Benigno Alarcón: “Transitions happen when the costs of repression are higher than the costs of tolerating change”

Hugo Prieto

[The following is an interview of Venezuelan political scientist Benigno Alarcón published by Venezuelan journalist by Hugo Prieto in Prodavinci. It has been translated and republished with permission of the author.]

Venezuela is facing a point, a moment, in which it finds itself faced with a dilemma: either the government becomes “autocratic,” or it allows for a political transition. Both options are open. Benigno Alarcón, the director of the Center for Political Studies of the Andres Bello Catholic University (Universidad Católica Andrés Bello -UCAB) addresses this situation. He looks one direction, then another. The opposition leadership faces important challenges in the immediate future. The failures of its leadership, but also paradoxically the similarities among equals within the opposition, make the political dynamics difficult. This is a problem that needs to be solved through major agreements.

Dangerously, steps have been taken, every more frequent and larger, that call into question the neutral role that should be played by state institutions such as the Supreme Justice Tribunal (TSJ) and the National Electoral Council (CNE) in the political game. But the conflict does not disappear if it is momentarily masked or simply postponed. It only calls for other forms of solutions. Like it or not, the political situation calls out to, challenges the armed forces, which needs to play their role as specified in the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

HP: The opposition has put all its resources –political capital, propaganda, media, logistics –on the recall referendum. But this is not their only card. Is it worth playing this card all or nothing? Is there any other framework they can work with?

BA: In this moment the opposition understands –among other things because of the government’s weakness –that it can push for a political transition. However, the government sees a threat in such a transition. Why? Because within the government there are actors that face very high exit costs. This is a situation that is common in many transitions. The big question for these actors is: what will happen to me if this transition happens? At this time we have an opposition that is seeking this transition by whatever means. The primary method, the one that garners the most support and mobilizes the most people, is the recall referendum. The government, in parallel, is pushing for the contrary; it is trying to “autocratize” the process. Let me clarify this: not so long ago the government based its legitimacy on electoral processes. The government understood that in the charisma of Chávez, and in the abundant resources from oil revenues, it had two very powerful bases of support. And this gave it a competitive advantage. But as it lost those bases of support –for the reasons we all understand –the regime chose an autocratic path. What do we have then at the end of the day? A continuum in which the government is trying to close any possibility of political change, and the opposition is trying to push for a democratic transition. Will this end with the recall referendum? No. If the referendum is successful, we will have a transition in Maduro being recalled from office, and after that, presidential elections. But if this doesn’t happen, then the struggle will have to continue in some form or another.

HP: If this is a continuum, then nobody has so far expressed this. Nobody has said, for example, that the main aim of the opposition is the achievement of a political transition, and that one link of that process is the recall referendum. Don’t you think this is essential for people to understand and visualize the political moment we are now in?

BA: One of the things that could be failing right now is the issue of a unified leadership. For communication purposes, if you have leaders of different parties, with different characteristics, and different political stripes, a unified coherent message becomes something extremely complicated. A basic requirement –for any transition process –is that the opposition forces have to solve their leadership problems. Not all processes resolve this in the same way, but there are common elements. For example during the transition in South Africa, after many attempts to remove the white minority government, the opposition realized that there was something missing and that things had to be managed in a different way. One of the things they did was to recognize a unified leadership; they all put themselves under the same umbrella, no matter what their differences were. This single leadership role was played by Nelson Mandela. After this was done, there were a whole range of issues that could be negotiated: First of all, Mandela’s freedom; second, what would happen to government actors if there was a political change? and this could be negotiated by Mandela. Third, what would happen to the opposition if there was a change in government? Mandela agreed not to sweep the white bureaucracy from the government, nor the military high command, and he agreed that there would be no witch hunt in the future. Mandela kept his word and negotiated with his support base that political posts would be distributed in a certain way, and also established that he, as president, would not seek a second term in office. Even when his popularity levels were high both among blacks and whites, he renounced the possibility of a second term.

HP: The absence of a single leadership is, in a way, the original sin of the Venezuelan opposition. Efforts have been made, but they have been insufficient. And the facts confirm this. It seems that this is something uncomfortable for the opposition leadership and it seems that this problem lacks political weight. But anyone knows that the issue of leadership is a sine qua non for achieving any political aim. If this is the ABC of politics, why has it been so hard to learn?

BA: One thing we can say, although this may sound strange at this moment, is that the different opposition political forces are in a situation of equilibrium. What does this mean? That no leadership, no political party within the opposition, has enough strength to impose itself on the others. So all of them assume they can play the leadership role. But the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable coalition (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática MUD) is bigger than the sum of its parts –in fact no one wants to abandon the MUD and all know that the MUD is bigger than the political space it is currently operating in. All the parties are in an equal situation in terms of number of followers and power quotas. In this situation of equality each thinks it can win. What is the result of this? What some economists call a “prisoners dilemma” in which the people do not cooperate. The only way cooperation is possible is if and only if, there are very strong agreements, agreements that are good for all those involved, agreements that mean that if someone exits, they lose much more than if they stay.

HP: This, then, is the same dilemma faced by the government.

BA: Absolutely.

HP: In moments of crisis for the opposition the government has made fundamental decisions, precisely in those times during which the lack of collaboration in the opposition becomes most evident. For example we have the, let’s say “inopportune,” declarations by Timoteo Zambrano. But also evident, and we can see it in the polls, is the place each party and leader holds in the preferences of the people. Right at this moment the CNE has made public the dates and the conditions in which the 20% of signatures for the recall referendum must be gathered. Why then does this war of attrition continue within the opposition and between the opposition and the government?

BA: I don’t think the opposition is as bad as it has been, in terms of division. The opposition is perhaps now more united than it has been in other times. But there is a question one has to ask: what is missing? And one of those things missing is precisely a unified leadership. And having defined that single leadership then comes something that is no less important: a unified strategy. A large part of the discussions playing out within the opposition is about the path that it needs to follow, and also the strategy. Among other things because everyone feels that whoever ends up imposing their strategy, also becomes the leader. The main thing here is to visualize a single strategic path, where all can contribute. This lack of self-interest is what has become extremely difficult, because they all feel they are so close to becoming that leader who will lead the way forward.

HP: That answer is a reiteration of what you said before. But I am posing a different issue. The government, in its weakness because of the absence of its old support base, has been able to “read” the weaknesses of the opposition and take advantage of them. So it’s very curious that the fissures of the opposition end up strengthening the government.

BA: It seems that the government is reading the situation in the same ways, and it is reading it quite well. But there is another important factor in the growing differences, more and more visible and apparent every day, within the government itself. But let me go back to the fundamental issue, the strategy. At least up to now everyone within Chavismo remains united about one thing. What do I mean by this? The fundamental thing for the government is to remain in power. And to allow a recall referendum to take place in 2016 does not only mean that Maduro has to leave power, it means the entire government leaving power. This is why all the factions within Chavismo are in complete agreement in that they cannot allow Maduro to leave, because this means that they also leave. And this gives the government a certain level of coherence. But I ask myself what will happen after January 11, when Maduro’s exit will not imply that everybody has to leave. We need to monitor this very closely. It could well happen that after January 11 various factions of Chavismo will begin their struggle for power in the next two years. Some could try to position themselves in order to win the next presidential elections or, in the worst case, to win time in order to reach agreements for a low-cost exit.

HP: Or even in a third case, Chavismo could remain in the political game in the future. This is also a possibility, something that needs to be considered.

BA: I think that third possibility is implicit in my first case, when I talk of the next presidential elections. The idea would be that Chavismo could reposition itself and then go on to win a future election. That could be their option. But if different factions within Chavismo are not allowed to play the political game, and are not allowed to push for their own leaders, then it is probable that some will break with the government and establish their own movements.

HP: I hesitate to introduce the next element, but the truth is that within Chavismo we find the “historical party” coming into play. I am talking about the armed forces. The role the military will play in the crisis of Chavismo, and in a transition, seems fundamental.

BA: But that element, which you are wary to introduce, plays a very important role indeed. I believe that the Venezuelan democracy has lost its natural referees, in this case the CNE and the TSJ, because they have both sided with the government. Then the question is, who will act as a referee? If the game is taken off of the institutional field, off the electoral field, off of the field that is framed by the Constitution, then…

HP: Continue: if it is taken out of the civilian field…

BA: Indeed, the civilian field. If you take a conflict out of the mechanisms established to solve it, that doesn’t mean it disappears. You might think: if we eliminate the referendum, then we eliminate the conflict. Well the truth is that the conflict is still there, every day, and on top of that, it keeps getting worse. If that is the scenario, an absence of established mechanisms, then the people and the political parties are going to start looking for other ways to solve the conflict. This path is not necessarily an illegal or illegitimate, it can be legal and legitimate, but perhaps it is not an electoral path, maybe it is street protests, which is also mentioned in the Constitution. But in that case the referee changes. Who can be a referee under these circumstances? One of the most important will be the armed forces. Given a situation of continuous street protests and of a rapid decline of governability, the armed forces would have to decide between playing an institutional role in which it would say “I can’t repress the people unjustly because my role is to defend the Constitution,” and this would be an institutional position, or to side with whoever is in power and protect them so they can continue in power, saying “I am part of the government.” But this last position would imply the armed forces placing themselves outside of their natural role and being quickly delegitimized. In fact this process is already appearing in the polls. The levels of legitimacy of the armed forces are nothing compared to what they were in the past. This is a very delicate position. If the armed forces go in and repress in order to keep the government in power, there is an escalation that doesn’t stop and the costs become higher and higher. If it remains in its role of institutional neutrality, then it could play a more positive part which could politically solve the whole conflict in the end.

HP: I didn’t want to introduce this issue because I’ll now end up having to re-ask you a previous question. In objective terms, separating the wheat from the chaff, the armed forces could not only recover the perception of legitimacy they enjoyed in the past, but could also keep the privileges they have accumulated in almost two decades of Chavista government. If there is a person who reconfigured the role of the armed forces within the state, and also their relation to civil society, that person was Chávez. The armed forces could even increase those privileges in an eventual transition. What is your opinion?

BA: Well let’s see. The armed forces is an issue I know something about. Not as much as I used to because I have not been close to the armed forces for several years. I am a graduate from the Instituto de Altos Estudios de la Defensa Nacional (the National Defense Graduate Studies Institute), where I completed a Master’s degree in Defense and Security. For a time I also lectured to military officers and I have studied the issue abroad. So I’m not a total newcomer to the armed forces issue. What do we have at the end of the day? I believe that civil society does not want the armed forces to play the part of the institution that ends up imposing a solution. That is not the role people expect of the armed forces. Perhaps some may think that if there is a coup by the armed forces, maybe 85% of the people which are discontent would celebrate. Perhaps this could even happen. But what would surely happen after that is that that same 85% of the people would demand a presidential election. Thus I don’t think that imposing a solution is the most adequate role for the armed forces. I think that what Venezuela’s society is expecting is for the armed forces to take up the role ascribed to them by the Constitution. And that role is, let me repeat it, institutional neutrality. This is not necessarily a passive role, it can also be active. If the armed forces clearly tell the government, “We are not unconditionally on your side, we will be on your side as long as the Constitution is respected, we are not going to repress people that take to the streets to ask for solutions, we are going to protect those people asking for solutions,” then the government is put in a very different position, perhaps one more open to negotiations to reach an agreement for a political transition. But as long as a government is sure it can count on the institutional support, constitutional or not, of the armed forces, then it has no incentive to negotiate a political solution. And I have the feeling that this government thinks it has the unconditional support of the armed forces.

HP: Do you think that the opposition should talk to the armed forces?

BA: I believe that anyone who aspires to an alternative leadership in Venezuela needs to talk to the armed forces. In the same way that one needs to talk to the rest of the country. Why? Because the armed forces are also asking themselves what will happen to them after a process of political transition. Therefore, that leadership needs to have a vision regarding the armed forces. It needs to have a proposal. As a collective, the armed forces also have their own interests.

HP: Do you believe Venezuela is in the middle of a political transition?

No, I don’t believe so. I think we are at a disjunctive point between an autocratic and a democratic transition. The opposition is pushing for a democratic transition but the government sees this as a threat and tries to gain stability by becoming autocratic. There is plenty of academic literature about this. When these types of governments become more autocratic they do gain stability. They achieve this by absolute control: will there be elections? possibly, but under the conditions imposed by the government. [In an autocratic government] elections will be held when the government wants it, however it wants it, and with the candidates the government chooses to compete against. Is there an opposition candidate with a shot at winning? If so they will be either bared form running or jailed. Is there a party that can compete with the government? If so it will be deemed illegal or removed from the electoral registry.

HP: Part of that sequence can in fact be seen, it is already happening.

BA: Is there a chance for the government to lose the elections for governors? then the elections are postponed. The referendum can be lost by the government? then it is blocked. The MUD is a problem? several petitions have been made to the TSJ to deem the MUD illegal.

HP: This is a moment of dilemma. What has to be done by the opposition for the transition to be democratic?

BA: I think that the institutional path, the electoral path, is mired by obstacles and it will be very difficult. If today the opposition is the majority, it has to behave as a majority. This means it has to express that majority condition in all the ways it can. Transitions happen, and this is worth repeating again and again, when the costs of repression are higher than the costs of tolerating change. Therefore the opposition needs to work on two main strategies: First, to mobilize the citizens in a smart and coherent way. Why? Because as the people mobilize, the costs of repression become higher. As people opt for a more active position in the defense of their rights, they become much more difficult to repress. The second strategy is necessarily related to decreasing the costs of tolerating change. This is something that implies negotiation. Protest and negotiation are not exclusive. The opposition needs to work on both fronts, in parallel.

Translated by Hugo Pérez Hernáiz and Geoffrey Ramsey