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

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: “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.