Venezuela: In a Hole, and Still Digging

Venezuela: In a Hole, and Still Digging

Phil Gunson

Senior Analyst, Andes

International Crisis Group

Images of the bloodied face of Venezuelan opposition MP Juan Requesens, a vicious, diagonal gash across his left temple, graphically conveyed in recent days the lengths to which the government of President Nicolás Maduro appears prepared to go in order to stay in power. Requesens needed more than 50 stitches after an attack by government supporters during a protest over the decision by the Supreme Court (TSJ) to assume all legislative powers. Although later partially reversed, the ruling in late March by the government-controlled Supreme Court caused dismay across Latin America, and triggered long-awaited moves by Venezuela’s regional neighbours to get tough over its increasingly undemocratic behaviour.

Life is hard for the 112 members of parliament from the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) coalition, who form a clear majority in the National Assembly. Just trying to walk with supporters to the assembly can get you beaten, tear-gassed or pepper-sprayed. Several have had their passports annulled: two members of the foreign affairs commission had to cross the Colombian border on foot, without passports, on their way to a session of the Organization of American States’ Permanent Council in Washington late last month. The Supreme Court has recommended opposition members be court-martialed for treason and one MP is already facing a military tribunal. If that weren’t enough, they receive no pay because the government, which claims the parliamentary leadership is in contempt of previous Supreme Court rulings, regards the legislature as illegitimate and has cut its funding.

On 1 April, Mercosur, the regional trading bloc from which Venezuela has already been suspended on technical grounds, voted to apply its “democracy clause” – known as the Ushuaia Protocol – which provides for joint action in the event of a breakdown of democracy in a member state. Two days later the Organization of American States (OAS) passed a resolution declaring a “breakdown of constitutional order” in Venezuela and exhorting the government to restore democracy.

The demands are the same as those made by the Vatican after a failed effort to facilitate talks in November: free political prisoners, who number over 100; restore the legislative and oversight functions of the National Assembly and the autonomy of the Supreme Court as well as of the electoral authority (CNE); call elections; and allow in humanitarian aid. The electoral authority last year blocked a recall referendum against Maduro and suspended elections for state governor. It has given no sign that these elections are to be held this year.

The president and other government officials have responded with insults and accusations of a Washington-inspired plot to put a stop to their “socialist revolution”. Far from restoring democracy, the government last week barred one of the MUD’s top leaders, former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, from standing for office for the next fifteen years. But their defiance cannot conceal the grave difficulties they face. Not only is their international support dwindling but their grip on power seems less solid than it did just a few weeks ago. Even some longstanding allies, such as Spain’s Podemos party, have found it hard to maintain uncritical support, although the governments of Cuba and Bolivia, among others, have not wavered.

The U-turn over the Supreme Court decision came after the once-loyal Attorney General (fiscal general) Luisa Ortega Díaz stated in a live television broadcast, which was promptly taken off the air, that the Supreme Court had violated the constitution. Such explicit public dissent by a leading regime figure is unprecedented, and the fact that her view prevailed suggests she is not acting alone. The attorney general is the country’s chief prosecutor and Díaz has played a major role in putting leading dissidents behind bars. But since the opposition victory in the 2015 legislative elections she has moderated her stance, generating clashes with hardliners running the intelligence services.

There is speculation that Díaz’s intervention to prevent a further slide into outright dictatorship is viewed favourably by elements of the army. It would not be the first time that the Armed Forces intervened on the side of democracy. In December 2015 the high command ordered polling stations closed when the government was trying to keep them open in an after-hours bid to affect the election result. If Maduro is to stay in power purely through repression, at some point the army may be called onto the streets. This is a scenario military experts say would present officers with a major dilemma, since they are well aware of the danger of subsequent prosecutions for human rights abuses in the event of a change in government.

Maduro is trapped in an electoral maze of the regime’s own making. After years of using elections as plebiscites, confident that oil revenues and the charisma of the late strongman Hugo Chávez would always ensure victory, the government can now – with Chávez gone – neither muster the electoral support nor find a convincing reason not to hold a vote. And with foreign reserves at their lowest in over two decades and billions of dollars in debt payments due this year, it faces the prospect of defaulting or forcing Venezuelans to face even greater hardship from lack of food, medicines and other basic goods than they already are. Political turmoil has exacerbated an already critical financial situation. Many fear the president may use the alleged threat of foreign intervention to close down even the limited democratic space still available. Some government politicians have said they would mount armed resistance to any attempt to oust them from power. But it is unclear whether the army, on whose goodwill they depends, would accompany them down that road.

Dire though the prospects for Venezuela appear to be, the events of the past few weeks have clarified some issues. The OAS, under its activist Secretary General Luis Almagro, has been shown to be the key platform for applying international pressure. Its Inter-American Democratic Charter, which provides for diplomatic initiatives in the event of a breakdown of democracy, and in extreme cases the suspension of a member state, is no magic bullet. But it does offer a legitimate framework for action, having been ratified by all 34 active OAS member states. Almagro has taken the lead, arguing for suspension from the organisation and making even the U.S. appear moderate in comparison. The coalition of some 18-20 countries now backing a regional initiative to persuade the Maduro government to negotiate includes all the region’s most influential nations – Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Peru, as well as the U.S. It is not only Venezuela’s immediate neighbours who have an interest in seeing the crisis dealt with promptly. Mexico will be hosting the OAS General Assembly in June and does not want it wrecked by skirmishes over Venezuela. Curiously Washington – which on so many other issues is at odds with Mexico – is working closely with it on this issue.

Moreover, the Maduro government’s ability to use ever increasing repression to contain an ever more restive population is much less apparent than at the beginning of the year. In recent days, large demonstrations in Caracas and other cities have been met with tear gas, water-cannon and plastic bullets, as well as armed civilians on motorcycles, but crowds have often stood their ground. With opposition MPs leading from the front, enthusiasm for protests seems to have been restored after the doldrums of early 2017, although how long the MUD can keep up the pressure is uncertain.

The government has shown little inclination to compromise in negotiations with the opposition, and internal and external pressure has thus far been met with vows to intensify the “revolution”. It is significant that its only important climb-down of recent times – the U-turn over the Supreme Court rulings – was prompted by high-level, internal dissent. If the opposition, and those in the region pushing for a restoration of democracy, are prepared to negotiate a calendar of elections and a transitional arrangement for Maduro and other leading members of the regime should they lose power in these polls – which will necessarily include some form of immunity from prosecution – then it is possible the split between government hardliners and pragmatists could widen, and an agreement be reached. This would need to be brokered by an agreed cast of outside actors, possibly foreign ministers from neighbouring countries. A reappearance of the Vatican in a facilitation role might also be useful.

The alternative is ongoing social misery, with the lid kept on through military dictatorship. Or a collapse brought on most probably by a chaotic default on the foreign debt. Time is running out for a creative solution to the mess in Venezuela.

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Geopolitics, South America