Venezuela's Long Slide Toward Chaos
As reformers' hopes fade, Washington has an opportunity to end its hands-off approach.
The lengths the government went in its efforts to maintain control of the legislature were unprecedented in Venezuela. The election itself was generally free—citizens were able to get to their precincts and cast their votes—but they were certainly not fair. Leading candidates were thrown into jail or otherwise harassed prior to the elections. Candidate requirements were arbitrarily changed after candidates had already been selected. Districts were redrawn and voter lists massaged. Government speakers dominated the media, and opposition candidates were forced to resort to social media to spread their messages. State resources, including money and personnel, were mobilized to support government candidates. The ballots themselves contained numerous government-sponsored candidates identified by party affiliations and symbols similar to opposition candidates, in a deliberate effort to sow confusion among voters.
The Venezuelan government also attempted to create an atmosphere of crisis and siege in a bid to unleash latent nationalism and build sympathy and support for the regime. The United States was accused of waging economic war against Venezuela, while the opposition’s leadership was accused of being Washington’s stooges. When that didn’t gain popular traction, the government rattled sabers against neighbors Guyana and Colombia. In the latter case, Maduro’s government closed the border with Venezuela’s top trading partner and traditional political rival under a pretense of anticorruption efforts to build a sense of political crisis while creating economic hardship in the opposition-dominated border region. The situation was nominally resolved when Maduro and Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos met in Quito, Ecuador under the auspices of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and pledged to reduce tensions.
Maduro also asked UNASUR to “accompany” (not “observe”) the December 6 elections in an effort to lend them greater legitimacy. UNASUR has no particular credibility or expertise in election monitoring, unlike the Organization of American States (OAS), whose own desire to observe the elections was rebuffed. What UNASUR does have is a mandate to promote the sovereignty of its member nations and lend support to elected executive-branch leaders. Maduro was counting on a quiescent UNASUR mission to overlook government-generated irregularities while offering support for final results that the government was hoping to achieve. He was not counting on the newly elected Secretary General of the OAS, Luis Almagro, to write a blistering eighteen-page public letter one month before the elections to the head of the Venezuelan electoral commission, a supposedly independent body dominated in reality by Chavistas, detailing the numerous ways in which the December elections did not meet international standards. The president-elect of Argentina, Mauricio Macri, also spoke out against the Maduro regime, and some 157 hemispheric and U.S. legislators signed a letter expressing concern for Venezuela’s democracy. Former Latin American presidents led by Colombia’s Andrés Pastrana and Bolivia’s Jorge Quiroga and also including Mexico’s Felipe Calderón, Chile’s Sebastian Piñera and others, played a decisive role in keeping the fate of Venezuela’s opposition political prisoners in the global conscience while exposing the antidemocratic practices of the Maduro regime. All this broke the wall of silence fellow Latin American leaders had erected around Chavismo.
THE IMPACT was dramatic. Although it had been clear for months, according to tracking polls, that the opposition would win a majority, the scope of ultimate victory was stunning. Opposition candidates won 112 seats, giving them the two-thirds majority of the legislature necessary to rewrite the constitution, reduce the term in office for the president and executive-branch leaders and reverse the destructive economic path that Chávez and his acolytes put Venezuela on beginning in 1999. Of course, an opposition-dominated legislature can do nothing about prevailing oil prices, nor does it control the executive branch or the courts, which will continue to be regime-dominated and aggressively opposed to new initiatives by the legislature. Neither will the opposition control the military.
As it was, the military played a critical and surprising role on December 6. When it became clear that the opposition would win and that exit polling was beginning to describe the vote in historic terms (as it had done in previous elections), the regime sought to keep polls open past their mandated 6:00 p.m. closing time, using the extra time to rush additional supporters to the polls, some with forged identity cards, in order to reduce the number of seats won by the opposition. Indeed, one of the seats was decided by a mere eighty-two votes, while the vote difference for others was in the hundreds rather than thousands. Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López unexpectedly foiled these efforts. By declaring publicly, along with his defense chiefs, that voting had concluded and that public order would be maintained, he thus delegitimized the extralegal poll crashing while putting Chavistas on notice that intimidation tactics would not be tolerated. After a lengthy delay, Maduro and the regime were forced to accept the results.
THE MILITARY may play an increasingly important if as-yet-undefined role going forward. A look at Venezuela since December 6 shows why. Once it was clear the regime had lost, it shifted into even higher gear in an effort to reduce or eliminate the impact of the elections by the time of the new legislature’s seating on January 5, 2016. Chavismo can be audacious and creative when its survival is at stake. In the dying days of the last legislative term, the regime appointed thirteen new justices to join the already Chavista-dominated Supreme Court, with the authority to interpret the constitution and rule on the actions of the legislature. Despite running the elections, the government then challenged the electoral validity of three opposition legislators, referring their respective elections to the newly replenished Supreme Court in a bid to reduce the opposition majority below the critically important two-thirds threshold. These legislators remain to be seated pending the court’s decision. At the same time, the regime has established a so-called “communal congress,” a parallel, unelected body the government can dominate and for which it may seek to appropriate powers and budget from the actual legislature. These transparently political actions threaten to relaunch the cycle of protests and counterprotests that roiled Venezuela in 2014, pushing the country further down the path toward ungovernability.
Under these circumstances, the military could be tempted to seek stability, although factions may rive the security forces. The instincts of its collective leadership in a political crisis are not known at this point. Military involvement to prevent the government from carrying out the Chavista agenda would undoubtedly be denounced by the regime as a coup, thus opening the door to a full-blown institutional crisis, whereas suppression of democratic protest would threaten basic democratic and human rights. Latin America has striven mightily in the past generation to remove the military from politics, so its engagement in virtually any capacity would be strongly dissuaded by the international community.
Meanwhile, a true humanitarian crisis is looming. As the money runs out, food and necessities like basic healthcare are becoming unavailable, exacerbated by regime steps to cut off public-sector employees and erstwhile supporters for not campaigning and voting with sufficient fervor in favor of government candidates.
The opposition faces a conundrum. Its temptation, assuming it is allowed to function in a normal legislative manner, is to address the economic calamity facing the nation; expectations among voters are high. But the economy requires a fundamental reboot, not merely the window-dressing of new regulations or efforts to stimulate investment. And the economy cannot be restarted without the restoration of Venezuela’s institutions. It is the economic model itself that must be reformed. Working to mask the symptoms of Chavismo without addressing the underlying causes would, even if successful, gift the opposition with the burden of economic adjustment while watching prospective benefits accrue to the government that remains in power and controls the levers of the state. Some economic steps should be taken immediately, including instituting market pricing for Venezuela’s oil and gas for both domestic and international customers (recognizing, of course, that gasoline is virtually free to Venezuelans and raising its price is often considered a third rail of Venezuelan politics). Additionally, restrictions on the private sector should be lifted to regenerate at least some economic activity. Property confiscations should be reversed. Exchange rates should be unified and made transparent to eliminate one of the most brazen opportunities for corruption available to connected Chavistas.
The real work of the legislature and the international community, however, must be to expose the current government and its supporters, showing the true nature of the regime and its autocratic tendencies. Working under the existing constitution, with a two-thirds majority, the legislature can call for a constituent assembly, potentially leading to institutional renewal. It can push through an amnesty for political prisoners, thus releasing from prison some of Venezuela’s natural political leaders, including those imprisoned without cause and most feared by the regime. It can launch investigations for executive-branch malfeasance including individuals engaged in corrupt activities and drug trafficking, as alleged by the U.S. Department of Justice. If these steps do not work, the unified opposition has shown a capacity to mobilize citizens who are tired of the political antics and economic destruction of the Maduro regime. Renewed nonviolent protests against government authoritarianism may be the next step.