Venezuela on the way to crucial political turning points

“...Maduro has survived a storm of economic and political attacks, including the countless appeals that the highest U.S. government officials (...) have issued in favor of a military uprising.”

This article is part of the series América Latina y el Caribe 2021.

The tendency to appraise Latin American and Caribbean politics on the basis of “progressive cycles”, “end of cycle”, “the right fights back”, etc., fails to account for the problems, movements and confluences facing the region and their deeply rooted causes, characteristics and conflicts. Aware that it’s too important to ignore what is happening in this shared geopolitical space, Catalejo has asked a number of scholars, most of whom live in those countries and subregions, to make a critical analysis of their national and international context. To what extent can we understand, reasonably and realistically and without wearing ideological glasses, the much-mentioned impact of the pandemic, the ongoing electoral processes, and the social and political unrest in their midst, based on their current issues and their short- and medium-term trends? As usual, admission is free.

Puede leer aquí la versión en español de este artículo.

For almost two years of failed policies to overthrow the Maduro government and enforce Juan Guaidó’s alleged interim presidency, the Trump Administration always had the concurrent and recurrent goal of cutting the ties of economic cooperation between Venezuela and Cuba. However, Maduro has survived a storm of economic and political attacks, including the countless appeals that the highest U.S. officials (Trump, Pompeo, Bolton, Abrams, Rubio, Claver-Carone and others) have issued in favor of a military uprising. How to explain such a failure, given the power that the U.S. and its allies have unleashed on Caracas and their use of every means of pressure, with the exception so far of a direct military intervention? At times Washington has shown signs of a possible change of its Venezuela policy and the Guaidó alternative. Regarding Cuba, the target of as many attacks and pressures in the same period, its failed attempts are no less resounding.

Nevertheless, the shaping of two tendencies quite likely to be aimed at a more constructive approach is already noticeable and bound to make the stance taken by the U.S. and its allies in our hemisphere and the European Unionwho went along with it in January 2019increasingly untenable. These closely interacting tendencies hint at very different perspectives from the ones which have hitherto prevailed.

They both start from the same premise, namely the probable victory of the Democrat Joe Biden in the U.S. elections. According to a first tendency, made clear in recent comments, Biden seems to be still dragging along a certain legacy of blaming Cuba for everything that happens in Venezuela, in collusion with China and Russia. By this logic, any improvement in U.S.-Cuba relations would be subject to the latter giving up its links with Venezuela if it wishes to resume its journey towards normalization.

The second tendency, which sidesteps the premise that Havana renounces relations with Caracas, could lead the new Biden Administration to reconsider the U.S.’s present outlook on the Venezuelan crisis. The main reason would be that this crisis is taking a significant turn toward an agreed solution regarding the coming legislative elections of December 6 (6D), as stipulated in the country’s Constitution and promoted by Maduro’s Government since last year.

The interpretation of these signs as a herald of major changes in Venezuela’s crisis calls for an in-depth analysis. Since the start of discussions last year about the issue of parliamentary elections, Maduro’s Government met with the opposition’s unanimous rejection, especially amid the bloc headed by Parliament member Juan Guaidó and his “interim presidency”, an option which the U.S. fostered and supported since day one and forced its European and other allies to join. Together with the all-out economic war declared on the Venezuelan Government and repeated calls upon the armed forces to stage a coup d’état, this coordinated action promised a collapse in the short term. It was all fruitless and useless.

Important reconsiderations have taken place at this juncture. Composed of tens of minor and very small parties with one or two deputies and other groups, the opposition is dominated by four main ones: Primero Justicia [Justice First] (33 deputies), Acción Democrática [Democratic Action] (25), Un Nuevo Tiempo [A New Era] (18) and Voluntad Popular [Popular Will] (14). This bloc is starting to break up into a range of various conflicting tendencies, more and more of which are admitting the constant failures of Guaidó and his supporters in and out of the Voluntad Popular party and the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition. They are challenging his leadership, eroded after two years of unending defeats, including the failed attempt at a coup d’état on April 30 this year.

In late August, the pollster Hinterlaces revealed that Guaidó had a 72% approval rating. By September, as foreign correspondents in the field revealed, “Guaidó’s attrition is gaining speed”. Along the same lines, a specialized columnist of the Bloomberg chain pointed out that in 2019 Guaidó and his projects had a 63% approval rating, whereas by September this year the figure was down to 25.5%. Talking with a subtle irony, opposition leader Henrique Capriles described Guaidó’s supposed “interim government” as “government on the Internet.”

However, nothing of the above involves minimizing the fact that Guaidó still enjoys the backing of tens of opposition factions, in addition to the U.S.-led international support monopoly.

The initial change of direction in Venezuela’s crisis started from an unexpected actor, given its long-standing hostility toward Maduro’s Government: the Catholic Church. The Episcopal Conference released a statement underlining as a principle the idea that “Abstention is not enough”, a phrase intended to counter Guaidó’s call to abstention. In very clear words, the Conference declared itself in favor of the participation of all of the country’s political forces in the 6D elections. Such an uncommon episode stems from both the Church’s growing alarm at the social and political tension accumulated in these two years and the Episcopal Conference’s probable consultation with the Vatican, and between the latter and Washington.

Two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, a key figure of the party Primero Justicia and the Agreement for Change coalition, embraced this change, followed by Stalin González, Vice President of the present National Assembly and former leader of the political group A New Era (UNT), until recently one of Guaidó’s main allies in the MUD. Capriles summarizes his choice in the following terms: “We will not give the National Assembly to Maduro. I call on the country to mobilize”. 

Nevertheless, even within Capriles’s own party some leading figures like Julio Borges and Miguel Pizarro are still aligned with Guaidó. Acción Democrática (AD) [Democratic Action] is dealing with a similar situation: the official pro-abstention position currently represented by Henry Ramos Allup is locking horns with a faction in favor of electoral participation in the context of a new coalition, Democratic Alliance.

Having finished all the registration and candidacy arrangements in 24 States and eight constituencies of the country, Democratic Alliance is calling on people to vote. Established in early September as a higher stage of what functioned for some months of 2020 as the National Dialogue Table, it is made up of five parties: the historical and declining COPEI, El Cambio (a faction of the no less “historical” AD), Cambiemos, Esperanza para el Cambio and Avanzada Progresista. Its most visible heads, Johel Orta Moros (COPEI) and Javier Bertucci (El Cambio) have invited Capriles to join them, an offer that he has turned down so far.

The delirious and pro-US intervention extreme right, with fewer and fewer supporters, relies on the deputy María Corina Machado and her group Vente Venezuela, which Capriles has tagged as demented. After taking steps toward a possible alliance with Guaidó, Machado rejected his latest proposal of creating a new pro-abstention coalition known as Pacto Unitario, opposed to any agreement with the Venezuelan authorities.

Together with the appearance of Democratic Alliance and other minor events, the stance taken by Capriles and by the increasing number of his followers in favor of the Episcopate’s appeal largely undermine both all the pro-abstention options and the leading roles of Guaidó, Leopoldo López, María Corina Machado, Julio Borges, and Antonio Ledesma, among others.

The turn made by Capriles, Democratic Alliance and the other minor groups is based on the claim that their participation must be preceded by government guarantees of a successful 6D. Capriles, in particular, is adamant that the elections have the proper international supervision, especially by European Union observers. In this connection, he pointed out very recently that “Europe has a historic opportunity for Venezuela to regain democracy”. This statement comes in the wake of the invitation that Maduro’s Government issued weeks ago to the U.N. and the E.U. to take part as observers in the 6D elections.

Brussels’ participation is still contingent upon Maduro’s acceptance of an extension of the electoral deadlines and some other concessions to ensure greater transparency. Now the High Representative for Security and Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell is showing more willingness to participate than ever before, albeit insisting on the lack of sufficient time to put together a 6D observation mission and on the need to postpone the elections in order to start preparing it. The Spanish foreign affairs minister spoke in very similar terms in mid-September. Capriles, Stalin González and other figures who are in favor of or inclined to participate in 6D say that “this is the best option,” holding that they would boycott the elections if those international observers fail to come.

Since September, two events threaten to seriously hinder the possible results of the 6D election and the aforesaid probable changes of direction. The first one is a report of the working group of the Human Rights Council presided by the Chilean Michelle Bachelet on the situation in Venezuela. This report holds Maduro’s Government responsible for numerous crimes against its opponents, going as far as to label them crimes against humanity. The Venezuelan Government has rejected the report, but the E.U. has not commented on the matter.

For some years now, the attempts to overthrow Maduro’s Government have been marked by violence and quite a few deaths on both sides of the Venezuelan political spectrum, but there’s a great difference between that and the “crimes against humanity”. In either their criticism of or their demands to Maduro’s Government, none of the actors currently in favor of participation in the 6D elections (the Catholic Church, Capriles, Stalin González and all the others) have thought of adopting or endorsing such a thesis, as if Caracas were an Auschwitz of sorts. On the other hand, this report is an indirect response to Venezuela’s request for U.N. electoral observers.

Guaidó and his supporters have used the Human Rights Council report to try and make up for lost ground and gain some more support from the U.S. In this respect, the highest-ranking official of the Trump Administration in charge of Venezuelan affairs, Elliot Abrams, warned that postponing the parliamentary elections won’t be enough and kept insisting on the end of Maduro’s Government. Secretary of State Pompeo said the same thing during his brief tour of Suriname, Guyana and Colombia. In Europe, the German foreign affairs ministry echoed Abrams’ words and demands that Guaidó should take office, using a language typical of the beginning of last year.

The second event was fostered by the E.U. Venezuela Contact Group and some minor Latin American associates gathered in Brussels to discuss their possible participation as observers in the 6D elections. In its mid-September meeting right after the U.N. report, this Contact Group stated its position in the terms already announced by Borrell: the E.U. would deploy an observation mission if the country made “significant changes” to its electoral system and its deadlines, and suggested a postponement spanning the first semester of 2021. It is worth mentioning that, at least until now, the E.U. statement neither endorses nor refers to the U.N. report.

All of the above stands as a serious threat to the 6D elections and a big obstacle to the possibility of counting on a large participation of opposition sectors and the presence of U.N. and E.U. observers. Holding the elections without them would damage the election’s potential in terms of validation and legitimacy. It would be neither beneficial nor convenient to the Venezuelan Government that only Maduro’s supporters participated.

Even if so far Caracas has refused any postponement, the adverse pressure stemming from the U.N. report and the E.U.’s response could make [Maduro] reconsider in order to ensure both the participation of all the opposition forces who are hitherto willing to run and the presence of E.U. observers.

Objectively speaking, the days when the Chavismo won an overwhelming majority of votes are gone, especially after Chávez’s decease. The United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) has suffered ruptures, defections and decline. In fact, even if the current government is a partial reflection of Chavismo, this ideology represents much more today as a social and political movement and, diverse and disorganized as it may be, a huge electoral asset whose behavior in the coming parliamentary elections remains an unknown factor.

Many reasons explain the government’s decline. First of all, the economic debacle caused by the downfall of oil revenues since 2013, followed by the Trump Administration’s unprecedented economic aggression. Second, an ineffective economic management that resulted in enormous inflation, scarcity and many a few cases of all kinds of corruption in a country with huge natural resources (oil, gold, various minerals, fertile soil, etc.). Nowadays, many citizens find the gasoline shortage very hard to understand.

The government has also suffered the consequences of having lost the majority of seats in the National Assembly, the attempts to challenge the opposition majority by creating a Government-run Constituent Assembly eventually dissolved, and the Chavistas’ return to the National Assembly, in which they are still a minority. No less revealing was the high rate of abstention (over a third of the electorate) in the last elections, a substantial part of which came from Chavismo’s own ranks.

If the opposition sectors that Capriles and his allies could bring together win a simple or a two-thirds majority in the new National Assembly, such a bloc should accept—along with whatever spaces for negotiation and commitment that Maduro could organize—a period of co-existence “à la French” (a hypothesis which Guaidó has always rejected) probably with Capriles as the presidential candidate with the best chances of winning and Guaidó and his “interim presidency” totally discarded. We must bear in mind that the PSUV and a number of smaller parties of the Great Patriotic Pole (GPP) coalition won 52 of the present 167 seats of the National Assembly. This means that none of the current political forces can secure the three-fifths supermajority of the seats.

A probable development of events according to these trends and variables would lead Guaidó’s bloc to an irreversible political bankruptcy and, sooner or later, to the crisis of the Trump-driven economic and political-diplomatic structure. An incidental byproduct, should a scenario marked by Biden’s victory and Venezuelan elections supervised by the E.U. prevail, would make the reactivation of the process of normalization of relations between Cuba and the U.S. more than likely.

Taking into account all the possible scenarios, the most negative one would be, of course, Trump’s reelection. In that case, it would be even more in the Venezuelan Government’s interest that the E.U. (the Borrell formula) steps back from the U.S. Venezuela policy, which would make it advisable to moderate and redirect its actions toward a different and changing Venezuela.

Translation: Jesus Bran

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