Venezuela Q & A, March 2018

Woman protesting in Caracas  ©Rodrigo Romero

Two weeks ago I did an email interview with Belgian journalist Kaspar Goethals of De Standaard. Since he ended up not being able to use my interview in his article, I asked him if I could publish it on the blog. He kindly agreed. Below is a lightly edited and slightly updated version of our exchange.

KG: Do you think a military invasion and or a staged coup d’etat is seriously considered in the White House?

DS: A military option is absolutely on the table in the Whitehouse. This is a different message than what has been coming from the State Department [at least while Rex Tillerson was there]. In the latter Venezuela policy is dominated by career diplomats with long experience in the region who know what a disastrous decision that would be. Whitehouse officials are closer to the president, less experienced and more eager to have a foreign policy triumph. They also think it is strategically effective to have a military option on the table because they think it will oblige the Maduro government to be serious about negotiations.

I think that is not correct. Having a military option on the table hardens the Maduro government’s discourse and validates what it has always been saying: that the revolution is under violent threat from the outside. What is more, having a military option on the table divides the opposition among those who think there is a political solution to the crisis and those who have for over a decade sought foreign military intervention. There are many opposition radicals—both at the leadership level and the base—who think that any effort to politically mobilize simply postpones a much more immediate, military solution.

KG: The opposition considers the upcoming May elections a sham and therefore most of the MUD politicians won’t run. Is that a good decision, or do they risking to thereby miss the chance of shaming Maduro with either an electoral defeat or very visible large scale voter fraud?

DS: The most important thing for the opposition, whether they abstain in protest or participate despite the unfair context, is to be unified. They actually tried both strategies in the fall and failed. In October they went to the governor’s elections despite unfair conditions, but did not convince their base to turn out and lost big. In December they boycotted the elections to protest conditions. But many candidates ran anyway, reducing the symbolic impact of that boycott.

A couple of weeks ago the MUD announced that they would not be going to the presidential elections then scheduled for April. That was an entirely reasonable choice since the government was not willing to fulfill minimal standards for an electoral date with enough lead time to organize, international observation, and changes in the very pro-government electoral council. I would have preferred to see them unify around going to elections to engage in a protest vote. Research on authoritarian contexts shows it is generally better to go to elections and use them to reveal and draw attention to unfair conditions, than to abstain and let and authoritarian government dominate the agenda and consolidate power.

In any case, the opposition was not able to fully unify insomuch as they did not convince Henri Falcón to join them and he later announced he would be running. While they portray this as the “opposition” boycotting and a minor opposition figure splitting off, it looks quite different when you realize that the most recent numbers show that Falcón is actually the second most popular opposition figure and is more popular than the MUD itself. What is more, his support comes from a more centrist segment than the rest of the opposition and has the potential to grow in both directions: into the traditional opposition, and into “light Chavismo.” So his candidacy has the potential to provoke a significant realignment.

KG: The current US and bilateral sanctions largely target individuals in the leadership, but the US debt sanctions also hit the overall economy, which provides an argument for Maduro’s ‘economic warfare’ conspiracy. You argue in your NYT op-ed that we should focus on individual sanctions. Does that mean you consider that the debt sanctions are a bridge too far already?

DS: Actually I argued that all of the sanctions were “working” insofar as they succeeded in bringing the government to the table. The individual, targeted sanctions have become much more effective since they have become multilateral, and the debt sanctions as originally conceived could have brought the government to reconcile with the National Assembly. Debt issues that are approved by the National Assembly would not fall under sanctions.

However, the lack of a communications strategy around these sanctions has undermined their effectiveness. It needs to be crystal clear not only to the parties involved but to the general public and media what individuals who are sanctioned need to do to get out from under sanctions. And it needs to be crystal clear to international financial institutions what the debt sanctions actually cover since there is a big problem with over-compliance. Banks prefer to simply deny any transaction or close any account that could possibly be covered by sanctions, rather than risk it, or do all of the research that is required to make an accurate determination. The result is that everything from legitimate oil transactions to human rights groups importing medicines are being effected when they shouldn’t. The US needs to see this over-compliance not as a side-benefit but as something that is undermining the effectiveness of their policies.

The debt sanctions are also effectively allowing the government to deflect blame for its economic crisis, which helps it maintain its core of supporters. The debt sanctions are also unpopular with the broader population and have the potential to turn them against the US and other international actors. If these problems cannot be addressed by a more effective communications strategy, these sanctions should be discontinued.

Oil sanctions would be disastrous as they would cause even more of a humanitarian crisis than we are seeing now. It is impossible to implement such sanctions in such a way that does not affect the population. These sanctions would affect the government. But they would affect the population even more and therefore would further tilt the balance of power to the former.

KG: Will individual sanctions really provide enough leverage over the government, once they are applied multilaterally?

DS: No, sanctions cannot provide enough leverage on the government by themselves. They need to be accompanied by other forms of international and domestic pressure, as well as engagement. The international community needs to continually seek to promote negotiation as well as mechanisms for “transitional justice,” i.e. programs that assure government officials that any potential transition would not turn into a witch-hunt. Otherwise their “exit costs” are too high.

KG: Could you give me your perspective on “what comes next” for Venezuela? There is an overall feeling that the future belongs to the right, some fearing it might be even the far right that takes over. But is change really coming (soon)? It does not seem to be expected from the military, which is largely close to the government and civilian resistance has mostly died out. Politically, there has been little unity from the opposition and many of the activists have left the country or are in prison. At the same time, the crisis is deepening fast, another year like this is unsustainable.

DS: Societies are not organisms. They do not die, nor do they bottom out. They are complex configurations of individuals, networks and institutions whose fortunes do not rise and fall together. There are winners and losers in every configuration and every process of change. “Sustainability” in the current context really just means the same group that benefits economically controls the guns and the institutions and can therefore perpetuate itself. There is no reason to believe that change is on the horizon. In fact the worse the crisis gets, the easier it will be for the Maduro government to consolidate its totalitarian project as it is pushing many discontents to simply leave the country. I would say the most likely outcome is not a rightwing future but a consolidated leftwing dictatorship.

But there could well be a transition. My assumption is that foreign military intervention would likely bring the far-right into power, and that is one important reason rightwing Venezuelan expats are supporting such a solution from abroad (the other is that, being abroad, they would not experience the violence and destruction). A negotiated, democratic, electoral transition is more likely to favor the moderate sectors that actually represent the majority of the Venezuelan population.

KG: Lastly: I heard from people that were in the room, that the Cuban Foreign Minister recently told European Union diplomats and ambassadors that the crisis in Venezuela is not only to blame on US imperial sanctions, but also on bad policy and corruption in Venezuela. I thought this was a telling anecdote in Cuban-Venezuelan relations. Would you say that relationships with Cuba are as strong as they were during the Castro-Chavez axis, or are Maduro’s last friends slowly slipping away too?

DS: Anyone who spends any time looking at the economic and political fundamentals in Venezuela–and we can assume Cuban officials spend considerable time doing so—has to recognize that the Maduro administration has been a disaster. Cuba has every interest in the continuation of Chavismo in Venezuela and they will not abandon them quickly. But they are not going to let Maduro drag them into the abyss either.