Catching up on Venezuela: Ten Articles on 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. Of course I watched the news out of the corner of my eye during the past two weeks, but did not spend time reading more analytic interpretations of the post-electoral reality. Hugo quickly obliged and sent me a dozen or so articles and summaries. I found a few more on my own, and wrote up the following quick review of ten stimulating pieces. I am sure we have left some important pieces out and we are happy to hear about them. -DS].  

The purpose of elections is precisely to measure the support of different political factors and how much weight they should have among decision makers. Even an election whose legitimacy is questioned from the beginning by a significant portion of the national and international community generates discussion of what the event mean for the strength and weakness of varying political forces.

The day after Maduro’s reelection, historian Tomás Straka published La rebellion de las bases in Prodavinci.com. He suggests that the real winner was the opposition’s Frente Amplio which had called for voters to abstain. But he argues they did so more by chance than design: opposition voters abstained, but they had no real reason to vote anyway.

The bigger issue was that the Chavista basis also abstained in significant numbers. Straka argues that abstention was the best strategy, mainly because it had wide international support. He concludes that Maduro still has “real power” and a margin for action, but international sanctions and the “rebellion of the bases” has left him severally wounded.

Political scientist Michael Penfold likewise suggests the election left Maduro without a mandate since it did not legitimate him domestically or internationally. It also did not facilitate the replacement of Chavismo with mobilization structures surrounding the figure of Maduro. All of this occurs as the government faces an unprecedented economic crisis. As such the election marked “the beginning of the end of Madurismo.”

Sociologist Carlos Torrealba also saw Chavista abstention as the most salient characteristic of the 20M election. He argues this reveals that the Chavista base is not passive but the source of considerable agency, capable of withdrawing its support when it is discontent. However he warns that what is coming is not necessarily a more conciliatory stance within the Maduro government, but a deepening of military control.

Venezuela’s leading pollster and influential commentator Luis Vicente León concurred with others that the most important story in the election was low even within the chavista bases undermining the normal gains in legitimacy coming from an electoral win. He adds that the probability of the government successfully facing this legitimacy crisis through negotiation is low and that the risk of internal fractures within Chavismo is high. But, the opposition faces the challenge of turning the government’s illegitimacy into actions that lead to change.

In her analysis ¿Qué esperar luego del 20M?, Venezuelan historian Margarita López Maya portrayed the election as one more step in the “stabilization of an authoritarian regime with a totalitarian vocation. However, she agrees with other analysts that the result “somewhat” weakened Maduro, not only because of abstention but because Falcón refused to recognize the electoral results early in the day. Now that all the opposition agrees that the elections where a fraud, this might serve as an issue around which to unite. In fact, López Maya sees a real chance for change in the near future. She seems to ask the opposition to consider all strategies: put pressure on Maduro to resign, ask for fair elections, try to “convince the government or one of the military factions that support the government that it’s time to go.”

In contrast to the leading trend pointing to the weakening of Chavismo, BBC Mundo correspondent Daniel Garcia Marco published a piece arguing Maduro was a more astute politician than most in the government and the opposition gave him credit for. He has consistently outmaneuvered opponents and internal critics to consolidate his power. In my comments for this piece I suggested that more than a political mastermind, Maduro inherited a presidential position in which Hugo Chávez had concentrated so much power, that he was able to marginalize any enemies that might threaten his power. What is more, Maduro’s perseverance is not necessarily to be admired. He has stayed in power largely because he has not resigned in situations of social, political and economic deterioration in which most other leaders would have for the good of the country.

Catholic University analysist Juan Manuel Trak also warns that the post-May 20 opposition is still deeply divided. He suggests three groups have emerged from the event. First, there is a group demanding elections with appropriate conditions that decided to abstain. Second, there are those who supported and support Falcón. Finally, there is an opposition group asking for “de facto” exit of Maduro, which despises the two other groups as “collaborationists”.

Trak believes that the opposition should take the opportunity presented by an unprecedented crisis of “legitimacy, legality, and efficiency,” in the government. It should actively promote a fracture within the government and negotiate with any government group willing to advance democratic reforms. For this, the opposition has to be willing to grant “minimum guarantees for members of the power elite”, even in terms of their expectations of maintaining certain political power.

In an interview with Vanessa Davies Jose Virtuoso suggested the opposition needs to reconstruct and unify its forces, and focus on constitutional mechanisms such as demanding the resignation of Maduro and focusing on humanitarian relief. However, Virtuoso warns that “this is not a ‘fast track’ political transition. It is a process that take time, because [the opposition] needs to construct unity, accumulate forces and define an adequate strategy.”

This, of course, has been the challenge for years in the opposition. In a stimulating thought piece novelist Alberto Barrera Tyszka, suggested that sectors of the opposition need to set aside their truths and certainties and instead focus on questions. He pointed to the famous Nobel Award speech of Polish poet Wislawa Symborska which focused on the power of  the phrase “I don’t know.” He suggests that “from such a common recognition of a shared not knowing, a new curiosity, a new form of understanding and of relating to reality and with others, a new form of resisting and confronting power, and a new form of being opposition and doing politics, could arise.”

Finally, Venezuelan journalists Reynaldo Trombetta provided some prudent advice to the international community. He argues that those willing to help restore democracy should give up the idea of a military coup (“one has to wonder why military forces involved in human rights abuses and drug trafficking would want to depose Maduro – and how that could ever lead to democracy.”), embrace the opposition (by recognizing the National Assembly as the only legitimate government in Venezuela), avoid unilateral actions (Trump style), strengthen the “smart sanctions” regime, support international justice (The Hague), engage with China, Russia and Iran, and pressure for free and fair elections.