Opposition Roadmap Highlights Tensions in Venezuela

Hugo Pérez Hernáiz

Venezuela’s opposition has announced its road-map for the next week, with a series of planned actions for the coming days. According to opposition leaders these actions — which include a 12-hour strike today, a vote by the National Assembly to begin a trial of “political responsibility” against President Maduro, and a potentially explosive attempt to march to the Miraflores presidential palace on November 3—will either force the government to un-block the recall referendum process, or end with Maduro’s deposition.

The government is responding that it will not let itself be cajoled, and has accused the opposition of setting up a coup d’état agenda. The fast-paced process is also revealing divisions within the opposition over the best strategy to face the reality that the recall referendum has been blocked by the government.

The agenda was announced in full by opposition leaders during the “Takeover of Venezuela” (Toma de Venezuela) march of October 26. The protest was mostly peaceful in Caracas, but in other cities around the country there were instances of violent clashes between opposition protesters and security forces. According to the opposition at least 120 protestors were injured mainly in the western States of Zulia, Mérida, and Táchira, and 147 were arrested. News website Efecto Cocuyo counted reports of at least 50 injured.

The announcement of dialogue brokered by the Vatican and scheduled for October 30 on Margarita Island seemed to continue being a contentious issue for the opposition, even during the discourse of political leaders at the Takeover of Caracas. The Executive Secretary of the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition Jesús Torrealba said he would attend the dialogue session in order to ask the Vatican delegate, Emil Paul, to “return to the electoral agenda, to give us back the referendum or to call for general elections.” But Primero Justicia leader Henrique Capriles insisted that he will not be attending the dialogue session. “We are not going to Margarita,” he said, “let Maduro go to beach if he wants, and he can take with him [his wife] doña Cilia in her bikini if he wants. We are not going to Margarita Island on Sunday.”

In a series of announcement made by several leaders the opposition revealed its agenda. Torrealba called for the general strike today, and National Assembly president Henry Ramos Allup announced that in the next sessions, the Assembly would assess the “political responsibility of the president.” The most important action announced is an opposition march which would reach the Miraflores presidential palace on November 3. The ostensible purpose of the march is to hand the president a letter informing him that the National Assembly found he bears “political responsibility” for the crisis.

Even as the opposition leaders were making these announcements, discussion continued around the stage about possible alternative strategies and actions. According to a journalist close to the stage, Maria Corina Machado and her supporters unsuccessfully tried to push the crowd to march to the presidential palace that same day. Other factions agreed to march to the National Assembly palace in downtown Caracas, but that also fell through in the middle of the discussions.

Each of the phases of the opposition’s new confrontational strategy is riddled with questions about how effective they will be and what will they achieve.

The general strike called today will be little more than a symbolic gesture unlikely to trigger the government to back down and restart the referendum process. However, the government is not taking any chances, and has applied pressure to private businesses that might close during Friday.

The opening of a process by the National Assembly against President Maduro for his “political responsibility” or for “abandoning his post” was first announced on October 23 by Primero Justicia National Assembly deputy Julio Borges. This attempt is unlikely to affect the executive at all since it firmly controls all other branches of government, especially Venezuela’s highest court, the Tribunal Supremo de Justicia (TSJ). The TSJ has consistently ruled in favor of the executive and annulled all previous decision by the National Assembly. Government media have also pointed out that there is no such thing as a political “impeachment” mechanism in Venezuela’s Constitution, making it easy for the executive to disregard any such step by the Assembly. Constitutional expert José Ignacio Hernández says that the National Assembly can, under article 232 of the Constitution, make declarations regarding the political responsibility of the president, but that this decision would carry no legal consequence and would not end in an impeachment of the president. Chavista leaders have already asked the Constitutional Court of the TSJ to rule against the National Assembly claiming that the attempt is a “parliamentary coup d’état.”  

The scheduled march of November 3 “to Miraflores,” is potentially the most dangerous step by the opposition. The government has been quick to establish parallels with the failed coup attempt against the late President Hugo Chávez on April 11, 2002. On that day the coup was triggered by violence in Caracas when a huge crowd by the opposition, originally gathered in the east of city, attempted to reach the presidential palace. Even independent journalists are concerned about the eerie parallels with the 2002 events and the strategy the opposition is now setting.

In any case the vice-president of the PSUV, Diosdado Cabello, has ruled out the possibility of the opposition march reaching Miraflores. “Nicolás Maduro will continue being Venezuela’s president. Don’t dress up for the party, because you’re not going. Miraflores belongs to the people, to the fatherland, not to the bourgeoisie,” he said. About the National Assembly’s attempt to “impeach” the president and a possible showdown with other branches of government, Cabello said: “We will see who pushes the most, the bourgeoisie or a people determined to be free.”

Analysts (see several opinions here and here) seem to agree that the new opposition strategy is an attempt to force the government to restart the recall referendum process or even to force the hand of government sectors to depose Maduro and hold new general elections. Luis Vicente Leon of the polling firm Datanálisis warns, however, that the strategy is full of risks and will certainly lead in the short term to an increase in government repression against opposition leaders.