Venezuela Weekly: On the Eve of January 23

[Due to my schedule, during the coming months I will be publishing the Venezuela Weekly at the beginning of the week (Monday or Tuesday.)]

In the early-morning hours of Monday, January 21, a group of Bolivarian National Guardsmen revolted in the central Caracas barrio of Cotiza. Like previous uprisings it was small scale, seemingly without a larger network or strategic plan, and was quickly put down. The residents of Cotiza took the streets in protest for several hours afterwards, and were dispersed with tear gas and rubber bullets. However, the protests spread throughout Caracas, primarily in working class barrios (See Stephan Gibbs’ excellent video summary here).

There is a long term trend among middle class Venezuelans and international observers to over-interpret protests in popular sectors as anti-regime and anti-tyranny, when they are actually aimed at more concrete issues such as inflation, lack of services, or crime. Journalists Luz Mely Reyes has actually been out in the street speaking with people and has warned against seeing these protests as integrated or equivalent in motivation to the opposition’s “cabildos” (see below), and points out that people are expressing rejection of Maduro, not Chavismo (see also her video with some of the protestors).

As with any wave of protests there is considerable speculation about whether somebody is organizing them. While there have been some opposition efforts to make headway beyond their middle class base into barrios over the past year, these would seem to be too incipient to be behind the current protests (see this Twitter exchange between two leading analysts). More likely it is that the popular classes that are acutely feeling the burst of hyperinflation and collapse of services of late and are hitting the streets as they did in February 1989.

The big question is if and how this wave of protests might articulate with the demonstrations the opposition has called for tomorrow, on January 23rd. This is the date of the uprising that ended the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez. As I mentioned here, it will be a major test for the opposition, which has not mobilized people in mass since July 2017, and has seen many of its young activists migrate to other countries. If it can mobilize its middle class base, and is joined by continued protests in the popular sectors, the combination could be formidable.

The opposition, which had been largely irrelevant since it declined to participate in the May 2018 presidential elections, seems to have been revived by: Nicolás Maduro’s troubled swearing in which was only attended by that only four of 19 Latin American leaders an no European leaders; the emergence of Juan Guaidó as a long-overdue new leader of the opposition; and the emergence of the “cabildo abierto” (something like an open-air townhall) as a long overdue mobilization strategy.

In assuming the presidency of the National Assembly, Guaidó presented himself as presiding over a transition. He declared Maduro illegitimate and said that while he could and would assume the interim presidency, he would need the support of the people and the military. The “cabildo abierto” demonstrations have succeeded in sparking the opposition bases and giving them momentum.

The government is clearly concerned and is showing signs of stress. On Sunday, January 13 on his way from Caracas to a townhall meeting in La Guaira, on the coast, Guaidó was stopped on the highway by the political police SEBIN and taken away. However, Guaidó was released within an hour and the SEBIN officers were themselves later arrested. The episode seems to reveal divisions within the government regarding how to deal with the opposition’s new momentum.

Yesterday the Supreme Court (TSJ) controlled by the Maduro government emitted a ruling repeating that the National Assembly was acting outside of the law and annulled its current directorate, including Guaidó as president. It is not clear how much this ruling really matters given the fact that the TSJ has considered the AN to be violating the law and all its actions null for several years now (see a summary here). Some have argued that this is another step towards arresting Gauidó and the other members of the AN directorate.

Who comes out on top of this complicated game will more likely be determined by who makes a mistake than who executes a master stroke. During all of this there has been a constant push by opposition radicals for Guaidó to declare himself interim president. This reached its peak on Friday, June 11, after Guaidó and the National Assembly made some confusing statements regarding him assuming the interim presidency. OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro immediately tweeted a welcome to Guaidó as Venezuela’s new interim president and left the tweet pinned to his profile for several days, despite the AN’s subsequent clarification. As I and others have said, it would be better for international allies to coordinate their actions with the opposition than to try preempt them.

The Trump administration has carefully avoided calling Guaidó interim president, even after Vice President Mike Pence called Guaidó. But the Whitehouse is being strongly encouraged to do so by Senator Marco Rubio.

Such a move could actually be less symbolic than first appears, since it could lead courts in the US and elsewhere to give control to Venezuela’s foreign assets to the National Assembly instead of the Maduro government. Indeed, a group of investors recently said they would not negotiate with the Maduro government and would instead negotiate with the National Assembly.

The situation with Venezuela’s foreign assets is complex, however, and there may be incentives for some investment groups to prefer to sue a government that is widely considered illegitimate, rather than deal with the National Assembly that would presumably seek to protect the country’s patrimony (see interview with economist Miguel Angel Santos here).

More on International Pressure

  • A European Union mission traveled to Venezuela and met with Maduro and the National Assembly. Afterwards they again urged new elections meeting international standards, the continuation of sanctions as well as their efforts to put form an “international contact group.”
  • The US is apparently considering sanctions on Venezuelan oil.
  • Colombian President Ivan Duque has called for the creation of a new bloque in the region called “Prosur” that would defend democracy and free markets, to replace the failing Unasur bloque that was seen by Colombia and other countries as too closely influenced by Venezuela and other leftist governments.

Migration

  • In Ecuador, the brutal murder of a pregnant woman by her Venezuelan boyfriend captured on video and posted on social media produced a backlash against Venezuelan migrants. Human Rights Watch Americas Director Jose Miguel Vivanco criticized Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno for fomenting this backlash through messages in which he suggested the creation of special brigades to address the threat of Venezuelan migrants.
  • The Ecuadorian government subsequently announced onerous requirements for Venezuelan immigrants, now obliging them to provide documents showing a clean police record. Basic documents like passports and identification cards are already hard to come by and many flee without them.
  • The measures in Ecuador come a week after Colombia cleared out a migrant camp in Bogotá.

Humanitarian Emergency

  • Venezuela’s Ministry of Health received 100,000 anti-retroviral doses as a part of the Pan-American Health Organization’s “master plan,” financed by the Global Fund. Over the past two years Venezuela’s VIH+ population has suffered from severe stock-outs

The goal of Venezuela Weekly is to provide a news digest that is brief yet highlights concrete information. As such most of our links will be to local and regional Spanish-language press. English-language links will be highlighted in bold.

Did I miss something important or get something wrong? Let me know at [email protected]