Venezuela: Madness and Maduro

Caracas has appeared to reach a boiling point in the midst of mounting tensions between Maduro’s regime and the Mesa de Unidad Democrática (MUD) opposition coalition. What started out as a month marked by buoyed optimism from the opposition turned into a nightmare.

Image Source: BBC

In less than two weeks, the Supreme Court of Justice allowed President Maduro to bypass the legislature and deftly approve next year’s national budget—a move unseen since the 19th century according to constitutional law expert José Vicente Haro—shortly before the National Electoral Council announced the postponement of  the municipal elections planned this December to mid-2017, as well as the suspension of the recall referendum process “until new judicial order”. To top it all, the national judiciary, stacked by government cronies, barred prominent opposition figures from leaving the country, including the governor of the state of Miranda, Henrique Capriles and the executive secretary of the MUD, Jesus Torrealba.

The manoeuvres of Chávez’s successor to circumvent the National Assembly in order to pass the budget, and postpone the municipal elections, were painless in that they both incurred low risks and high rewards. The national judiciary had already rejected every proposal derived from the legislature since the opposition wrested majority-control of the chamber during last year’s legislative elections. Hence, the opposition-led parliament had taken a ceremonial role months before the approval of next year’s national budget. In addition, the municipal elections were of secondary importance to the MUD, which had focused almost entirely on preparing for the recall referendum originally scheduled later that month.

By suspending the recall referendum, Maduro accomplished two feats: further consolidating his grip on power and his status as uncontested leader within his party—the Partido Socialista Unido Venezolano (PSUV)—while further exemplifying Venezuela’s descent into overt authoritarianism. Lacking institutional clout, the MUD quickly convoked an extraordinary session at the National Assembly to announce the “breakdown of the constitutional order” and discuss, inter alia, the possibility of putting the president on trial—a largely symbolic action due to the national judiciary’s defanging of the legislature. During the assembly, the national coordinator for Voluntad Popular, Freddy Guevara, argued that “the Venezuelan National Assembly is an instrument of change but the engine [driving the change] is the people on the streets.”

Enter the opposition’s final means of democratic change: the streets. Shortly after seeing their hopes for a recall referendum torn to shreds by a national judiciary stacked with government cronies, the opposition convened the “Taking of Venezuela”—a series of marches across the country that assembled hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters—during which Capriles threatened to march to the presidential palace on November 3rd unless the referendum initiative is swiftly rescheduled. More marches are planned, and mobilisation is key for the MUD if it wants to pressure the government to make concessions, or ensure precipitous regime change. According to human rights activist Marco Antonio Ponce, of the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict, political protests have increased by 500% over the last year. In September alone, there were over 100 protests demanding political change.

The government, cognisant of the menace to its viability, has undertaken measures to demobilise its foremost threat: el pueblo. It has done so by combining overt repression with illusions of largesse.  Among its preferred methods have been those quintessentially authoritarian tactics expected: judicial, military, and police repression. For instance, during the “Taking of Venezuela”, there were reports of over 120 injured protesters due to means employed by security forces outside of Caracas. In addition to violence, the government threatened to expropriate any business that took part in an opposition-led general strike two days later, and Maduro recently stated that parliamentarians attempting to put him on trial would be arrested.

Although it certainly hasn’t shied away from using the proverbial stick against dissenters, the government has also utilised benign tactics of pacification. Similar to Chávez who, throughout his tenure as president, habituated public workers to wage increases, Maduro recently announced a 40% increase in the minimum wage—a fourth increase this year. Unlike his predecessor, however, the wage increase isn’t likely to stifle popular discontent, partly due to chronic scarcities, and hyper-inflation oscillating around 500% that render the effects of the increase negligible.

The most subtle instrument employed by the regime though has been the illusion of compromise. Shortly after the consternation elicited by the suspension of the recall plebiscite, Maduro called for “calm, dialogue, and peace”. He also announced the start of an initiative to resolve the impasse between the government and the opposition under the auspices of the Vatican, UNASUR (Unión de Naciones Suramericanas), and former presidents José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (Spain), Martin Torrijos (Panama), and Leonel Fernández (Dominican Republic).  According to Venezuelan political scientist, Carlos Blanco, by summoning Zapatero and his partners, the president “could give the sensation that there are private, secret or hidden negotiations and thereby calm the desire for change”. The government’s call for “dialogue” has been met by much more criticism from the Secretary General of the OAS (Organisation of American States), Luis Almagro, who called out the former presidents for contributing “to the string of obstacles” against the realisation of a recall referendum. In September, Capriles struck a more vociferous tone, exclaiming that Zapatero has visited the country “every time the government is in water up to its neck”.

With the announcement of a mediated dialogue effort by the Vatican came a serendipitous surprise for the ruling party. While the MUD had ostensibly reached a consensus on any “formal dialogue” with the Maduro regime being contingent on the resumption of a recall referendum, numerous leaders in the grand coalition were understandably caught off guard when Jesus Torrealba declared that he would represent the MUD in negotiations with the government. The sense of unity within the various opposition parties that took years to build, suddenly appeared fragile. While Torrealba sat in on the first session of mediated negotiations with the government last Sunday, the MUD issued a statement insisting that the “appropriate conditions for dialogue to occur do not exist”. It also outlined a set of conditions upon which “the initiation of a formal dialogue process” could take place. Among those requirements are the presence of international organisations such as the OEA, the liberation of political prisoners, and the opening of a humanitarian channel to provide aid—an action the government has remained reluctant to permit.

The negotiation process, and the apparent discord reigning within the opposition, could backfire. Calling for protracted marches while heeding to the siren calls of the regime simply isn’t conducive to effectively mobilising growing numbers of Venezuelans discontent with the current economic and political states of the country. Fortuitously for them, the lack of prospects for an expeditious end to the crisis lends little credence to the administration in the context of chronic deprivation. The opposition’s main challenge will remain expanding its support base, and changing the minds of alienated citizens that simply see no viable alternative after 17 years of “Chavist” hegemony.  Displaying a unitary front will be crucial in gathering that support.

One can be hopeful that dialogue will resolve the impasse in Venezuela. Yet, with former vice-president and close ally of the Chávez, Diosdado Cabello, recently saying that the presidency of Maduro is non-negotiable in any dialogue with the opposition, it seems unlikely to amount to anything substantial. The streets appear to have become the MUD’s main vehicle for momentum, and indeed, Venezuelan democracy’s last battleground.

Luca Loggia

Policy Intern at InPRA
I'm a third-year honours student in political science at McGill University. My core interests are Canadian foreign policy, and Venezuelan politics. However, Latin America as a whole is a region propitious for political analysis due to the recurring patterns of populism, caudillismo and the link between leftist rhetoric and nationalism