, particularly in the form of severe economic and financial sanctions and diplomatic isolation, would force the Maduro government to step down and accede to free elections. That approach failed. President Joe Biden came to office committed to a more pragmatic stance, but for various reasons related largely to the attention given to other pressing concerns – notably the pandemic and migrants at the southern U.S. border – little beyond the rhetoric has changed to date. Washington has demanded “concrete measures” from Maduro if it is to relax sanctions. It must now decide whether the gestures by Caracas merit a response in kind.

All the Venezuelan government’s steps thus far are political gambits; they are tentative and reversible; and, again, in themselves they do not create conditions for credible polls or in any way jeopardise Maduro’s hold on power. On the key question of election conditions, the opposition presence on the new CNE is only a start, albeit a promising one. Much more is needed. The government must legalise opposition parties, for example, most of which are barred from electoral participation and some of which have seen their names and assets transferred to minority, pro-government factions. The electoral authorities need to thoroughly audit voter lists. Most importantly, the Maduro government will also have to scale down its apparatus of state repression if it wishes to convince the U.S., the EU and its neighbours of its good faith.

Still, given the gridlock in Venezuela’s political standoff and the country’s appalling humanitarian suffering, outside powers should respond to and seek to encourage any signs of movement. Crisis Group has argued for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of sanctions that inflict humanitarian harm alongside a phased lifting of other punitive measures in response to the gradual restoration of civil and political rights. The most obvious and pressing humanitarian need is for a restoration of permits to allow Venezuela to swap crude oil for diesel, of which there is a critical shortage. Diesel is vital, among other things, for food production and distribution. The U.S. could also consider steps like renewing licences and lifting sanctions that prohibit certain activities by U.S. and other foreign oil companies, with the understanding that these steps could be reversed if Caracas backtracks or fails to make further progress.

Also important is that Washington and Caracas set up channels of communication, either direct or through third parties, so that each can correctly interpret the other’s moves. Biden will pay a political cost for any easing of pressure on Maduro, with no likely immediate return. U.S. politicians are naturally – and perhaps increasingly – reluctant to incur the hostility of the Venezuela lobby in their country. The Maduro government will have to factor in that reality, just as Washington will need to take into account the difficulty the Venezuelan president may have in selling any rapprochement to his own coalition. Contact would allow each side to feel its way with more confidence.

The worst thing the U.S. could do now is to sit on its hands and await further concessions without any corresponding move on its part.

The worst thing the U.S. could do now is to sit on its hands and await further concessions without any corresponding move on its part. Such a course would strengthen the hand of those in the Venezuelan government who argue that however much they concede, Washington is interested only in getting rid of Maduro. It may well be that the Venezuelan president has no intention of going further, but the only way to find out is to engage in a process of gradual, reciprocal change. The ball is in Washington’s court.