From January 2017, Venezuela’s political crisis, involving a sharp deterioration in social conditions, large-scale street protests, government repression, and human rights violations, has steadily worsened. With the election of a Constituent Assembly on July 30, the country has become increasingly isolated internationally. The European Union, most Latin American Countries, and the United States have all condemned this election, widely seen as a power grab on the part of the country’s president, Nicolás Maduro. Sanctions against Venezuela are under serious consideration, and the U.S. has threatened military intervention. This increasingly intense international pressure will not produce a lasting resolution of Venezuela’s predicament; indeed, it will probably not produce any resolution at all.
The Failure of Negotiations
Many observers and international actors have called on the two sides to negotiate. Repeated attempts have ended in failure, with the Vatican being the fourth interlocutor to try to bring the two sides together. One would think that in a country where identification with the Catholic Church has endured, this latest process might have yielded results. However, talks broke down in the face of intransigence on both sides. Although the ostensible collapse of talks was the opposition controlled-assembly’s debate, which was highly critical of the government, the failure of both sides to show up at various meetings indicates that neither was wholly committed to a negotiated settlement. Each accused the other side of refusing to make concessions.
Venezuela’s turmoil is not just a problem of removing an increasingly brutal dictator from power. As I pointed out in an earlier post, the current crisis has a long and violent history. The country is deeply polarized on fundamental issues around which there is unlikely to be any agreement in the foreseeable future. Chavismo seeks to construct twenty-first century socialism, with a political ideology involving distain for the private sector, rejection of free market capitalism, and the formal institutions of liberal democracy. Chavismo claims it wishes to replace liberal democratic institutions with grassroots political participation. The opposition, a coalition of disparate left, centre, and right political parties, calls for the strengthening of formal liberal democratic institutions, a central role for the private sector, restrictions on state violations of land and property rights, and the elimination of “unnecessary” controls on trade. The government alleges that the opposition has created the current crisis and will only be satisfied with the removal of Chavismo from power permanently. It claims that the opposition is conspiring with foreign powers to accomplish this overthrow and has denounced members of the opposition as traitors. The opposition points to government repression and human rights violations as evidence of its wish for total power. Hardliners in both camps have been instrumental in eliminating hope of a negotiated settlement since they have worked to discourage any talks at all with the other side.
Removal of Maduro will probably not solve much
The removal of the Maduro regime will not resolve these profound underlying differences. While it is true that popular support for Maduro himself is only 21 percent, this figure does not mean that 80 percent of the population will be happy to see the opposition take power and pursue its agenda. Support for the protesters is not overwhelming: it stands at 51 percent. Further, while many Chavistas have likely become disillusioned with the current Maduro regime, 55 percent still approve of Chavez. A change in regime that puts power in the hands of the opposition will no doubt usher in a renewed round of political unrest and instability. Venezuela is in dire need of a societal distributive compromise among political contenders and their social bases. For this to occur, the opposing sides must be strongly committed to the negotiating process and must believe that a negotiated settlement is both desirable and possible. Both sides have to be willing to make concessions. There is no indication that these conditions are present. External pressure on Venezuela will probably do little to create these conditions and may even make things worse if the censure of the Maduro regime emboldens opposition forces and angers the government.