Political Opposition in Venezuela is in a negative-sum game. Actors of different hues and mutual contradictions have united in their common hatred for President Nicolas Maduro and in their determination to overthrow the Chavista regime – in power since 1999. Opposition is working in tandem with international actors who are equally intent on regime change. A complex situation is unfolding in the oil-rich South American country; there could be all-round losers in this dangerous game.
Politics of Destabilisation
For the makeshift Democratic Unity RoundtabIe (MUD), nothing stands in the way. It has to remove the elected President; and for that every constitutional institution is under attack. Opposition in Venezuela became particularly emboldened after it gained the legislative majority in December 2015. The National Electoral Council (CNE) is under attack; for, it found last year the Opposition demand for a referendum to recall the President as unconstitutional. The office of ombudsman is held in contempt. Judicial orders are openly flouted. The Supreme Court had set aside the election of three deputies on grounds of electoral irregularities. A disdainful National Assembly still swore in the ‘disqualified’ deputies. A constitutional bench eventually held the National Assembly in contempt, and decided to strip the house of its legislative powers. Three days later, the judicial order was reversed after the Attorney General Luisa Ortega opined otherwise. Opposition however saw an opportunity in the judicial orders of 29 March 2017; it decided to hit the street with serial violence – now in its tenth week.
The much-awaited ‘Caracas spring’ however has not arrived. Barrios have not insurrected; Padrino Lopez, the Defence Minister, has scorned all provocations at a military coup.
A sort of macabre pattern to violence is discernible: on average, one killing a day – some 67 in the past 70 days. Victims are those shot by a sniper, or steel bullets fired from a sling-shot, or someone just run over by a speeding vehicle. Some are killed for their race and skin colour; Maduro mentioned one such case. Around six deaths are attributed to police and are under investigation by the office of the attorney general.
Whatever be the truth; more noticeable is the alacrity of the international media. It might sound cynical: it is a high sound-bite battle in the virtual world. In truth, ten weeks of protests and violence remain carefully managed and choreographed by the international media. Protests are confined to the posh areas of Caracas and the other four big cities. Some seventeen Opposition-controlled municipalities are the hotbed of agitation. Protests have become theme-based too: one day, it is the men on horseback; another time, it is women or the senior citizens who are brought to protest. Maduro has appealed Pope Francis to tell the Opposition not to put children in the forefront of agitation.
Towards Regime Change
Regional efforts at regime change are at work in concert with domestic violence. The Secretary-General of the Organisation of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, since he assumed office in mid-2015, has been openly critical of Maduro and has publicly threatened Venezuela with suspension and sanctions. Almagro jumped into the fray when the Supreme Court decided to strip National Assembly of its powers. In a 75-page report , prepared in March, based on the press handouts of the Venezuelan Opposition, Almagro called Maduro a ‘dictator’ and asked the OAS to suspend Venezuela under its Democracy Charter.
In a rush of events, 17 countries, out of a total 21 present and with no authorization of the pro tem president of the Permanent Council, met on 3 April and declared a motion as having been passed ‘by consensus’ at the Permanent Council. The private meeting, without the pro tem president and not even having 18 votes, which is the minimum required to adopt a motion, asked Venezuela to immediately restore the National Assembly. Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez described it an “institutional coup”. What happened on 3 April was unprecedented in the 69-year history of the OAS.
Undeterred, the Secretary-General made the next move for suspension and sanctions against Venezuela, including a possible military intervention by the OAS. Protests were barely in their fourth week, and death count at 28, when Luis Almagro decided to go pre-emptive. On 26 April 2017, he concluded that ‘crimes against humanity’ have been committed by the government of Venezuela; adjudged a crisis of democracy and asked Maduro government to hold fresh election, as demanded by the Opposition, “as quickly as possible”. He reported this to the Permanent Council the same day, which resolved with 19 votes in favour to discuss the “situation” in Venezuela at the level of foreign ministers on 31 May 2017.
Venezuela threatened to quit, if OAS persisted with its ‘intrusive action’. The regional body nevertheless went ahead with its General Assembly meeting at foreign ministers level on 31 May in Washington. D.C. There was a particular draft, sponsored by US, Canada, Mexico, Colombia and several right-wing governments in the region. Despite lots of private meetings, selective cajoling and coercion throughout the day, the draft failed to get the support of two-third members in the afternoon meeting. Perusal of the draft indicates that it had intended to put Maduro on notice: he was told to respect human rights, follow rule of law, end violence, release political opponents and, significantly, shelve the writing of a new Constitution. Further, the onus was on him to open dialogue with the Opposition.
Had the US-sponsored draft been through, two immediate follow-ups were being readied: it was proposed to immediately constitute an OAS ‘contact group’ to open negotiation with Maduro, including possibly his early exit. Some Western analysts also commented that ‘crimes against humanity’ is an accepted ground to invoke R2P; meaning thereby that Venezuela is a fit case for ‘humanitarian intervention’. The second step envisaged immediate opening of an ‘international humanitarian assistance channel’, which was meant to remove state authorities at local level.
In fact, it was the other resolution, submitted by two regional groups, viz. the Caribbean community and the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) which aborted the interventionist agenda. Notably, the ALBA draft did not propose the suspension of the constituent assembly process. Its core concern was the “establishment of concrete plans for the restoration of peace and stability as soon as possible” and an end to violence and renewal of dialogue among all.
With large regional support for Venezuela, the meeting was adjourned abruptly and would now be held on 19 June in Cancun, Mexico. With the Caribbean Community and ALBA countries opposed to intervention and regime change, the 34-member OAS is unlikely to secure support of the two-third of its members for sanctions and military action against the Maduro government.
Venezuela might have escaped sanctions and regime change; but it could be only for the time being. Various ideas are being bandied about, including the formation of a regional ‘coalition of the willing’. Odds seem set against Maduro government: Venezuela’s resourceful elites cannot wait any longer to get back their power and privilege; international oil companies and their parent governments are equally impatient to retake ownership of the petroleum resources.