Venezuela is facing a catastrophic economic, political and social crisis: there is widespread hunger, inflation is at 1,000,000 percent, and millions have fled the country. By all accounts, the country is now ruled by an oligarchy of criminals. Most Venezuelans want the regime of Nicolás Maduro gone. Opposition leader Juan Guaidó has proclaimed himself acting interim president; thus far, he has been recognized as such by the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Australia, Israel, and the European parliament. China and Russia, Venezuela’s first and second most important creditors, remain staunch Maduro supporters. Other countries, with less questionable motivations, have also failed to get onto the Guaidó bandwagon: Mexico and Uruguay have urged a negotiated solution—an offer that Guaidó has flatly turned down.
International involvement only adds to the problem
It is easy to understand why many in the international community believe that immediate political change is required—the depth of the humanitarian crisis worsens daily. However, any change of regime arising from foreign pressure will only serve to deepen political polarization and prolong (or even thwart) the process of consensus building that is so essential to democratic political stability. The strongest Guaidó supporter is the United States; the U. S. administration has been actively campaigning for international recognition of Guaidó’s claim to national leadership. Most recently, it has given him control over some of Venezuela’s U.S. assets.
The United States has a long history of intervention in the region, particularly against left regimes seeking social justice. Even if one views the policies of such regimes as misguided, it is obvious that inequalities and social deprivation are real problems and that these challenges were ignored for far too long, particularly by believers in the free market. Understandably, U.S. meddling arouses considerable fear and hostility among the political left—hence, if the U.S. is perceived as the prime instrument through which Maduro is removed from office, such a scenario will bolster support for Chavismo, if not for Maduro himself. Meanwhile, the prospect of strong international support from the U.S. and its allies is what has emboldened the opposition to continue to resist a negotiated settlement. In this way, international involvement places a negotiated settlement and future democratic stability, further out of reach.
U.S. concern about the quality of democracy in the region is highly selective (and so is Canada’s)
U.S. intervention has a long history of directly supporting brutally repressive regimes. The most nefarious U.S. involvement occurred during the 1970s with the alliance between Latin American military security chiefs and various agencies of the U.S. government (the CIA among others). Known as Operation Condor, not only did this operation support the military overthrow of democratically elected regimes, but it also orchestrated the assassinations of Latin American trade unionists, party leaders, and others associated with the political left. There was no alliance of liberal democracies lining up to condemn the brutal regimes of Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay and Paraguay, at the time—despite the fact that there was ample evidence from various human rights reports about the horrendous events that were transpiring in the region. Poverty also increased dramatically in these countries during the period. There is not much evidence that the U.S. has become more committed to democracy in general in the region. Let us not forget the 2009 Honduran coup. The US immediately recognized the coup-makers and Secretary of State Clinton prevented the ousted elected leader from returning to office. Canada continued its military aid to Honduras. There was no concerted effort by the west to bring the ousted elected leader back to power.
Let’s not forget the recent past
The fact is that the Venezuelan crisis is the product of deep political polarization with long historical roots. As I have said in an earlier blog post, this is not a story of good versus evil. Without a negotiated settlement, the opposition will likely become increasingly authoritarian should it come to power. It is important to remember that the opposition called on the military to carry out a coup against Hugo Chavez in 2002—a coup that removed Chavez from power for a few days until Venezuelan and international outcry secured his return to power. This coup had the support of the U.S. At that time, Chavez had substantial popular support having been re-elected in 2000 with 60% of the popular vote. In 2004, in response to opposition demands that a referendum on his recall from office be held, Chavez won with 58% of the vote. By all accounts, these elections and subsequent ones in 2006 and 2013 were relatively fraudulent free. Despite his obvious popularity, the opposition demonstrated and demanded Chavez’s removal from power throughout his rule.
Guaidó cannot bridge the gap between government and opposition
While Chavez certainly had authoritarian leanings, particularly in his wish to concentrate power in the presidency, the regime’s authoritarian direction has taken on a whole new meaning under his successor. Maduro lacks Chavez’s charisma and his access to revenue from a buoyant international petroleum market, and has no hesitation about employing high levels of repression. His replacement by Juan Guaidó, however, is not the answer. On the one hand, the mainstream media characterizes Guaidó’s Popular Will Party as a centrist social-democratic party and Guaidó as a reasonable compromise candidate—although this description is not universally shared. While Guaidó might appear to have a progressive bent insofar as he has promised basic income support for poor families, his call for an agreement with the International Monetary Fund suggests tough austerity and continued deprivation should he take power. Moreover, his party holds only 14 national assembly seats out of 167, rendering him subject to pressure from economic and political hardliners within the opposition coalition. The former leader of the opposition, Henrique Capriles, who ran for the presidency against Chavez and Maduro in 2012 and 2013, is a strong supporter of neoliberalism calling for an open door policy to foreign investment. Members of the opposition coalition are also demanding trials and imprisonment of leading Chavistas. Guaidó has already outraged some of those within his coalition by suggesting that his government could offer Maduro prosecutorial amnesty.
Without a negotiated settlement, one which provides agreement on the political participation of members of the current regime and their known supporters, the fate of Maduro’s close allies in the military and the National Guard, and a consensus on the main lines of economic and social policy, political polarization will quickly re-emerge once Maduro is removed. Only a negotiated settlement can achieve a modicum of social peace and any hope of democratic stability. Indeed a negotiated settlement is exactly what most Venezuelans want.