Q & A on the Venezuela Protests and What the US Can Do

David Smilde

The ongoing unrest in Venezuela has been portrayed abroad as a conflict between Venezuelan citizens and an increasingly desperate government that has resorted to massive human rights abuses to maintain its hold on power. That depiction both oversimplifies and distorts the issues at play.

Since early February, Venezuela has been affected by a cycle of protests against the government of President Nicolás Maduro. The government and groups sympathetic to the government have responded to the protests with force. At least 20 people have died in the ensuing conflict—mainly because of violence by government agents and pro-government groups but also from the actions of the protesters—and hundreds have been arrested. While it looked like the protests would diminish last week, at this time it is not clear they will.

The Maduro government has begun a series of “peace conferences” to address some of the issues protesters have raised. However, the opposition has maintained its distance from these overtures.

In the following, I will address some common questions we have been receiving at WOLA.

 

1.  Hugo Chávez died a year ago. What changes have taken place in Venezuela?

Hugo Chávez left a difficult political legacy. Over the course of fourteen years he built a complex coalition of military officers, nationalists, progressives, radical social movements, and average Venezuelans—a coalition that perhaps only he could keep together. Furthermore he progressively concentrated power in the figure of the presidency. Thus following Chávez would have been difficult for anybody.

President Maduro was Chávez’s handpicked successor, but he lacks Chávez’s charisma, and the April 2013 presidential elections—which he won only narrowly—showed that he cannot necessarily count on the support of the Chavista base. Within that base, radical social movements are particularly skeptical of him. He seems to have identified the military as the sector that will ensure his ability to complete his term. He has given the military the leading role in citizen security and provided them with ever more economic opportunities.

Chávez also left a difficult economic legacy, with a largely unsustainable economic trajectory. The economy already showed signs of fraying in 2010 but in 2011 and 2012 it was kept afloat with loans from China. During 2013 problems bloomed in full force, resulting in large measure from serious foreign exchange distortions.

A dramatically overvalued currency leads to an insatiable desire for dollars at the same time that Venezuela’s foreign currency earnings have stagnated. Venezuela also has a large budget deficit that it has covered by printing money. But declining production and declining dollars available to import goods on the one hand, and an ever expanding monetary supply on the other, has led to inflation which reached 56% in 2013 and will be even higher in 2014.

The government has been paralyzed due to internal disagreements over what steps to take and has not been able to push forward with necessary reforms. Venezuela is not on the verge of default. But it clearly spends more than it makes and does not seem to have plans for how to spend less or make more in the near future. Furthermore, China and other nations are increasingly reticent to lend more money.

Venezuela has also been suffering from a crime wave that accelerated during the Chávez government. While Chávez signed off on a cutting edge experience in civilian police reform starting in 2008, it has not reduced crime. The civilian character of the reform has largely been rolled back by Maduro, who has increased the involvement of the military in policing.   

2. How much support does Maduro have in the country?

Despite the challenges he has inherited, Maduro still has considerable support within the governing coalition and the country more broadly—demonstrated by the fact that his Socialist Party was able to win the December 2013 municipal elections by a margin larger than it won the presidency in April. Inside the government, Maduro is not under a clear threat from any internal competitors simply because he has the legitimacy of having been personally designated by Chávez. However, he does not enjoy the same strong authority within the government that Chávez did, which has led to paralysis and inaction.

3. Who are the protesters and opposition leaders, and what do they want?

Losing the December elections, which the opposition had framed as a plebiscite on Maduro’s presidency, was a significant setback for the opposition and led to a period of reflection, discussion, and debate regarding their strategy moving forward. The direction that was gaining majority support was the idea that the opposition needed to develop a longer term strategy, seeking to expand its coalition by doing more grassroots organization and more tangibly addressing people’s problems.

However, some hardline leaders such as Leopoldo López and Maria Corina Machado did not agree with this direction. They felt the situation was urgent enough for an immediate push for Maduro’s resignation. They also thought that there was no guarantee of free and fair elections in two years’ time. (Legislative elections will be held in the second semester of 2015. A recall referendum could be called by petition in 2016). López and Machado organized a movement using the Twitter hashtag #lasalida which in Spanish means both “the exit” and “the solution.”

The effort tapped into the discontent of middle class students. The original protests were small. However, repression by police and National Guard brought out more protestors, especially from the traditional base of the middle class opposition to Chávez, with a focus on issues of liberty such as freedom of the press, freedom to protest, and economic opportunity. Protest leaders have done little to include broader sectors of society with messages regarding poverty reduction, equality, or other issues that might be of more interest to disgruntled Chavistas. Recent declarations of student leaders in the “Merida Manifesto” only reinforce the class character of the protests. They reject the possibility of dialogue with the Maduro government and reaffirm their focus on issues of individual liberty.

One of the slogans for these protests—“SOSVenezuela”—has especially caught on among communities of Venezuelan expatriates. Unfortunately, for average Venezuelans—the majority of whom recently voted for the Maduro government—this slogan fits with some of the worst stereotypes of an opposition that cannot win elections and therefore seeks foreign intervention.

4. What has been the Maduro government’s response to the protests?

The Maduro government has come out swinging wildly, using disproportionate force to repress and jail protesters. It is not clear why they have taken this approach, since these actions have clearly accelerated the protest movement. It could be that the Maduro government, like the Chávez government before it, sees this type of polarizing conflict as helpful in pursuing what it sees as a struggle for revolutionary change. In this perspective, it is preferable to clash with opposition hardliners and rally the Chavista base rather than engage with opposition leaders who seek to grow the opposition coalition.

Alternatively, it could be that the Maduro government, with an ever expanding presence of retired and active military officers, has little tolerance for contentious politics and therefore reacts with repression. Finally, it could also be that there is considerable paranoia within the Maduro government as leaders have convinced themselves there is an international conspiracy underway. Most likely, all three of these phenomena are present at the same time in what is a large and complex governing coalition.

5. What are the key underlying issues that Venezuela is facing now? 

As mentioned above, Venezuela’s economic policy is not sustainable in the medium term and there will likely be more difficulty this year. The military’s expanded presence in citizen security will likely be ineffective as well, and crime and violence will continue unabated.

In addition to these long-term problems, there are several immediate political issues. Changes in the electoral authority are brewing as the terms of three of the five members of the National Electoral Council are up. These three include one opposition rector and two relatively independent rectors. The other two have close relationships with the Socialist Party and support the government at every turn. This could cause serious commotion, as the current members could be replaced by government supporters.

Perhaps the most disturbing development in the last month has been the clear evidence of censorship and self-censorship in broadcast media. On February 12, no local broadcast media provided live coverage of the violence that occurred during the protests. NTN24 from Colombia did cover it and was taken off the air. There have also been reports of manipulation of the internet. This could make it very difficult to maintain a plural society.

6.  What are the prospects for dialogue? What issues could form the basis for a constructive dialogue? 

The Maduro government has pushed forward with “peace conferences” in the Miraflores presidential palace. They have been shunned even by those sectors of the opposition that are interested in dialogue, who want a more open-ended forum and perhaps third party mediation. Student leaders have recently rejected any possibility of negotiation with the Maduro government.

Henrique Capriles—the opposition candidate who lost narrowly to Maduro in the 2013 presidential election—recently put forward ten points for dialogue. Some of these points will surely be non-starters from the government’s perspective. But Capriles has not made the possibility of dialogue contingent on any one demand, and his proposals could serve as a starting point.

Despite common perceptions of the government and opposition having irreconcilable differences, there are actually several areas in which there could be some common ground.

First, the government has a significant interest in improving the economy, as do many sectors in the opposition. Indeed Lorenzo Mendoza, the head of Polar Industries (the largest food company in Venezuela) as well as the head of the Chamber of Commerce came to the first peace conferences and made suggestions regarding how to address scarcities. More broadly, the government has been beset by battles between pragmatists and leftists and could use dialogue to push forward with the changes it knows need to happen.

Second, in January there were meetings between the government and some opposition governors regarding problems of citizen security. This dialogue could continue and coordinated efforts could lead to improvements.

Third, the opposition has loudly, and correctly, complained about the actions of armed collectives and demanded that they be disarmed. These are community groups, many of which predate Chávez, that see themselves as defenders of the revolution. Less well known is the fact that the government did try to disarm these groups as part of its push for gun control last year. But the effort failed. Nevertheless, many government officials understand the problem and would welcome the opportunity to again push the collectives to disarm. 

Finally, the opposition’s main complaint during this protest cycle has been human rights violations related to the government’s excessive use of force and arrests in response to the protests. At the same time that the Venezuelan government withdrew from the Inter-American Human Rights Court during 2012-13, it actively sought and obtained a seat on the Human Rights Council of the United Nations, portraying it as better suited to watch over human rights. On March 6 a group of independent UN human rights experts from the UN headed by Frank Larue requested that Venezuela investigate and clarify allegations of rights violations and offered to visit the country. Accepting this offer the Venezuelan government could demonstrate its commitment to human rights as well as the effectiveness of the UN as a guarantor of human rights. The opposition would do well to support such an initiative.

7. What should the role of the United States be in the current crisis?  

It is important to remember that Maduro was elected president less than a year ago, and the governing coalition received impressive electoral support less than three months ago. It would be unwise for the U.S. to be seen as interfering with an elected, sovereign government. Thus discussion and struggle over basic issues of public policy should be left to Venezuelans who, if they are not happy with their government’s performance, can raise their voices in peaceful protest or vote against it in the next elections.

However, issues of human rights are universal, not subject to national sovereignty, and it is entirely fair for foreign governments to comment on violations. The U.S. should feel free to criticize Venezuela for criminalizing and repressing protest, for threatening the existence of a free and plural media, or for jeopardizing citizens’ ability to freely elect their leaders.

The U.S. should be aware of the historical context. The Venezuelan government imagines and portrays itself as being in a heroic struggle against “imperialist forces” that want to undermine its socialist revolution. Any statements made against the Venezuelan government by the U.S. will become fodder for this argument, and will serve to strengthen hard line actors. As a result, statements should be focused on universal issues of human rights or seek to promote dialogue, and avoid extraneous and salacious language that will further polarize the Venezuelan context.