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.

Prospects Dim for Better U.S.-Venezuela Relations under Trump

By Timothy M. Gill*

maduro-tillerson-face-off

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and U.S. President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. Tillerson’s past dealings with Venezuela may lead to increased tensions between the two countries. / President of Russia website / Creative Commons / William Muñoz / Flickr / Creative Commons / Modified

U.S. President Donald Trump and his foreign policy team have expressed similar criticisms of the Venezuelan government and, while giving off contradictory policy signals, appear headed toward a policy focused on sanctions rather than continuing the dialogue that the Obama administration recently opened with its counterpart in Caracas.  As the U.S. Senate continues its confirmation hearings of Trump nominees, Latin America has featured very little in the discussion thus far, but passing mentions of the region suggest greater consensus among the Trump team than on other issues such as the threat of Russia and the Iran nuclear agreement.

  • In September, Trump expressed support for the Venezuelan opposition. He asserted that he will “stand in solidarity with all people oppressed in our hemisphere … [and] with the oppressed people of Venezuela yearning to be free.”  He blamed “the socialists” for running Venezuela “into the ground.”  He has also recently shown interest in the cases of Antonio Ledezma and Leopoldo López, two opposition leaders that respectively remain under house arrest and in a Venezuelan prison.
  • Several of Trump’s cabinet selections also seemingly harbor animosity toward the Venezuelan government. ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, nominated to be Secretary of State, concluded a case against the Venezuelan government in an international court in 2014 involving the expropriation of his company’s facilities.  Venezuelan President Maduro accused ExxonMobil of inciting conflict between Venezuela and Guyana when it announced that it would work with the Guyanese government to drill oil in an area that both countries claim.  General Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for national security adviser, has included Venezuela (and Cuba) in the “enemy alliance” that the United States faces “in a global war.”  General John Kelly, Secretary of Homeland Security, has condemned the Venezuelan government for its alleged involvement in drug trafficking.

While the Trump team is obviously unhappy with Caracas, their statements so far shed little light on what they’ll concretely do differently from the Obama Administration.  Obama designated the Venezuelan government “an unusual and extraordinary threat” to the national security of the U.S. in 2015 and sanctioned a handful of state security leaders.  But there has also been renewed interest in recent months on the part of both governments to dialogue.  In late 2016, Maduro met with former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Under Secretary Tom Shannon.  Despite disparaging Trump during the campaign season, Maduro extended his congratulations to him on November 9, and publicly reiterated his hope for better relations.  On January 16, Maduro stated that he was “surprised at the brutal hate campaign against Donald Trump,” and he welcomed the Trump administration, saying that Trump “won’t be worse than Obama.”

Aggressive rhetoric from Trump is a given, but his true position on Venezuela – as well as many other countries – is not entirely clear.  Businessman Trump undoubtedly grasps that strategic relations are founded on Venezuela’s role among the United States top five international suppliers of crude.  He has at times been dismissive of the concept of “democracy promotion,” which drives much of Washington’s advocacy in places like Venezuela.  He shows a penchant, however, for the sort of double-standard that most irks Latin America – criticizing Cuba and Venezuela’s political systems but praising Kazakhstan and Russia.  Moreover, he may be tempted to throw a sop to U.S. politicians who have led the effort to impose sanctions on the Venezuelan government.  During Tillerson’s confirmation hearing in the U.S. Senate, Senator Marco Rubio – with whom Trump had bitter exchanges during their party’s primaries last year – made criticisms suggesting continuing tensions, but Venezuela would be an easy issue for Trump to throw Rubio’s way as a peace offering to the lawmaker from Miami.  Indeed, while it’s far too early to make concrete predictions, it seems safe to say that Obama’s late-game efforts to reset the relationship with Venezuela will not continue under the new Administration – and we might expect Trump to more intensively target the Venezuelan government in the coming years.

January 23, 2017

*Timothy M. Gill is a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Inter-American Policy Research at Tulane University.

Venezuela: Running Out the Clock in 2016

By Michael McCarthy*

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A military exercise in Caracas, Venezuela. The Venezuelan military remains tolerant, if not actively supportive, of President Nicolás Maduro’s government. / Cancilleria del Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

Despite continuing high tensions in Venezuela, neither President Nicolás Maduro nor the opposition appears likely to gain an upper hand in their years-long confrontation over the next couple months.  Venebarómetro polls buttress press reports and observers’ impressions that the opposition is slowly making gains, but support for the government – while extremely low – has stabilized.  A plan to reschedule 2017 debt owed by the national oil company will probably give the administration some breathing room, especially if oil prices continue to recover – a more likely scenario thanks to OPEC’s announced production cut agreement.
  • The very high turnout for the opposition’s Toma de Caracas demonstration on September 1, which mobilized hundreds of thousands of people, showed the depth of support for the anti-Maduro platform. The Electoral Tribunal’s announcement last week of onerous requirements on the opposition to schedule a referendum to recall Maduro (requiring, for example, the signatures of 20 percent of residents of all states, rather than nationally) rekindled opposition anger and unity.  A Venebarómetro poll earlier this month showed that 90 percent of Venezuelans view their overall situation negatively, and 71 percent support Maduro’s immediate resignation, but that only roughly 50 percent identify with the opposition.  The Mesa de Unidad opposition coalition is under great pressure to satisfy different constituencies – promoting street mobilization and pursuing dialogue at the same time – even when these initiatives seem at counter purposes.  Hamstrung by coalitional politics, anti-Maduro forces have not shown the cunning needed to force a course reversal from the Electoral Tribunal.
  • While Maduro’s popular support remains extremely low (22 percent), an internal party revolt against him appears unlikely. The government’s big push for a deal under which PDVSA creditors would swap debt coming due in 2017 for generous new 2020 bonds is making headway, according to the press.  Enhanced short-term liquidity may result in increased imports, a development which cannot come soon enough for a government that faces a restive population that has seen quality of life deteriorate dramatically during the crisis.

The common wisdom that the military is at least tolerant, if not actively supportive, of Maduro still stands.  Armed Forces chief Vladimir Padrino López showed an independent streak during last December’s Parliamentary election but this has not translated into a public rivalry with Maduro.  He moved into the spotlight when Maduro tasked the military with taking charge of food distribution, but he has since kept a lower profile.  Other senior commanders’ political leanings are even more difficult to discern.  Appealing to the military is a key element of the opposition’s current strategy, but there are still no signs of an increase in the institution’s willingness to press Maduro to step down or even change policies.

Maduro’s time-buying strategy looks likely to prevail for now.  His repressive tactics toward the opposition – keeping pressure on while occasionally offering negotiations, prisoner releases, and other gestures – are gaining the government time but failing to address any of the underlying causes of the ongoing crisis.  The debt swap is also a palliative that only delays the implementation of major reforms.  Popular unrest, political instability, and even violence are the factors that might conceivably persuade the military that its support and patience are misplaced.  However, with the world watching, most of the opposition leadership wants to play by constitutional rules.  Those who consider the chances of success justify the human price of further ramping up protests may see their hand strengthened if government obstructionism kills the referendum this year.  Few Venezuelans, moreover, view possible talks with the Vatican and the United States as likely to produce a breakthrough.  Even if the government alleviates the pain a bit to generate some Christmas cheer, the country will wake up with a terrible national hangover in 2017.

September 30, 2016

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

Venezuela: Implications of the Opposition’s Landslide Victory

By Michael McCarthy*

Venezuela Elections 2015

Photo Credits: Nicolas Raymond and 2 dvx ve (modified) / Flickr and Wikimedia Commons, respectively / Creative Commons

Venezuela is just beginning to feel the shock waves of the opposition’s landslide victory and humbling defeat of President Nicolás Maduro’s PSUV.  Riding a wave of discontent with the Maduro government’s management of the economy and political repression, the opposition Mesa de Unidad (MUD) coalition won at least 112 seats in the 167-seat parliament, giving it a commanding two-thirds majority.  The MUD won the popular vote 56-41.  The political scenarios are wide open.  Some preliminary analytical judgments follow:

  • Maduro has accepted the election results, but serious questions remain whether he and his advisors will engage in the give-and-take necessary to make divided government work. He is restructuring his cabinet and has called on supporters to “relaunch” the Bolivarian Revolution.  He says he will strenuously oppose any amnesty law for imprisoned opposition members – a top MUD priority – and that he will “go to combat” if the opposition tries to remove him from office.
  • Despite its historic achievement, the opposition will face challenges to build sustainable unity. The MUD is a heterogeneous electoral alliance, and the hardline and moderate factions are likely to disagree about strategy – whether the time is ripe for pressing for Maduro’s resignation or for cultivating support from disaffected chavistas.
    • The opposition faces the challenge of demonstrating a commitment to what they have criticized most about chavismo – democratic inclusion.  If they want to put Venezuela back together, for example, the MUD will have to decide how to provide PSUV officials guarantees of political inclusion.
    • Passing an amnesty law for political prisoners and addressing the dire economic situation are high on the MUD’s unified agenda – and probably will remain part of a consensus platform.
    • Less clear is how aggressively the opposition will push its agenda from the National Assembly.  Most in the MUD are more closely aligned with the moderate strategy of former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, but others will want to push harder.  They may try to remove chavista-appointed Supreme Court judges likely to oppose Constitutional changes that would curtail Maduro’s powers.
    • The forced resignation of Guatemalan President Pérez Molina and the recent opening of an impeachment process against Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff may embolden similar initiatives in Venezuela.
  • The country’s tarnished election system functioned better than many critics had predicted. The 74 percent voter turnout was eight points higher than the last legislative elections.  Reports of violence and irregularities were few.  The Armed Forces provided effective security at the polls, and behaved in a manner that suggests an interest in defending their institutional reputation.  The National Electoral Council (CNE) disappointed many by issuing an unprecedented call for voting centers to remain open even if there were no voters in line, and for delaying reporting the final results, but the voting process was clean enough.
  • Outside Venezuela, chavismo’s loss may be a setback from some leftists – but a relief for most others. Maduro’s defeat is a potential liberation from the albatross that the disastrous Venezuelan regime has become.  For most left-leaning leaders, chavismo had become a deeply flawed project that has, for several years, been toxic.
  • For anti-chavistas outside Venezuela (including some in Washington), the election results indicate that the way to overcome the catastrophe over which Maduro presided was not to threaten the regime with sanctions and encourage extremists in the opposition, but instead to push for the election to take place, with the most safeguards possible. There is precedent for Latin American dictatorships falling in elections that they put on the agenda and then could not stop.
  • Although Maduro’s saber-rattling along the Colombian and Guyanese borders failed to divert attention from his internal mess, his rhetoric of resistance to yielding power suggests the international community should keep an eye on him in case he tries again.
  • The Venezuelan victors should also understand the anxiety of their neighbors over the future of Petrocaribe and other initiatives. Venezuela under Chavez did an enormous service to the region by subsidizing oil in ways that helping governments achieve important social advances.  Long before Chavez, Venezuela used its oil wealth to support allies.  Such assistance is as important now as it has been for decades.

December 9, 2015

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.

Venezuelan Elections: Economic Crisis Turns Up the Heat on Chavismo

By Michael M. McCarthy*

A faded legacy. Photo Credit: Julio César Mesa / Flickr / Creative Commons

A faded legacy for Chavismo? Photo Credit: Julio César Mesa / Flickr / Creative Commons

Twenty-four long months since their country’s last national election, Venezuelans head back to the polls to elect a new National Assembly on December 6 in a tense political climate – with no promise that the government will respect the opposition’s near-certain victory.  All 167 seats in the unicameral body will be up for grabs in a race polarized between Chavismo’s pro government coalition and the Mesa de Unidad Democrática opposition coalition.  Thanks largely to a rapidly deteriorating economy, the government’s approval rating decreased from 50 percent in 2013 to 20 percent in September, according to the national Venebarómetro poll.  A range of polls in September indicated the MUD is poised to win either a simple or “qualified” (60 percent) majority.  Observers generally agree that the main measure of success for Chavismo is preventing the MUD from obtaining a two-thirds majority, and that blocking a qualified majority would be a major triumph.

For ordinary Venezuelans the campaign is overshadowed by the massive economic crisis.  Skyrocketing inflation, severe shortages of basic goods and services, and reduced social assistance programs are contributing to tensions on the street, where the campaign is not as present as in years past.  Nevertheless, heavy turnout is still expected – 66 percent of eligible voters participated in the last National Assembly elections in 2010, and pollsters report a strong intention to vote.

  • The MUD has shaped its campaign around leveraging the vote as a mechanism for punishing economic mismanagement and restoring some institutional balance to a political system that barely reflects opposition voices at the national level. Skepticism of the National Electoral Board, which rejected the MUD’s request for international electoral observation by the OAS, EU or UN, has increased.  Slashes to budgetary support for opposition governors and mayors, while the government channels funds to unelected parallel state and municipal authorities, make supporters wonder whether a victory will be fully respected.
  • The government refreshed its slate of candidates by promoting generational and gender diversity, but stalwarts, including current National Assembly leader Diosdado Cabello, remain prominent. The party is distributing last-minute pork to mobilize voters, and it’s working the system’s rural bias – each department is automatically allocated three deputies – where strong government presence gives it a strategic advantage.  Strikingly, the Chávez legacy has become a liability for President Maduro because the former President was much more charismatic and economic conditions were considerably better during his tenure.

The Maduro administration seems to have run out of diversionary moves after exaggerated external threats from Colombia and Guyana faded.  It is also on the defensive after the Rousseff administration, Maduro’s most powerful diplomatic partner, expressed unhappiness about Caracas’s opposition to its choice of a Brazilian political heavyweight to lead UNASUR’s “electoral accompaniment mission.”  The President has also been set on back on his heels by intensified international criticism of the trial and conviction of opposition leader Leopoldo López, who, according to a state attorney who worked the case, was sent to jail for 14 years on fraudulent charges.  Regardless of the outcome on December 6, the direction of the country is highly uncertain.  Maduro has said he’ll accept the results “whatever they are,” but he has also said “we have to win, by whatever means possible” (como sea and cualquier manera), and that if the opposition wins “I will not hand over the revolution” but rather “proceed to govern with the people in a civic-military union.”  In the next couple weeks, the government may still try to throw the opposition off course, but the MUD does not seem interested in renewing street protests – more violence is unlikely to advance its objectives. Neither do its leaders seem confident that a renewal of talks on rebuilding democratic institutions will help.

November 9, 2015

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.

Maduro Cites Security to Suspend Rights on the Border

By Michael M. McCarthy*

Photo Credit: Globovisión / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Globovisión / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Maduro government’s closure of a key border crossing into Colombia and declaration of a state of emergency in nearby towns mark not only a low in relations with Colombia but also in efforts to manipulate the playing field ahead of legislative elections slated for December 6.  President Maduro blamed Colombian “paramilitaries” for an August 19 firefight in which three Venezuelan soldiers were wounded.  He announced the deployment in the area of the “Operations for the Liberation and Protection of the People” (OLP), which are heavily armed military and police units specially created to force out alleged paramilitaries, and security forces swept through the area forcibly deporting more than a thousand undocumented Colombians.  Last week, the pro-government coalition of the Venezuelan National Assembly called for expanding the emergency measures to two other important border states.  The two countries’ foreign ministers met on August 26 for what Colombian Minister Holguin called a “positive, frank and realistic” exchange, but there was no agreement to reopen the border.

Maduro’s objectives seem to go far beyond stemming border violence.  Two reputable polls put his popularity in the lower 20s and project the opposition as likely to win a Congressional majority in the December 6 legislative elections.  His Chavista political movement is bleeding supporters amid a mounting economic crisis. Skyrocketing inflation and acute shortages of basic goods and services have created daily hardships for the popular sectors that once served as Chavismo’s base.  The opposition coalition Mesa de Unidad Democrática called the state of emergency a diversionary tactic – “to cause a situation of intense conflict and internal confusion” – and claimed that the maneuvering shows Maduro fears the election and may suspend it.  The state of emergency in Táchira, which is a renewable in 60 days, restricts the right to public assembly and gives Maduro powers to seize assets and limit the sale of basic goods and services.  The value of the annual illegal border trade is estimated to have grown to roughly $5 billion.  The order may become a mechanism for intensifying government controls over industry, which Maduro regularly accuses of waging war against the government.

Maduro’s political objectives in declaring the state of exception are obvious to reset the political agenda in line with a government narrative of external threats.  This security rationale appears greatly exaggerated, suggesting he’s more interested in scapegoating Colombia for the sorry state of affairs in Táchira than in sparking a diversionary armed conflict.  He also recently escalated an historic border dispute on his eastern flank with Guyana after Exxon discovered oil in Guyanese territory claimed by Venezuela.  So far, Maduros actions have not seemed to threaten the soft truce between Washington and Caracas, which has led to a toning down of mutual recriminations.  Over the weekend, the U.S. State Department issued a mild statement that noted “continuing concern about the situation along the border between Venezuela and Colombia,” although Washington did take him to task for the deportations.  The real implications of the emergency decree are internal to Venezuela. Maduro’s state of emergency not only raises human rights concerns in the affected territories; it suggests the specter that the government will resort to increasingly desperate measures to maintain control as its credibility, like the economy, collapses.

August 31, 2015

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.

The Venezuelan Opposition: Can the Center Hold?

By Michael M. McCarthy*

Leopoldo Lopez (R) being escorted by the National Guard after turning himself in on February 18, 2014.  Photo Credit: Juan Barreto via Globovisión / Flickr / Creative Commons

Leopoldo Lopez (R) being escorted by the National Guard after turning himself in on February 18, 2014. Photo Credit: Juan Barreto via Globovisión / Flickr / Creative Commons

The leaked video of jailed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López declaring a hunger strike and calling for a renewal of street demonstrations this Saturday threatens to reopen splits within the Venezuelan political opposition.  With Venezuela experiencing an economic crisis – the bolívar lost a quarter of its value on the black market last week and shortages of basic goods plague daily life – the opposition, a disparate group of 29 political parties organized under the Mesa de Unidad Democrática (MUD), seems poised to score a pivotal victory in this year’s legislative election.  But López’s call to protests could renew divisions between those supportive of last year’s La Salida street demonstrations and the moderate camp, led by Governor Henrique Capriles, eager to punish the government at the polls for its poor management of the economy.

  • On May 17 the MUD held open primaries for 37 candidacies, and turnout (8 percent of all registered voters) exceeded expectations, despite very little media attention being devoted to the races. Capriles’s First Justice (PJ) and López’s Popular Will (VP) parties won 13 and 10 candidacies with 19.7 percent and 18.2 percent of the votes, respectively.  Regionally-based parties Democratic Action, strong in rural areas, and A New Time, strong in western Zulia state, performed well, with other small parties winning the remaining candidacies. The results consolidated the negotiating leverage of the PJ and VP as the MUD began internal talks about selecting the remainder of its candidates by consensus and campaign tactics – whether to use a tarjeta única ticket or let individual parties be listed on the ballot on voting day.  (The National Election Council has yet to announce the date.)

The López video, first leaked on government media outlets before going viral on social media late last Saturday, was forceful.  It emerged after news broke that López’s cellmate, VP politician Daniel Ceballos – the former mayor of San Cristobal, an epicenter of the street demonstrations last year – would be transferred to a public jail for common criminals where security guarantees are considerably weaker.  In the video, López mentions the U.S. investigation into chavista National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello for alleged involvement in narco-trafficking; condemns the “permanent repression of our rights”; and demands “the liberation of all political prisoners,” the “halt to persecution, repression, and censorship,” and the setting of an official date for the legislative elections, with OAS and European Union observers.  On Monday, a leader of López’s party endorsed his call for a rally on Saturday, and Lopez’s wife and spokeswoman declared that Venezuela is entering “a new stage of struggle.”

The countrys situation is palpably worse than a year ago, when López went to jail, but opening a new front is not what most of the opposition had in mind.  Capriles and the MUD have issued statements of support since the video leaked, and the MUDs Executive Secretary Jesus Chuo” Torrealba posted a call for unity on Twitter.  Going to the elections divided is a loss, he said.  Going to the street divided is suicide.  Will we learn?  Unanswered, however, is the question of the oppositions ability to avoid becoming bogged down in a leadership struggle just as the campaign season kicks off.  Oppositionists had finally found a political middle ground based on prioritizing the elections and the narrative of ordinary Venezuelans facing daily hardships to find food and other basic necessities.  However legitimate the oppositions fury at the governments repression and mismanagement, the call to the streets risks changing that narrative and diminishing prospects of opposition unity going into the election season. 

May 27, 2015

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.

Venezuela: More of the Same Tragedy

By Michael McCarthy*

The gruesome murder of a pro-government Socialist Party deputy and the decision by the opposition coalition’s Mesa de Unidad Democrática (MUD) to suspend a rally in light of the tragedy foretold an opportunity to restart a national dialogue.  But unlike in January 2014, when the murder of beauty queen Monica Spears and her family created momentum for talks on security between the government and opposition, an unfortunate and familiar downward spiral has begun.  High-level government officials’ provocative accusations that the murder of Robert Serra, one of the Venezuelan Parliament’s youngest members, was the work of right-wing actors have deepened yet again the political polarization in Venezuela.  UNASUR’s new Secretary General, former Colombian President Ernesto Samper, surprisingly weighed in, strongly implying that Colombian paramilitaries were involved in Serra’s murder.  The government has long attempted to link members of Venezuela’s opposition with paramilitary groups, and Samper’s impartiality will forever be questioned by the opposition if the allegation is not proven. At Serra’s funeral, President Maduro described the MUD’s new Executive Secretary, Jesús “Chuo” Torrealba, as a piece of “garbage.”  Maduro’s name-calling is another example of the government using polarization as a tool to encourage supporters to close ranks.

Before the stabbing deaths of Serra and his female companion by unidentified assailants, the government was attempting to build momentum to resume the UNASUR-sponsored talks that had been frozen since May 3.  Samper had informed the MUD and opposition members of his intention to restart talks, and had described Maduro as “a man of dialogue, a man of peace,” adding that there were good prospects for “working a lot of things for the good of the region.”  But at this point any good will among the parties seems to have evaporated.  Moreover, for MUD secretary Torrealba, who originally said his goal was to change the MUD’s profile to mobilize a wider base of support, the primary task remains building MUD unity at a moment when different factions of the opposition are promoting widely varying initiatives.  Torrealba has little negotiating experience and does not enjoy the same access to elite sectors as his predecessor did.  His precarious position calls into question whether the MUD could negotiate as a coalition even if talks restarted.

Once again, centrifugal forces seem to be prevailing in Venezuela.  This trend raises the question of whether Venezuelan society is not only “wounded and resentful,” as Jesuit Political Scientist Arturo Sosa says, but on the verge of an estallido social – social explosion.  Mechanisms for mediating conflict through political discussion remain in place and appear unlikely to disappear completely, but confrontations are likely to continue flaring up regularly.

*Michael McCarthy is a CLALS Research Fellow.

October 7, 2014