Venezuela: A Time for Opposition Reflection and Renovation
Venezuela’s return to democracy, once envisaged with a cessation of Maduro’s usurpation of power, the installment of an interim government, and a path to free and fair elections led by interim president Juan Guaidó, is now anything but clear. The Venezuelan opposition, guided by the strategy that international and domestic pressure, combined with an internationally recognized government replete with a supporting bureaucracy of designated ambassadors and representatives, could force the Maduro regime to either step down or make major concessions on the electoral field, underestimated the extent to which the regime could survive by enmeshing itself in the support structure of fellow dictatorial and autocratic governments.
Meanwhile, the country’s humanitarian crisis continues unabated. Studies of multidimensional poverty show Venezuela is the poorest country in Latin America, with over 90 percent of the country living in poverty. The Organization of American States predicts that 2022 could witness the current 6 million figure jump to over 7 million. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees there is still a need for nearly $2 billion in humanitarian assistance to address this crisis.
Instead of sprinting toward a future of revitalizing democratic institutions and rebuilding a moribund economy, Venezuela remains a country limping under the repressive yoke of an entrenched dictatorship. The Venezuelan opposition closes the year with several major defeats from which it must begin to draw lessons. First, the opposition responded to the siren song of negotiations with the Maduro regime. The inauspicious moment was met with the predictable bad faith participation of the Maduro regime, failing to create the conditions for a breakthrough that could herald a shift in the opposition’s momentum or in its ability to compete effectively in future elections of consequence. Nevertheless, the country just concluded regional elections that saw opposition participation, ending three consecutive years of boycotts.
These were not the free, fair, and transparent presidential and national assembly elections imagined by most analysts as a possible route out of Venezuela’s deep crisis. Rather, they were regional elections mired in credible allegations of fraud and irregularities. Lacking any semblance of electoral conditions, mainstream opposition parties largely discouraged participation and voting; many participating parties have a history of cutting deals with the regime. As a result of its participation, the Venezuelan opposition is perhaps more fragmented than ever, with the Maduro regime exploiting the division and explicitly referring to the country’s oppositions (plural).
Lastly, the Covid-19 pandemic tamped down on domestic pressure and provided the Maduro regime with a public health pretext to curtail popular mobilization. Under such conditions, the Guaidó-led opposition had little chance to build the critical momentum necessary to make effective demands of the regime during the ill-fated negotiations, much less dislodge Maduro from power.
As 2021 closes, Venezuela and the Venezuelan opposition are at a critical juncture. The country and its opposition are in need of serious renovation to think through a viable strategy for the country’s return to democracy.
The Regional Elections
In many ways, Venezuela’s regional elections were the chronicle of a Maduro regime victory foretold. The most likely scenario on November 22 was clear: Venezuela would wake to a map that was primarily red. Venezuela’s ruling party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) won 205 out of 322 municipalities and governorships in 19 out of the 22 states confirmed (elections in Barinas – 23rd state - will take place in January). Efforts to eat into the PSUV’s gains were frustrated by new and disguised coalitions, as well as political parties such as Alianza Democrática and Fuerza Vecinal, which vitiated the Democratic Unity Roundtable’s expected results and emerged as strengthened factions. These parties have a history of presenting themselves as opposition, when in fact they are close to the Maduro regime.
As expected, elections in Venezuela were neither free nor fair. With apathy high and turnout at a dismal 42 percent—the lowest for any election in which the opposition has participated in the last two decades—it is hard to imagine that they reflect the will of the Venezuelan people. The Maduro regime also underperformed compared to 2017, with candidates for governor receiving 50 percent or more of the vote in only six states.
Given the lack of conditions on the ground for free, fair, and transparent elections, as well as opposition fragmentation, why did they participate in regional elections that had little bearing on resolving the country’s political, economic, and social crisis? Principally, some opposition leaders (and the internationally community) bought into the idea that the Maduro regime was offering “concessions” to earn its participation, none more important than a purportedly “more balanced” National Electoral Council (CNE), which administers the country’s elections. In the end, however, the new CNE acted much like the old one, presiding over an election with fraudulent voting, myriad irregularities, and intervention from the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ). Once again, the Electoral and Constitutional Chambers of the TSJ contradicted their own jurisprudence to strip the opposition of a victory in Barinas, the home state of former president Hugo Chávez. The TSJ has now ordered elections to be held on January 9, 2022, with candidates that the Maduro regime “approves,” disqualifying those who stood the greatest chance of beating the PSUV’s candidate. Freddy Superlano, the opposition candidate who won the governorship of Barinas, has been retroactively barred from holding public office, adding to the long list of the regime’s arbitrary decisions and to a litany of examples that manifest Venezuela’s continuing lack of separation of powers.
Additionally, the newly elected opposition mayor of the Arzobispo Chacón municipality of Mérida State, Omar Fernández, was arrested by the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service. He has since been released, but his case demonstrates that there is no rule of law or immunity—not even for elected officials. From 2014 to 2017, 13 mayors were arrested, removed from their posts, and forced to exile. The Maduro regime’s rhetoric notwithstanding, neither its tactics nor its desire for free, fair, and transparent elections have changed.
Opposition participation in the regional elections added to the regime’s attempt at normalization. The European Union even sent an electoral observation mission after a controversial decision in which High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell ignored the recommendations of his technical team of experts and despite U.S. officials’ condemnation of the elections as flawed from the start. The EU mission spotlighted typical irregularities with an initial report that confirmed the political disqualification of opposition candidates, extensive use of state resources in the campaign, and unequal access to the media.
While the Maduro regime behaved predictably throughout the electoral cycle, it is clear that the opposition did not learn from its many past mistakes. The opposition’s performance was impacted by a dispersion of votes for multiple candidates in at least eight states and dozens of municipal races. One of the most tragic storylines occurred in Miranda State, where the PSUV candidate Héctor Rodríguez won thanks to a split ticket between opposition leaders Carlos Ocariz (MUD) and David Uzcategui (Fuerza Vecinal), who did not conduct primaries to unite the opposition by selecting one candidate to run. The consequence is an unbeatable and popular Héctor Rodríguez, who is paving the way to be Maduro’s successor. The election setback should serve as a wake-up call for opposition leaders, who need to determine their relationship with Alianza Democrática and Fuerza Vecinal—Maduro’s approved opposition—regain people’s trust, and avoid Maduro’s classic divide and conquer tactics.
Another major opposition setback has been its participation in the hitherto fruitless negotiations in Mexico City. The memorandum of understanding, signed before negotiations commenced, saw Maduro impose conditions on talks. The most salient of these conditions was the formal recognition of Maduro and the institutions of his government, including the regime-controlled National Assembly elected in December 2020 over an opposition boycott. After multiple years of denying Maduro’s legitimacy, the opposition granted recognition as a condition of getting Maduro to the table, undermining Guaidó’s claim to the interim presidency.
The negotiations themselves began late (with respect to the electoral timeline), offered Maduro a key platform to increase opposition fragmentation, and failed to yield results that could make a tangible difference in the recently conducted regional elections. As observed in past negotiation processes, the Maduro regime found an excuse to cut off talks prematurely, this time over the extradition of its moneyman and financial collaborator Alex Saab. Now, there is a chance that the Maduro regime will increase the opposition’s fractures by opening dialogue with opposition parties such as Alianza Democrática and Fuerza Vecinal that competed in the elections—an opposition outside the mainstream for its willingness to work with Maduro and not represented at the original table during the Mexico City talks.
President Biden took office promising a more flexible stance on Venezuela policy and an openness to participate in negotiations. In conjunction with Canada and the European Union, the United States released a joint statement declaring its willingness to review and remove sanctions in return for tangible progress toward free and fair elections. However, recent events in Venezuela dictate that the Biden administration will likely have to walk back from this approach. The U.S. sanctions architecture will likely (and should) remain in place after an election marred by irregularities and a regime that abruptly pulled the plug on negotiations in Mexico City. Without significant (and unwarranted) sanctions relief to the Maduro regime, the United States may find it difficult to entice the regime back to the negotiation table with the original parties only.
Analysis from the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Americas Program has argued that this crisis will never be resolved if the great powers, particularly the Unites States, Russia, and China, are not more involved and committed to the negotiation process. Remaining on the sidelines doesn’t resolve the geopolitical battle between hemispheric powers. In sum, if the first set of negotiations in Mexico City looked like an inauspicious time to make headway on Venezuela’s multiple crises, a resumption of those talks after another rigged election seems an even less auspicious time.
Juan Guaidó: For Whom the Bell Tolls?
When the Venezuelan opposition signed the memorandum of understanding to participate in negotiations with the Maduro regime in Mexico City, there were legitimate questions about the figure of the interim president, who does not appear in the document. Post-election schisms have only exacerbated the lack of consolidation around the interim president figure, with former foreign minister Julio Borges calling for the dissolution of the interim government itself.
Besides the future of the U.S. sanctions architecture, the other major questions going into 2022 are the status of the legitimate National Assembly generally and Guaidó as interim president specifically. Important figures within the interim government have encouraged it to return to a social movement—giving up the structure of an internationally recognized government to focus instead on plodding an effective path forward. In a recent hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, however, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols stated that the Biden administration would not change its policy regarding its recognition of interim president Guaidó.
Such a continuation of policy from the opposition’s most important international supporter could be sufficient to buffer Guaidó from rival claims to the interim presidency, as well as other countries that may cease to recognize Guaidó in 2022. (The European Union refused to refer to Guaidó as interim president after the fraudulent national assembly elections in December 2020, opting instead for the phrase “privileged interlocutor.”) It would also signal that the theories of political change formulated in the Trump administration still hold for the Biden administration—even if President Biden is less willing than his predecessor to push the Maduro regime with sanctions and international pressure.
The downside risk of a continuation of U.S. policy is stagnation with more of the same and a similar lack of results. The policy delta between the United States and the European Union on Venezuela would likely widen. Further, policy continuation could stifle the next generation of opposition leaders at a time when the mainstream Venezuelan opposition is exhausted. Younger leaders might be more in tune with Venezuelan society, have a different way of doing politics, and remain clearer on the ultimate objective. In any case, given the lack of certainty on a political transition away from an ossified authoritarian regime, it would be a critical mistake to ignore the need to cultivate the next generation of opposition leaders that could galvanize change long after the current one has retired (or been forced into exile). The time has come to renovate the Venezuelan opposition.
After lackluster election returns, complicated by another opposition that prefers cohabitation with the Maduro regime, the mainstream Venezuelan opposition must recuperate its strategic objective: a political transition away from the Maduro regime. As the opposition witnessed in the recent regional elections, the electoral journey does not guarantee democracy. Indeed, the ongoing fiasco in Barinas State, the country’s closest election results, shows a regime reverting to its old playbook of rigged elections to keep the ruling party in power. Levels of regime repression and overt election rigging will likely increase in accordance with the opposition’s organizing capabilities.
History appears to be repeating itself in Venezuela, but the opposition does not evince an ability to learn from past defeats. Nobody is more harmed by this dynamic than the Venezuelan people.
Ryan C. Berg is a senior fellow with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Alexandra Winkler Osorio is a senior associate (non-resident) with the CSIS Americas Program.
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