Q & A on the Opposition and Current Context

Earlier this week I was asked by Andre Sollitto of Brazilian news magazine ISTOÉ, to answer a few questions regarding the current Venezuelan context. Here is his article which includes some quotes from me, as well as my colleague Javier Corrales. Below is the full (lightly edited) exchange.

The boycott by the opposition was not very effective. What are the implications of its failure?

An electoral boycott effectively carried out can delegitimize a regime by suggesting to the world that the electoral system is not credible and is not trusted by the people. It is a risky strategy because it also means you give over elected offices you might ordinarily win, to a government that is presumably already abusing the power it has. But if comprehensive and consistent, such a boycott can have an important impact. In this case, however, the boycott was only partial. The main opposition parties decided to abstain, but not all of them. As a result many lower-level and midlevel grassroots opposition leaders ran. In some cases there were multiple opposition candidates.

The result was a worse case scenario. The optics of the boycott were ambiguous and it therefore had an uncertain impact nationally and internationally. Yet the opposition gave over almost all the country’s municipalities to the government. In Venezuela municipalities are important. They can raise their own funds through taxation, can have their own police forces, and are responsible for policing protest. Municipalities controlled by pro-government mayors are much more hostile territory for street mobilization.

However, the opposition was between a rock and a hard place. They went full speed into the October governors’ elections yet lost big. This was in part because of the electoral authority’s dirty tricks and outright fraud in the case of Bolivar State. However, the most important reason they lost is because their voters did not turn out. This was because of the CNE’s open fraud in the July election of the National Constituent Assembly (ANC), and the subsequent calls for abstention from radical opposition leaders such as Maria Corina Machado. They would likely have faced a similar fate in these elections. In the end the opposition’s lack of unity and leadership means that any strategy will be ineffective. These divisions meant they were unable to mobilize their base in October, and unable to pull off a boycott in December.

As Maduro tightens his grip on power, it will be hard for the opposition to face the president in the elections next year. How can they react to the ban threat in time to the next election?

The Maduro government clearly has the upper hand politically. It has consolidated power over the government, marginalized the National Assembly, and purged itself of internal critics. But it has a significant weak link and that is the economy. It is slowly sliding into default both on its sovereign debt and the debt of the state oil company, and it is having a hard time finding new financing given the United States’ “debt sanctions.” The Maduro government has shown that it is willing to immiserate its population in order to stay financially afloat. But 2018 will bring hyperinflation which presents new and unpredictable challenges. And the collapse of oil production could create such a shortage of income that it would be hard to keep together the government’s networks of corruption and clientelism.

The US has at least obliquely stated that these debt sanctions would not apply to debt issued with the consent of the National Assembly. This is what brings the government to the negotiation table in the Dominican Republic. They want the opposition to get the US to lift sanctions.

This gives the opposition a pretty big bargaining chip and what they need to do is negotiate for full recognition of the National Assembly and a new electoral authority and international observation. It is unlikely that the government will give them that since they know they would be voted out. So it is hard to be optimistic. But going to the negotiation table is the right thing for the opposition to do. Gaining concessions would require astute negotiation skills and a unified strategy, which are not the opposition’s strong points.

A breakthrough would also require the US to have the dexterity to lift sanctions as part of a deal. But it is not clear that the US government is paying close attention nor that there is political will for such responsiveness. For the sectors who have pushed for sanctions on Venezuela, sanctions are an end in themselves and are considered important political achievements to be protected and expanded, not rolled back.

A further complicating factor for the opposition is that different sectors of the international community support different factions of the opposition, reducing these factions’ willingness to cooperate with each other. Earlier this month, just as leaders of the opposition coalition were sitting down to negotiate with the Maduro government, exiled opposition radical Antonio Ledezma was making the rounds in Washington and succeeded in convincing Secretary General of the Organization for American States Luis Almagro, as well as some DC think tanks, that he was the leader of the “true” opposition and that those in the Dominican Republic were not actually supported by the opposition base. Shortly before the negotiation began, Venezuela’s democratically elected National Assembly, which still sessions despite not having institutional power, voted 82 to 3 to support the negotiations. Ledezma’s faction accounted for the three dissenting votes. Yet many US officials and DC opinion-makers now agree with this radical minority that negotiations are counter-productive and there is no electoral solution to the crisis. If the US tries to influence the opposition coalition based on these views, it could prevent it from unifying and developing a viable strategy for 2018.

Do you believe the International Court of Justice, for example, could intervene to prevent the Venezuelan political system to collapse?

I do not think the ICJ or the International Criminal Court can act in such away to prevent further collapse of Venezuela’s institutions. They can try judicial cases and that ups the ante overall, but does not provide a political solution. At this point only some sort of “group of friends” that mediates the political conflict can have an impact. The current round of negotiations in the Dominican Republic is a good start. Of course any success will depend on the willingness of the parties, mainly the government. This seems unlikely in the short term, but could happen later in 2018 as the situation gets ever worse.

A group of friends would have the most impact if it were backed by the United Nations–perhaps using the figure of a special representative–and included a team that could put forward a viable plan for transitional justice. Officials in the Maduro government are not just going to give up and feed themselves to the wolves. They are not going to agree to any kind of transition unless they get trustworthy assurances of some sort of personal and political viability after a transition. As can be seen in the Colombian case, such plans are controversial and difficult to implement. But in a context in which one group has control of all of the institutions, money and guns, it’s the only hope.