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Final Curtain for Venezuela’s Democracy as Parliament is Dissolved
Final Curtain for Venezuela’s Democracy as Parliament is Dissolved

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

Opposition supporters confront riot security forces with a sign that reads "No to constituent assembly, yes to food and medicines" while rallying against President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, on 12 May 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Final Curtain for Venezuela’s Democracy as Parliament is Dissolved

The Venezuelan government has dissolved the elected, opposition-led parliament and initiated de facto rule. Foreign governments and multilateral organisations should regard all government actions carried out in contravention of the 1999 constitution as invalid and press the government to take urgent steps toward the restoration of democracy.

On 19 August, Venezuela’s self-styled Constituent Assembly, installed two weeks earlier by the government of President Nicolás Maduro, announced that it was taking over the functions of the country’s opposition-led parliament, elected in December 2015. Although the government insists it has not dissolved the legislature, that is a mere technicality. Ever since the opposition Democratic Unity coalition took over, parliament has been prevented by the government-controlled Supreme Court (TSJ) from exercising its constitutional functions. Now it has been formally stripped of all its powers.

The Constituent Assembly’s move effaces any lingering pretence that Venezuela remains a democracy. Without a single seat in the assembly, the opposition movement has no meaningful foothold in national institutions and is subject to increasing judicial and police harassment. The assembly’s 545 members appear to be there solely to approve by acclamation any government proposal, since there have been no actual debates.

An unfettered and unpopular government is likely to further exacerbate the political violence and emigration flows of recent months.

Venezuela’s increasingly grave crisis – whose effects are felt not only in disappearing civil liberties but also in growing poverty, hunger, disease and crime – can only be resolved through a negotiated restoration of democracy. An unfettered and unpopular government is likely to further exacerbate the political violence and emigration flows of recent months. Preventing this will require outside mediation, and will almost inevitably involve the establishment of a transitional regime with international guarantors. No “winner-take-all” scenario, whether it be a coup d’état or a general election, is either plausible or likely to produce a stable outcome.

For now, the chavista government holds absolute power, unrestricted by any judicial or parliamentary checks and balances. The president called the 30 July elections in contravention of a constitutional requirement that the electorate first decide whether such an assembly should be convened. The opposition then boycotted the vote amid a surge of anti-government protest marches across the country that were met with violent repression. Although the government claimed that over eight million of the country’s twenty million voters took part, independent estimates suggest a figure of around half that. The opposition claimed more than seven million rejected the proposal in an informal poll it mounted on 16 July.

A so-called Commission for Truth, Justice, Peace and Public Tranquillity, installed by the assembly, is charged with investigating the violence that took more than 120 lives during four months of opposition-led protests prior to 30 July. But the commission’s one-sided nature, and the government’s statements on the issue, make it clear that the aim is to pin blame for the bloodshed on the opposition and even to charge and imprison its leaders for allegedly inciting violence. Human rights organisations have reported that witness testimony and other evidence shows government security forces and their associated civilian gunmen were to blame in most cases.

The government has said any opposition politicians seeking to stand in forthcoming regional elections will need a certificate of good conduct from the assembly stating that they did not take part in violence. Together with other actions, such as arbitrarily banning the most popular opposition leaders and either jailing others or forcing them into exile, this will enable the government to compete only against candidates of its own choosing. The government-controlled election authority has violated the law by scheduling or suspending elections according to the political convenience of the ruling party and has – with the help of the TSJ – cancelled or denied the registration of many parties, preventing them from participating.

At the same time, the assembly has targeted the main source of dissent from within the government: the public prosecution service (fiscalía). Attorney General Luisa Ortega had become an acerbic critic of the government and was investigating senior figures for corruption and human rights abuses. Ortega and her husband, a dissident MP from the government party, fled to Colombia on 18 August after she was unconstitutionally removed from office in the assembly’s first resolution. Both have been threatened with prosecution.

As [the Venezuelan government] has become more unpopular, it has simply cancelled free and fair elections and persecuted those who object.

The Venezuelan government has for many years openly defied the principles of democracy and human rights on which the Inter-American system is based. As it has become more unpopular, it has simply cancelled free and fair elections and persecuted those who object. The region is bound by its own rules and morally obligated to act. That does not mean intervening with military force – a possibility mooted by U.S. President Trump, but resisted across the region – nor should it involve economic sanctions, such as on the oil trade, which would inflict further pain on an already suffering population while allowing the government to pose as a victim. It does mean insisting that the prerogatives of parliament be respected and declaring invalid any government actions that usurp the parliament’s constitutional powers.

To negotiate the restoration of democracy, it will be essential not only to raise the cost of consolidating dictatorship but also to lower the cost of relinquishing power by offering the government credible guarantees that its members will not face witch-hunts and that their rights will be respected.

The region should build on the initiative launched on 8 August by the twelve Latin American nations that signed the Lima Declaration, which included a proposal to deny support for Venezuelan candidates for international organisations and ban arms sales to the country. It should also support the formation of a “contact group” whose purpose would be to bring the Venezuelan government and opposition to the table for substantive negotiations leading to a democratic transition. The group should comprise both allies and adversaries of the Venezuelan government. The governments of key allies Cuba, Russia and China, although potentially reluctant to take part in such an initiative, should not stand in its way. The contact group should at the least hold informal talks with all three with a view to addressing their respective concerns.

It is likely that the Venezuelan crisis will exceed the capacity of regional bodies to contain and address it. The Secretary-General of the UN should take steps to prepare for the possibility that the various components of the UN will be called upon to assist. He should initiate the process of appointing a special envoy to engage with those seeking a solution, as well as preparing the UN Country Team in Venezuela for a possible role in mediation and activating mechanisms to deal with the humanitarian emergency that is already taking shape.

There is no quick fix for the Venezuelan crisis, but while pushing for a negotiated solution the international community must also deal with its immediate impact. That means aiding neighbouring countries that are trying to cope with a refugee exodus (above all Colombia), providing support and solidarity for human rights and democracy activists on the ground and seeking creative ways to alleviate the hunger, malnutrition and disease that increasingly afflict the population. The government’s persistent refusal to engage with its critics, both domestically and internationally, must not become an excuse for inaction.