Catching up on Venezuela: Five Issues in the Post-20M Context

David Smilde and Hugo Pérez Hernáiz

[After two weeks of vacation I asked friend-of-the-blog Hugo Pérez Hernáiz, to help me get on top of the new context after the May 20 presidential elections. Last Thursday we reviewed ten important post-20M analyses. Today we are going to review five ongoing issues we are watching. -DS]. 

1. PROGRESS ON POLITICAL PRISONERS?

In the wake of the May 20 elections there have been important developments with respect to political prisoners. The most important was the June 1 announcement by Venezuela’s Supreme Court (TSJ) that 39 people “processed and convicted for crimes” would be released under probation. The group included at least two high profile political prisoners: ex-mayor of San Cristobal Daniel Ceballos, and retired General Ángel Vivas. Although, according to local media, more than half of the released were not political prisoners or even opposition activists.

On June 2 there was another TSJ announcement and the subsequent release of a new group of 40 detainees, bringing the total released to almost 70. The new group includes Robert Picón, a MUD adviser who was serving house arrest, Renzo Prieto, an opposition leader elected National Assembly deputy while already in jail, And Gilbert Caro, a substitute National Assembly deputy. According to the local NGO Foro Penal there are still 315 political prisoners in Venezuelan jails.   

The highest profile release before June, was that of Joshua Holt, a US Mormon, held since June 2016 for accusations of illegal possession of firearms and conspiring to destabilize the government. In the days after the May 20 election, US Senator Bob Corker made a surprise visit to meet with Maduro. This generated the inevitable “coddling a dictator” response from expected quarters. But the visit quickly bore fruit with news that Corker was brokering the release of Holt. The Holt release actually has some broader implications regarding international engagement of Venezuela, discussed below.

Besides Senator Corker’s visit, there were other signals that the government would be releasing at least some political prisoners shortly after the May 20 elections. Pressure on the government increased greatly the day right before the elections, on May 19, with a brief prisoners mutiny in the Helicoide, a detention center where several political prisoners are held (including Holt).

On May 23, the election Evangelical candidate who came in third in the polls, Javier Bertucci, suggested he had received a promise from Nicolás Maduro to release political prisoners. Then, on May 24, president Maduro himself asked the National Constitutive Assembly (ANC) as a positive gesture in the “process of peace and reconciliation of Venezuela”, to free some of those “arrested because of political violence”, if they had not committed serious crimes.

But as these releases take place, and others seem likely, new arrests are being made on vague conspiracy charges of “treason to the fatherland and instigation to commit crimes.” Most of the recent arrests involve military personnel, but also some civilians. A notable case is the recent detention of a surgeon working at Caracas’ main university hospital, the Hospital Clínico Universitario, José Alberto Marulanda Bedoya. According to Foro Penal, Marulanda was arrested on May 20 and four days later charged by a tribunal for “treason to the fatherland and instigation to commit crimes”.

In another case two members of a militant antigovernment student group called Movimiento Neomar Lander, Jorman Ortiz and Herbert Ramírez, who were reported missing by family members on May 23. The two students were on their way to a protest in east Caracas but never arrived. On May 24 the two were taken by security forces to a local court, but according to their lawyers were not charged “with anything specific”. They are however being held in the Helicoide.

But for the most, it seems those detained in the last weeks are military officers. On Sunday 27 May nine people were indicted by a military tribunal with charges of treason to the fatherland, instigation to commit crimes, mutiny, and [breach of] military decorum.” Of the nine, eight are active middle to low ranking military officers. Seven are Bolivarian National Guards and one is an aviation officer. A week ago local media had reported that at least 38 military officers had been arrested during the previous two weeks.

2. THE CONTINUING EXODUS

The most important, ever-evolving story of 2018 is the ongoing migration of Venezuelans abroad. While this has been going on during the entire Chávez period, it has grown exponentially in the past two years. This exodus no longer amounts to upper middle class families moving to Miami or Madrid. Now the biggest flow is across the Colombian border. The Colombian migration authorities claim that 286,000 Venezuelans have crossed Colombia, into Ecuador in the last five months, they claim that close to 800,000 remain in Colombia.

The conditions and hardships this migrant wave is facing is increasingly becoming a concern. Many are facing problems with identity papers, including passports, issued by Venezuelan authorities. WOLA’s Geoff Ramsey told Business Insider that the Colombian government “essentially made it impossible for Venezuelans to cross into the country without proper documentation and proof of further travel, and it’s a real problem, because in Venezuela, as I’m sure you know, it’s extremely difficult to access papers.”

One of the most important aspects of the Lima Group’s statement after the 20M elections (more below) was the call for a meeting on the issue of Venezuelan immigration to countries in the region to develop policies. According to the Lima Group, 1.5 million Venezuelans have migrated to the 14 countries of the group in the last year, more than half (almost 800,000 to Colombia). Regional rights groups, including WOLA have urged the Lima Group to consider closely its pressure mechanisms and not exacerbate the exodus. 

3. CHAVISTA ABSTENTION

As we suggested last Thursday, one of the leading stories coming out of May 20 is that of voter’s abstention. According to CNE’s numbers, abstention was the highest for a presidential election in recent Venezuelan history. Participation only reached 46.02% of registered voters, compared to almost 81% in the 2012, but according to unofficial numbers published by local media, participation could have been as low as 30%.

Several Venezuelan analysts emphasized that abstention was the important takeaway of May 20. Some suggested that given the high abstention levels, the chavista base had also stayed away from the polls that day. Luis Vicente León, for example wrote that “the result announced by the CNE is very poor for Maduro in terms of the participation of his own support base. Not even chavismo, with its electoral machine, State resources and social pressure, was able to mobilize the same number of chavista voters of previous electoral events.” Tomas Straka concurred “this time [the abstention] protest came, for its most part, from the side supporting (or at least thought to be supporting) the government.” Carlos Torrealba argued that “those who considerably abstained were the chavistas themselves.” And Michael Penfold said that the “abstention landslide evidenced the weakness of Nicolás Maduro in the face of a chavista machinery that decided to quietly revolt.”     

We think this conclusion requires further examination. Going by the CNE numbers, it does not seem the hardcore chavista abstained in large numbers. Below are the pro-government votes in the past three presidential elections, according to CNE:

2012 Chavez 8,191,132 votes (55.07%). Capriles 6,591,304 (44,31%) Participation 80.99%

2013 Maduro 7,587,579 votes (50.61%). Capriles 7,363,980 (49.12%). Participation 79.68%

2018 Maduro 6,244,016 votes (67.84%). Falcón and Bertucci 2,905,797 (31,81%) Participation 46.02%

Although Maduro has lost over a million votes since 2013, by surpassing six million votes, it is apparent he was largely successful in mobilizing his base of commited chavistas and state employees. 

4. OPPOSITION REUNIFICATION

As we suggested in our last post, the election and the fact that Henri Falcón quickly said he would not recognize the results has led to suggestions that this could serve as a rallying point for opposition unification. We think this too, needs some critical scrutiny.

While the harsh public accusations among and between opposition groups seems to have subsided, but there are few signs of unity. Henry Falcón has announced he will form a new “opposition platform” with the parties that supported his presidential bid. It is yet unclear if this will be allied with the MUD or not.

The MUD has announced it will restructure itself for the third time. Ex-secretary general, and still respected figure, Ramón Guillermo Aveledo, is back in, but not as secretary general because that post ceases to exist in the new MUD. It seems he will be more something like a counseling figure. The new MUD will be led by a “Management Junta” [Junta de Conducción] formed by representatives of the six opposition parties with most deputies in the National Assembly (Acción Democrática, Primero Justicia, Voluntad Popular, Un Nuevo Tiempo, La Causa R and Movimietno Progresista) each of which will have one vote, and one additional vote will be given to a representative of “minority parties”.  It seems unlikely that this strategy will unify the opposition which is needed for clearer, strategic thinking.

5. INTERNATIONAL PRESSURE AND ENGAGEMENT

As expected, the 20M election has been followed by a significant increase of international pressure. The countries signatories of the Lima Group (Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and Santa Lucia) issued a joint statement on May 21 declaring they “do not recognize the legitimacy of the electoral process” of May 20 in Venezuela as “it did not fulfill the international standards of a democratic, free, fair, and transparent process.” The countries also announced they would be recalling their ambassadors to Venezuela and ask the OAS to issue a new declaration on the Venezuelan case. They also express concern for what they call a humanitarian crisis unfolding in Venezuela.

The day after the May 20 elections, the US government placed a third round of fresh sanctions on the Venezuelan government, barring US companies from buying Venezuelan debt, including debt issued by the country’s oil company.

On May 28, European Union ministers meeting in Brussels agreed to adopt new targeted sanctions against Venezuelan officials. EU officials said they were planning to add 11 individuals to the list of 7 already sanctioned in January this year. And on May 30 the Canadian government issued sanctions against 14 Venezuelan government officials as a consequence of the “illegitimate and undemocratic elections” of May 20, including Cilia Flores, five Supreme Court judges, and the vice-president of the Constitutive Assembly Tania Díaz, among others (Added to the 40 officials, including Maduro, sanctioned by Canada on September 2017).

Yesterday during the annual General Assembly of the Organization of American States, the US asked members to suspend Venezuela. It seems likely they will get the eighteen votes necessary to hold a special session to consider such a measure, but unlikely to get the twenty-four votes necessary to pass it.

International pressure has also recently mounted from multilateral human rights institutions. On May 30 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights said in a unanimous sentence that the Venezuelan State is responsible for crimes against political rights and expression of three public officials dismissed for signing the petition for recall referendum against Chávez in 2003 (The famous lista Tascón).

On May 29 the ad hoc panel of international experts designated by OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro in September to evaluate Venezuela issued its report. The panel concluded that there is enough evidence of crimes committed, as typified in Article 7 of the Rome Statute. The panel claims the existence of a systematic pattern of criminalization of the opposition that goes back to 2014. Legal expert José Ignacio Hernández says that the next phase would be for the signatory countries of the Rome Statute to refer, based on the report, the case of Venezuela to the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. The process could take a long time, even years. But Hernández believes that the process itself is an important deterrent to future crimes by government officials.

All of these mechanisms undoubtedly increase pressure on the Maduro government. But less progress has been made in terms of engagement. Since the collapse of the Santo Domingo dialogues, for example, there has not been serious discussion of a new round of dialogue.

However, the Joshua Holt release shows the potential of cross-national, back-channel networks among politicians (see a stellar series of articles by AP’s Josh Goodman who reported on this development in March, and as the Holt release evolved here and here).

All parties agree that the key player in the Holt release was Senator Bob Corker’s chief of staff Caleb McCarry. McCarry was a member of the Boston Group, a network of US and Venezuelan legislators who engaged each other back during the 2002-04 period. This group included Maduro, then a legislator, his wife Cilia Flores, as well as then politician and now businessman Pedro Díaz Blum. Díaz Blum brought Lacava into the network which brokered Holt’s release. Senator Orin Hatch of Holt’s home state of Utah was also involved in the dialogue and described his experiences in Time Magazine.

The entire experience shows the power this type of cross-national back channels can have to broker deals. More broadly, the Boston Group and other efforts to open networks with members of the Maduro government could become fundamental conduits for channeling pressure into a transition back to  democracy.