Venezuela: Maduro’s Ploy Backfires

By Michael McCarthy*

Maduro and the Venezuelan flag

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. / President of Russia / Flickr / Creative Commons

Almost a month after Nicolás Maduro held a snap presidential vote to strengthen his political power, the ploy appears to have largely backfired and left him weaker.  The dynamics underlying the years-long crisis have not fundamentally shifted, but the deepening impact of the economic implosion on the oil industry poses a threat to vital state interests and regime stability.  Maduro’s crisis management will face another major stress test.

  • Even the government’s own dubious figures on voter turnout – 46 percent – were too low to give the election credibility, limiting Maduro’s ability to claim a strong mandate. Criticism of the government’s efforts to sway voters by distributing food, medications, and other necessities at polling places was intense.  All but a few loyal friends in the international community have been reluctant to congratulate Maduro.  China and Russia accepted the vote count, but Beijing appeared particularly cooler than in the past, while Ecuador and Uruguay issued statements aimed at depolarizing the situation.  The OAS General Assembly lacked the 24-vote threshold necessary to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter to suspend Venezuela’s participation in the regional body, but the Dominican Republic’s shift away from its previous support for Maduro must have been a blow.
  • Maduro’s victory is further overshadowed by the fact that as much as 85 percent of the pro-government vote went to the party of Diosdado Cabello, who leads a competing faction under the flag of the Partido Socialista Unido (PSUV), while Maduro’s Movimiento Somos Venezuela got only 5 percent. Longtime observers argue that a battle between Maduro and Cabello, an original member of the Chávez 4F movement that staged a failed coup in 1992, is heating up.  The PSUV will hold a party congress on July 28 – Chávez’s birthday – that promises to serve as venue for Cabello to pursue his leadership ambitions.

Maduro’s weakness appears to have motivated several actions he’s taken since the election.  Most observers believe that he directed a raft of prisoner releases to improve his sagging image, pacify the situation, and set the stage for dialogue.  He reportedly wanted to reshuffle his cabinet to shore up unity, but internal political difficulties apparently have delayed it temporarily.

  • He also released a U.S. national, Joshua Holt, who had been under arrest since 2016 on trumped up charges of espionage and conspiracy to undermine the constitution. Maduro’s goal may have been to disarm U.S. criticism and open a line of communication, but the day after the election he also expelled the U.S. Chargé d’Affaires and his deputy.  The U.S. State Department wasted no time in reciprocating by expelling two Venezuelan diplomats, and later, in the wake of the Holt release, it underlined that policy toward Venezuela “remains unchanged.”

More U.S. sanctions may be imposed, but Maduro’s self-destructive rule is doing his government even more harm.  A combination of increasing hyperinflation and a potential record drop in month-to-month oil production from May-June suggest a rapidly worsening economy.  Press reports suggest state oil company PDVSA will soon announce that it cannot honor its monthly production obligations with a number of key partners – a major blow for a government dependent on oil for 95 percent of its income.  After calling for a boycott of the May 20 vote, the traditional opposition breathed a collective sigh of relief that a majority of voters stayed home, but this does not give them the win they need to regain public trust.  Continually bleak prognoses once again stir speculation that the military will step in.  Yet it is not so simple.  The military seems to operate more according to informal networks and personality-driven hierarchies, creating divisions that make it hard for groups to credibly act in the name of the armed forces.  So far, senior officials seem to have determined that loyalties to a dysfunctional regime do not yet sufficiently threaten business and institutional interests for them to take action.

 June 14, 2018

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies.  He publishes Caracas Wire, a newsletter on Venezuela and South America.

Summit of the Americas: Awkward Agenda, Dim Prospects

By Eric Hershberg

Large group of men and women stand awkwardly while waving to a crowd

Leaders from the hemisphere during the last Summit of the Americas in 2015. / Maria Patricia Leiva / OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

Preparations for the 8th Summit of the Americas, scheduled for April 13-14 in Lima, face a number of challenges.  Trump Administration measures have upended longstanding assumptions throughout the hemisphere about Washington’s agenda in the region and beyond.  No less distracting is the wave of ongoing corruption scandals in Latin America and impending elections in numerous countries.

  • The three presidential summits attended by President Barack Obama (2009, 2012, and 2015) arguably were shaped by the standing of the United States in the region. Emphasizing “change we can believe in” at his first presidential summit, in Trinidad, Obama pledged that the United States would be a partner rather than an embodiment of hubris.  Leaders across the ideological spectrum applauded.  Yet the second, three years later in Cartagena, was a disaster for Washington, with even friendly heads of state lambasting the President for continuing an unacceptable Cold War line on Cuba and rigid drug control policies.  It was in the wake of this embarrassment that Obama finally moved to change policy toward Cuba.  This watershed, supplemented by advances in other areas overseen by Vice President Biden, made Obama’s third summit, in Panama in 2015 – attended by Cuban President Raúl Castro – a much more positive experience.

This year’s Summit seems unlikely to produce advances – substantive or symbolic – and indeed has the potential both to highlight conflicting agendas and even to provoke widespread ridicule.

  • Under normal circumstances, the partial but damaging reversal of Obama’s Cuba opening would elicit hostility from Latin American leaders, but tensions over Trump’s dramatic departure from traditional U.S. positions on trade and climate, and his caustic posturing on immigration policies that especially impact Mexico and Central America, may overshadow regional bewilderment at Washington’s renewed hostility towards Havana. Latin American countries that Trump jilted at the altar when he summarily withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) have begun moving on – negotiating trade deals with China while uniting with Canada and seven Asian countries to form “TPP 2.0.”  That chauvinism and race, not security, are at the heart of Trump’s “Great Wall” proposal is widely understood and resented in Latin America.
  • Trump’s postures and policies are by no means the only strain on the summit agenda. Venezuela’s meltdown and impending elections are of grave concern to virtually all leaders who will attend, whether President Maduro does or not, yet there is no consensus on what to do about the problem and the humanitarian emergency it has spawned.  Questions about the legitimacy of Brazilian President Michel Temer diminish the standing of the hemisphere’s second largest democracy.  Tensions swirling around the Summit’s host – Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (PPK) – are also intense.  PPK is but one of numerous incumbent and recent Latin American presidents under siege by corruption allegations.  Strong evidence of corruption among presidents of Latin American countries big and small will hardly be news to anyone, but the scope of the problem – and the strength of public rejection of it – means many governments will come to the Summit wounded and distracted.

The irony that the theme of this year’s Summit is “Democratic Governance against Corruption” will be lost on no one, as the Lava Jato investigations and lesser inquiries reveal the venality of government after government.  OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, a co-host of the Summit, has done his fair share to rescue the region from authoritarian and corrupt leaders – challenging both Maduro and the tainted reelection of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández – but few others in the hemisphere have lived up to the lofty rhetoric about democracy and anti-corruption at previous summits.  The Peruvian national host is hardly in a position to steer the Summit to take on Trump on matters such as TPP.  If he were not so badly tainted by recent events, he could have represented the globalists in the Americas who are convinced that a misguided America First posture issuing from Washington amounts to a U.S. abdication of leadership on trade, climate, and other pressing matters.  Yet it is now doubtful whether he will be able to say anything more than “Welcome to Peru.”  The smiling faces in the protocol photos will conceal the striking disjuncture between the Summit agenda and its protagonists.

 February 6, 2018

Lima Group: Committed to Democratic Principles?

By Nicolás Comini*

Group of men and women stand at a podium

Government officials from different Latin American countries met in August 2017 to sign the “Lima Declaration,” establishing the Lima Group. / Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, Perú / Flickr / Creative Commons

The “Lima Group” – an informal alliance of 12 Latin American countries created to observe the sensitive situation in Venezuela – has shown that its defense of democracy in the hemisphere is inconsistent.  Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, and Peru have on at least a handful of occasions condemned Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro for stoking political violence, holding political prisoners, committing electoral fraud, and engaging in other abuses, justifying their positions as based on ethics, morals, and good practices.

The reactions of the Lima Group and its leading members to the situation in Honduras since that country’s presidential election in November, however, suggests that the values they espouse do not have universal application.  After OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro declared that the election lacked credibility and called for new elections, some countries’ pro-democracy fervor faded.

  • Argentine President Mauricio Macri’s administration quickly recognized Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández’s victory and officially declared its “disposition to continue working for the development of closer ties of friendship and more cooperation between the two nations.” The Brazilian foreign ministry expressed its “commitment to maintain and strengthen the ties of friendship and cooperation that traditionally have united both countries.”  In Mexico, President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government quickly recognized Hernández as well, calling on “Honduran society to support dialogue in order to preserve peace and democratic stability in that sister nation.”

The discrepancies between the group’s rhetoric and actions appear to be rooted in various reasons.

  • Political alignments take precedence over values. Honduran President Hernández has been active in the group’s (and indirectly the OAS’) efforts on Venezuela.  Honduras is a member of the Lima Group, and Hernández is perceived by conservative governments as an ally to contain the spread of the left.  The risk of massive Venezuelan population displacement, with profound potential consequences for neighboring countries, contrasts with the situation in Honduras.  With the region entering a new election cycle, moreover, incumbents’ lack of support for Almagro’s position signals that they do not want the OAS messing around in their own electoral processes.
  • These governments also see Hernández as a strategic United States ally in Central America in combating drug trafficking, transnational criminal networks, money laundering, and irregular migration. Many of the governments may also refrain from criticizing the belief that Tegucigalpa benefits from the presence of 1 million Hondurans in the United States (more than half of whom the State Department says “are believed to be undocumented”).  In addition, Honduras was one of the eight countries that supported President Donald Trump’s rejection of the UN General Assembly Resolution asking nations not to locate diplomatic missions in Jerusalem.

The crises in Venezuela and Honduras are indeed different, and the international community’s interests in them are naturally different.  Maduro’s and Hernández’s failings affect other countries’ political and economic equities in different ways.  Maduro’s undemocratic actions increase unpredictability in the management of oil and other sectors of foreign interest, whereas Hernández’s represent predictability, if not stability, in areas that Washington cares about and Buenos Aires, Brasilia, and the rest of Latin America do not.  But the high-sounding values at stake – democracy, institutionality, and rule of law – are the same in both countries.  While Venezuela’s population is three times the size of Honduras’ and its political crisis arguably three times more advanced, the moral responsibility – and moral authority – of the Lima Group or its member nations is many times greater in a small, vulnerable, poor country like Honduras.  Security forces have gunned down some three dozen oppositionists and protestors since the November election, and allegations of human rights violations have soared, but Latin America’s major democracies have been silent.

  • The failure to support the OAS’ call for new elections was not just a stab in the back of Secretary General Almagro; it revealed that their rhetoric about the OAS Democracy Charter – embodiment of democratic values they demand be respected in Venezuela – are not as universal as they say. When the Lima Group last Tuesday (with considerable justification) rejected the Venezuelan National Assembly’s call for an early presidential election, the Hernández government’s signature was there alongside the others.  If universal democratic values and principles are not for universal application – if even an informal grouping will not criticize a small actor with whom they do not have major equities at stake – their value is much diminished.

January 30, 2018

* Nicolás Comini is Director of the Bachelor and Master Programs in International Relations at the Universidad del Salvador (Buenos Aires) and Professor at the New York University-Buenos Aires.  He was Research Fellow at CLALS.

Venezuela: Sliding into a Generalized Default

By Arturo C. Porzecanski*

Two bank bills in green and yellow

Venezuelan bonds from 1896. / icollector / Creative Commons

The Venezuelan government is now officially in default – per the leading credit-rating agencies (Fitch, Moody’s, and S&P) and the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA) – and seems to have no viable way out.  It has been three months since interest payments on various dollar-denominated bonds issued by the government and the state-owned oil company, PDVSA, have been late or not paid, with the total of coupons currently in arrears exceeding $1 billion.

  • In early November, President Nicolás Maduro announced that he would seek to restructure debt obligations, while suggesting the country would keep making payments during negotiations. As proof of his good intentions, he soon after paid a hefty $1.1 billion redemption payment on a PDVSA bond.  However, since a perfunctory meeting with some bondholders in mid-November, investors have not heard anything.
  • The government has blamed its precarious financial position on technical difficulties arising from financial sanctions imposed by the U.S. government – “the ongoing aggression, permanent sabotage, blockade, and financial persecution to which our people have been subjected” which “are in fact hurting the bondholders in international financial institutions.”

Once attempted, Venezuela’s debt restructuring – some $37 billion in government debt and $28 billion in PDVSA debt – could potentially become the world’s fourth largest, according to Moody’s.  A future restructuring could encompass $65 billion (plus interest arrears), compared to Greece in 2012 ($262 billion), Argentina in 2001 ($83 billion), and Russia in 1998 ($73 billion).

  • Restructuring negotiations with Venezuela will be difficult because the country owes at least another $65 billion to domestic bondholders, lenders from China and Russia, foreign airlines, banks and foreign suppliers, as well as foreign investors waiting to be compensated for nationalized properties. Another complication is that the validity of some debts could be challenged, especially by an eventual successor government, because not all received proper authorization (e.g., from the National Assembly).  Also, investors will be reluctant to grant meaningful debt relief unless the country’s capacity to honor the new obligations is substantially augmented, such as by taking drastic actions to revive the crumbling oil industry.  Finally, current U.S. sanctions would need to be relaxed to enable American investors to take possession of new government bonds from Venezuela incorporating the agreed-upon concessions (e.g., on maturity and coupons), in exchange for retiring the existing bonds – as per standard practice in debt restructurings.
  • An outbreak of disruptive litigation against Venezuela is a significant risk because the indentures of outstanding bonds specify that any disputes that arise are to be settled by U.S. rather than Venezuelan or international courts. Impatient creditors with favorable court judgments could make it difficult for Venezuela to keep repatriating oil export earnings home.  As the Argentina-related litigation and arbitration saga demonstrated, it is possible, though not easy or quick, for private investors to collect from a deadbeat government.

Maduro’s widening default is but the latest casualty of his and Hugo Chavez’s maladministration of the economy and public finances.  Government revenues relative to GDP are now less than half their level in 2013-14, while government spending is still running well above the levels of four or five years ago.  As a result, the fiscal deficit is now a whopping 25 percent of GDP and is financed mainly by the Central Bank, feeding hyperinflation.  A drop in oil production to its lowest level in three decades – a mere 1.8 million barrels per day as of late 2017 – and lower world prices have caused oil export earnings to shrivel up from almost $95 billion in 2012 to less than $30 billion in 2017 – a $65 billion drop.  Not even a drastic cut in government dollar sales for import purposes, which has provoked an unprecedented $50 billion compression of imports (from $65 billion in 2012 to about $15 billion in 2017) has been able to offset the calamitous fall in exports.  The default is also rooted in Venezuela’s gradual loss of its ability to sell new bonds abroad to replace maturing obligations and to help cover the interest bill.  Without the benefit of raising any fresh bondholder financing during 2017, last year the government would have had to come up with $10 billion out of pocket in order to cover all debt-service obligations to bondholders.  The equivalent debt-service figures for this year and next are on the order of $9 billion each – realistically, a “Mission Impossible” absent much higher oil production and prices.  The Trump Administration’s sanctions, forbidding U.S.-based investors to purchase new Venezuelan government bonds from August 25 on, were just the last nail in the external financing coffin.

January 9, 2018

*Dr. Arturo C. Porzecanski is Distinguished Economist in Residence at American University and Director of the International Economic Relations Program at its School of International Service.

Venezuela: Can Trump’s Coercive Diplomacy Help?

By Michael McCarthy*

A large auditorium-style room filled with people watching a speaker at the front

U.S. President Trump addresses the United Nations General Assembly on September 19, 2017. / John Gillespie / Flickr / Creative Commons

U.S. President Trump’s new rhetorical attacks and financial sanctions against the Venezuelan government suggest a shift toward coercive diplomacy aimed at achieving regime change, but U.S. power faces significant limits in the conflict-ridden country.  At the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, Trump called President Maduro an authoritarian and said “this situation is completely unacceptable and we cannot stand by and watch.”  Washington’s approach emphasizes sticks – sanctions against President Maduro, senior advisors, and threatened action against the oil sector – over carrots, while also voicing support for the opening of new mediated face-to-face talks between Maduro and the opposition.  A contact group of six Latin American and four European countries is promoting the talks, with the backing of UN Secretary General and the Vatican, to help avoid the worst-case scenario of open conflict.  Previous efforts to coordinate a multilateral coalition that simultaneously keeps the pressure on the government while opening negotiation avenues have failed – and agreeing on a roadmap is even more complex in view of the installation of the Constituent Assembly that stripped the elected, opposition-controlled National Assembly of its powers.

  • Trump’s new Executive Order directs financial sanctions that come close to directly threatening Maduro’s vital supports. It bans Caracas from issuing new debt in the United States and prohibits U.S.-based CITGO – a wholly owned subsidiary of the Venezuelan state oil company – from repatriating dividends to Caracas.  These measures will impose austerity on Maduro (who claims he will still make upcoming debt payments) and future actions are likely to try and undermine the government’s economic foundations.
  • In addition to installing the Constituent Assembly, Maduro seems to be pursuing a new regime-survival strategy in which he plays the role of a non-vengeful victim. Maduro criticized Trump’s sanctions and called him “the new Hitler” after the UN speech on Tuesday, but he’s also offered donations to aid post-Harvey recovery efforts in Houston and invoked John Lennon in a call for “giving peace a chance” in a New York Times ad earlier this month.  To regain a degree of credibility, Maduro will probably consider making elections for Governors slated for October 15 look competitive, but whether he has the political capital with his base to make bigger political or economic moves is unclear.  He may look to establish a new institutional equilibrium of dual legislatures, though it would hinge on removing the threat of retaliation against the opposition via the Constituent Assembly’s so-called “Truth Commission.”  He may also try to address massive fiscal imbalances by reforming the multi-tiered exchange rate, though this would be difficult as the system’s subsidized dollars help underwrite regime loyalty.

While the United States, Europeans, and Latin Americans are operating in loose formation – with Washington ratcheting up pressure while everyone else scrambles for negotiations – China and Russia are sticking to their strategic game.  As Maduro’s main financial backers, they are betting talks can stabilize the situation bit by bit.  They may kick in some more financial assistance if and when Maduro restores some stability by holding peaceful regional elections, delivering on the dialogue, and making large upcoming debt payments.  But while there is some basis for the geopolitical schadenfreude of Beijing and Moscow making it harder for Washington in Caracas, there are also signs that both have buyer’s remorse.  While they prefer Maduro stay afloat, they seem unlikely to extend loans that help stabilize the economy unconditionally.

None of the piecemeal actions that Maduro is apparently contemplating can defuse the political and social crisis, but a combination of steps may be enough to convince China and Russia to stay in the game.  Despite Trump’s statement that he was “not going to rule out a military option” in Venezuela, the Administration apparently is open to a policy of coercive diplomacy that includes genuine support for talks.  Trump attacked his predecessor for “leading from behind,” but figuring out how to sequence sticks and carrots in coordination with Latin American and European countries may require just that.  The bottom line is that the chance of a breakthrough on the biggest issues – the Constitutional road map and conditions for electoral participation – remain low, although some movement by both parties toward the middle seems realistic.  Despite the actions of outside actors, the situation is likely to remain poised over a knife-edge – without the catharsis of either peace or regime change.

September 21, 2017

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies.  He publishes Caracas Wire, a newsletter on Venezuela and South America.

OAS Secretary General’s Third Way Stumbles

By Stefano Palestini Céspedes*

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Luis Almagro, OAS Secretary General, at the first day of General Assembly in Cancún, June 2017. / Juan Manuel Herrera / OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro’s effort to drive the organization’s actions on Venezuela through international mobilization appears to have run its course without success during the recent General Assembly.  From the outset, Almagro faced the tough dilemma of what to do when OAS members did not want to fulfill their commitments and were reluctant to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter against the Venezuelan government.  As in most international organizations, the OAS Secretary General does not have strong authority to enforce its legal instruments and essentially had two options to cope with the dilemma:

  • To admit his lack of authority – and thereby signal to the world that the organization’s commitments, such as the Democratic Charter, are not credible. In the international system, there are plenty such non-credible and non-enforceable commitments, ranging from the EU Treaty (Article 7) to the Kyoto Protocol.
  • To use his limited powers to persuade member states from within – persuading national representatives to take action. This approach risks to be perceived from outside as inaction.  If persuasion succeeds and member states decide to enforce their commitments, the credit will most likely go to the member state playing the role of leader, and not to the institution.

Faced with Venezuelan President Maduro’s rejection of the OAS’s good offices and with member states’ preference to assign diplomatic leadership to UNASUR (over which Maduro had influence), Almagro chose a third way:  to drive OAS internal processes by pressing member states from outside via international public mobilization.  Through a series of actions in his own name – issuing reports, statements, and posts on social networks – Almagro called the attention of the international community and media to the OAS’s naming and shaming of Venezuela.  By doing so, he indirectly raised the cost of inaction of member states reluctant to take a strong stand.  Maduro’s increasingly undemocratic behavior, and the election of new governments in some key states, particularly Argentina and the United States, improved the odds of success.  Indeed, the OAS gave the Venezuela crisis unprecedented salience, and on April 3 the Permanent Council passed a resolution (approved by consensus but with only 17 states in the room) that, for the first time in OAS history, demonstrated that a democratically elected government could be condemned because of “unconstitutional alterations of the constitutional order.”  A core group of 14 countries – representing more than 90 percent of the hemisphere’s population – coalesced to back up the activist Secretary General.

  • The 47th General Assembly in Cancún was supposed to crown the strategy’s success by moving the OAS from a condemnation of Venezuela towards a common plan for engagement – specifically one embracing the anti-Maduro opposition’s demands. Venezuelan diplomats managed to convince some Caribbean states – dependent on Venezuela’s Petrocaribe program to withhold support of the resolution, causing the OAS-14’s plan to fail to achieve the two-thirds majority by only three votes.  (An alternative resolution put forward at the last minute by San Vicente also failed.)

Secretary General Almagro’s “third way” approach was risky, made under the assumption that the two traditional options would fail.  Reasonable observers can second-guess him, but there is little evidence that either of the other options would have fared any better.  The crisis in Venezuela is a hard case for the Inter-American Democratic Charter, and the OAS’s strict intergovernmentalism militates against decisive action.  Almagro’s public relations pressure from outside arguably worked with the larger states, but alienated the smaller.  A more cautious approach (as I argued here) perhaps would have helped to bring CARICOM states on board.  For now, what is clear is that the OAS will not play a major role in managing Venezuela’s democracy crisis – unless the already severe situation in the country shakes even the OAS fence sitters.  A pending question is whether the OAS might succeed in inventing a role for itself in post-crisis Venezuela.

June 30, 2017

Stefano Palestini Céspedes is a former CLALS Research Fellow and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the Freie Universität Berlin, where he specializes in international organizations and regional governance.

Venezuela: Stalemate in a War of Attrition?

By Michael McCarthy*

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Members of Venezuela’s opposition march against President Maduro at a demonstration in April 2017. / A. Davey / Flickr / Creative Commons

The pace of provocation and counter-provocation in Venezuela has reached a new high, and there does not seem to be a stabilizing force that can induce a de-escalation.  It’s unclear if the country’s power struggle is experiencing a new cycle in its multi-year confrontation, or if two months of protests mark the start of a downward spiral that will plunge the country into even deeper crisis.  Neither the government nor opposition appears near the point of exhaustion that would make efforts at a meaningful negotiated settlement fruitful.  An examination of their agendas, moreover, paints a picture of an intractable conflict.

  • President Nicolás Maduro is in raw survival mode – perhaps driven by fear of disgrace as the man who lost the Chávez legacy entrusted to him – and is forcing a rewrite of the Constitution as he lurches toward outright dictatorship. He deeply resents that the opposition never acknowledged the legitimacy of his election, and he was shaken when jeered and egged at a public rally recently.  He has condoned violence by his party’s vigilantes and the Guardia Nacional, but almost certainly grasps its political cost, including within the government and military.  Faced with the certain prospect of persecution by an opposition-dominated government, he probably sees no incentive to negotiate his denouement.
  • The opposition remains heterogeneous and is united almost exclusively in the fervent belief that Maduro – through evil and incompetence – is destroying the country. Government repression and their own self-inflicted wounds have precluded development of a sophisticated strategic planning capacity.  Although opponents’ preferred option is to remove Maduro at the ballot box, some also apparently believe that ratcheting up the violence will force the military – reluctant to intervene – to lean on Maduro to depart.
  • The senior ranks of the military, compromised by corruption and narco-trafficking during the Chávez-Maduro era, show no signs of wavering, but discontent among field-grade officers at the Regional Commands – who will have to serve under a successor government – may become palpable during the military promotion season that formally concludes July 5. As the Guardia Nacional soils its reputation, the military wants to stay off the streets as long as possible.  There’s no evidence of sympathy with the opposition; their primary concern is avoiding being part of the bloodshed.  How the military would orchestrate a post-Maduro era is unknowable.
  • The country’s economic and financial crises have devastated oil production, making it impossible for Maduro to pump his way out of the crisis and increasing his reliance on foreign capital. Indebting itself further at an extremely high cost, the government bought some time by selling $2.8 billion in bonds to Goldman Sachs – through a counterparty – for $865 million in cash.
  • The sectores populares are highly agitated but lack leadership. The working class has largely fallen into poverty, now estimated at 80 percent nationally, and neighborhoods previously home to chavismo’s base have shown tolerance for the opposition and outright disdain for the ruling coalition, including knocking down statues of Hugo Chávez.

Neither the government nor opposition has yet shown concern that its resources and energy are nearing exhaustion – and the military, so far, is not prepared to tell one or the other to give up the struggle.  As long as both sides think that they can break the other, moreover, the prospects for either regime collapse or a mediated settlement seem unlikely, and it is hard to imagine the emergence of a stabilizing force that can mitigate conflict.  External forces may try to facilitate a resolution but are unlikely to succeed.  Brazil’s corruption scandals have removed it as a player; UNASUR’s failures have rendered it irrelevant; and Maduro preempted any final OAS censuring by announcing withdrawal from the organization (though his foreign minister will attend its General Assembly this month).  Washington continues to rely on sanctions – most recently freezing the assets of eight members of Venezuela’s Supreme Court – but seems reluctant to get more deeply involved, and given the turmoil that characterizes the Trump administration, it may in any event be incapable of doing so.  Absent the emergence of a viable formula within Venezuela to overcome the costly stalemate, the war of attrition between regime and opposition will likely continue without meaningful involvement of external actors.

June 5, 2017

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies.  He is International Associate for Venebarómetro polling and publishes Caracas Wire, a newsletter on Venezuela and South America.

Venezuela- OAS: New Chapter in a Long Story

By Stefano Palestini Céspedes*

Special Meeting of the Permanent Council, April 3, 2017

On April 3, a special meeting of the OAS Permanent Council voted to condemn Venezuela’s action that allows the Tribunal Supremo de Justicia (TSJ) to take over the functions of the National Assembly. / Juan Manuel Herrera/ OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro seems determined to validate critics’ claims that the separation of powers in Venezuela has been breached, thereby strengthening diplomatic efforts to force him to reverse course.  After the OAS Permanent Council met for two days to discuss Secretary General Almagro’s call for Caracas’ suspension, Venezuelan courts on March 29 authorized the Tribunal Supremo de Justicia (TSJ) to take over the functions of the National Assembly, and to limit the immunity of the members of the parliament.  The action reinvigorated an exhausted domestic opposition and further infuriated international observers.  Two days later, the TSJ overturned the two rulings after Maduro, casting himself as a mediator between competing constitutional powers, requested it.  These erratic actions signaled the worsening erosion of the rule of law as well as the divisions in the government and the Bolivarian movement.

  • The reversal did not take the edge off OAS General Secretary Almagro’s and others’ condemnation of the power grab as an autogolpe or “self-coup.” The Inter-American Democratic Charter was designed in 2001 precisely to provide the OAS with instruments to deter self-coups in the aftermath of those carried out by Alberto Fujimori (Peru) and Jorge Serrano (Guatemala) in the 1990s.

The TSJ decisions and Venezuela’s defiance didn’t put Almagro’s suspension efforts over the top, but the Permanent Council is now much more actively involved in the crisis.  Venezuela has isolated itself within the Permanent Council.  Speaking at the Council, its delegation severely criticized individual member states the day before the TSJ decisions.  Chile and Peru recalled their ambassadors for consultation after it.  Ecuador, an ally since the time of Hugo Chávez, distanced itself from Maduro.  On April 1, MERCOSUR invoked the Protocol of Ushuaia – the group’s democracy clause – against Venezuela, and it joined Colombia and Chile in a forceful public statement on behalf of UNASUR.  Mexico, historically a jealous guardian of the principle of non-intervention, has assumed the leadership in holding Venezuela accountable for its undemocratic practices.  As a result, the Permanent Council on April 3 approved a resolution condemning the TSJ decisions and committing to “undertake as necessary further diplomatic initiatives to foster the restoration of the democratic institutional system,” including convening a ministerial meeting.

Building a consensus for tougher action in the Permanent Council will be difficult, however.  Last week’s resolution was approved by 19 member states, but four abstained and 10 were absent.  Any proposal to suspend Venezuela will require two-thirds of the members’ affirmative votes.  Although there is still a long way to go to make the OAS part of the solution of the Venezuelan crisis, the General Secretary’s activism has set an important precedent in rallying a majority of states in the Americas to come together to discuss a member’s erosion of democratic principles and institutions – and to condemn the non-democratic actions of a democratically-elected government.  This is a first for the organization, and it is a big step toward fulfilling the original purpose of the drafters of the Inter-American Democratic Charter.

April 10, 2017

* Stefano Palestini Céspedes is a CLALS Fellow and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the Freie Universität Berlin, where he specializes in international organizations and regional governance.

Latin America: The Spirit of Constitutionalism under Attack

By Maxwell Cameron*

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A participant in a march in Venezuela holds up the country’s constitution. / TeleSURtv / Flickr / Creative Commons

Recent events in Paraguay and Venezuela raise yet again the issue of whether political leaders are capable of deliberating and acting in ways that show an appreciation for constitutional essentials, or whether they choose instead to perform their roles and offices in ways that continuously test constitutional principles and, over time, contribute to their erosion.  The principles of re-election and term limits are important in every presidential democracy, the product of historical circumstance.  In the case of Paraguay, a dictatorship under strongman Alfredo Stroessner from 1954 to 1989, sensitivity to the idea of a president serving for too long is strong.  Venezuela’s elimination of term limits a few years ago set a dangerous precedent.  Other constitutions limit incumbents to one term (Mexico, Paraguay) or two terms (United States, Colombia); in some constitutions, presidents cannot be re-elected immediately but can run later after a term has elapsed (Peru, Uruguay).

  • More important than the constitutionality of term limits is that the re-election issue be settled in a way that commands the assent of all parties – within a certain spirit of constitutionalism. Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes’s error was to think that he could change the constitution by means that violated this spirit, even if the public would arguably support a modification of the re-election rule if pursued in the right way.  (Since the fall of Stroessner, the Partido Colorado, the pillar of his rule, has won every election except in 2008, when Catholic priest Fernando Lugo was elected.  Lugo was deposed in 2012.)  The President of the Senate, Roberto Acevedo, opposed the change and was outraged by the way it was adopted: the Senate voted in a special session held behind closed doors.  In that session, 25 Senators approved the measure, bypassing the opposition Partido Liberal Radical Auténtico.

The showdown in Venezuela over President Maduro’s effort to shut down the congress was another undemocratic blunder.  A decision by the Tribunal Supremo de Justicia (TSJ), Venezuela’s supreme court, to arrogate legislative functions to itself or delegate them to other branches or agencies was unconstitutional.  (The TSJ has the power only to declare a law invalid or that another branch of government is operating outside the law.)  When the Fiscal General de la República, Venezuela’s equivalent of attorney general, Luisa Ortega Díaz argued that the TSJ’s decision was unconstitutional, she gave herself political cover by expressing loyalty to the Constitution of 1999 – the legitimacy of which has long been undermined by the fact that it is a document made to measure for chavismo.  As a result of this and significant domestic and international pressure, the government backed down – a rare event.  The attorney general’s insistence that the constitution not be violated indicates that a spirit of constitutionalism among chavistas is not completely dead, but it also shows that it remains a mechanism for coordinating the actions of agents within the government.  Her position also raises the possibility of a split between constitutionalists and hardline militarists within the regime.

Democracy is not just a system of rules.  It requires politicians to acknowledge and respect the essential constitutional agreements that have to underpin the struggle for power in a self-governing community.  The crises in Paraguay and Venezuela both forewarn of the dangers of excessive partisanship and the risks of playing fast and loose with constitutional rules.  Something similar seems to be playing out in Ecuador, where allegations of fraud have been made by the opposition.  If spurious, they are condemnable; if supported by evidence, they are deeply disturbing.  Either way, they reflect mistrust in institutions after a decade of rule by Rafael Correa (Likewise, U.S. Senate Republicans’ threats to use of the “nuclear option” to confirm Judge Gorsuch threatens to deepen the politicization of the U.S. Supreme Court.)  The cost of the failure of politicians and citizens to cultivate a spirit of constitutionalism is very heavy.  In Paraguay, it has resulted in deadly protests and resignations by top officials; in Venezuela it has taken the country to the brink of civil war; in Ecuador, there is a real prospect of debilitating governance problems as Lenín Moreno of Alianza PAIS takes office; and in the United States we are starting to see the kinds of governance problems that have long been associated with the “politicized states” (to use Douglas Chalmers’s phrase) of Latin America.

April 5, 2017

* Maxwell A. Cameron is Director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions at the University of British Columbia.

OAS-Venezuela: Almagro Ups the Ante

By Stefano Palestini Céspedes*

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Luis Almagro, OAS Secretary General, met with Freddy Guevara, First Vice President of the National Assembly of Venezuela, in Washington, DC in early February 2017. / Juan Manuel Herrera, OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro’s second report on Venezuela, issued on March 14, reflects his personal commitment to enforce the principles enshrined in the Inter-American Democratic Charter, but risks getting ahead of the organization’s member states and could ultimately hurt the credibility of the charter and OAS.  The 73-page document states that the government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has become a “dictatorial regime” that violates “every article” of the Charter; concludes that all attempts at dialogue have failed; and essentially calls for the OAS to suspend Venezuela’s membership in accordance with the charter’s democracy clause.  Almagro said the UNASUR negotiation (supported by the Vatican) has failed to achieve any of its proposed objectives and has become “a tool for reinforcing the regime’s worst authoritarian features domestically and, externally, for not engaging in international condemnation and pressure.”

  • The report concludes with an ultimatum: If the government does not call for general elections, release all political prisoners, restore all laws it has annulled, and select a new electoral authority and a supreme tribunal in the next 30 days, Venezuela should be suspended from the OAS. Few observers believe Maduro could meet these conditions even if he wanted.

Almagro’s actions, including his forceful call for application of Article 21 of the Charter – the “democracy clause” – moves his office and the OAS into uncharted territory as it would be the first time it is applied against an elected government.  Article 21 was applied against the government in Honduras that came to power in a coup in June 2009, but the sanctions were initiated at the request of ousted President Zelaya and strongly supported by Latin American governments – including Hugo Chávez – and Washington.  To enforce Article 21 against an incumbent government, a strong consensus needs to be built.

The Secretary General’s showdown with President Maduro presents a test for the Charter and, ultimately, for the OAS, as it pushes the organization beyond its traditional institutional limits.  Any decision on suspension must be approved by a two-thirds majority of member states, whose delegates represent executive branches that traditionally have shied from intervening in each other’s affairs.  Some insiders also grumble that the Secretary General has fallen short in his consultation with the member states; instead he seems to take a partisan position such as by inviting Maduro’s opposition to OAS headquarters this week for a press conference.  If the members back Almagro’s call for suspension, he will have demonstrated that principled arguments can break even strong institutional barriers – moving OAS into a new phase.  In that case, the Secretary General together with the member states will need to come up with a post-suspension plan; only then will OAS become part of the solution to Venezuela’s crisis.  If member states do not support the Secretary General’s call, Almagro will be respected as a leader moved by convictions, but the OAS will probably move one step down towards irrelevance.

March 21, 2017

Stefano Palestini Céspedes is CLALS Fellow and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the Freie Universität Berlin, where he specializes in international organizations and regional governance.