Viewpoints on Energy, Geopolitics, and Civilization
Mac Margolis / Bloomberg:
Venezuela Back to the Future
Yuri Cortez /AFP
Down, but far from out.
Venezuela's opposition should go back to the Future. Steady gains, not
a deus ex machina, are the key to unseating the regime of Nicolas Maduro.
As hopes dim for relief in crisis-torn Venezuela, its embattled opposition finds itself in a familiar place. Outmaneuvered, bewildered and corroded by internal dissent, the fractious anti-government forces not only failed to dislodge the increasingly autocratic President Nicolas Maduro this year, but in falling short may have strengthened his hand.
Shadow President Juan Guaido has lost traction on the Venezuelan street and enthusiasm among international allies. U.S. President Donald Trump, regime change's biggest cheerleader at the beginning of 2019, has seemingly lost interest . A corruption scandal involving some opposition legislators has done Guaido no favors.
Here's the good news. Venezuela's opposition is staggered not beaten. Its rolling street demonstrations and the Bolivarian regime's brutal response have helped isolate Maduro and opened fissures within government, even flipping some mid-level officials . Many of Maduro's ranking apparatchiks are now blacklisted by the U.S. and allied governments and face arrest outside of Venezuela.
Latin American diplomacy, famously diffident before rogues among neighbors, has never been so outspoken in its criticism of authoritarianism and imperiled democracy. Heralding the dissent, uncannily, is the Organization of American States, whose Secretary General Luis Almagro “is even more radical than some members of the Venezuelan opposition,” says Venezuelan economist Juan Nagel, at the university de los Andes.
“The Chavista regime was always going to be difficult to dislodge, but this was the year when the opposition claimed its most important gains against the government, something which had never happened,” said Javier Corrales, of Amherst College. “Yet because they didn't manage to unseat Maduro, disappointment has set in.”
If Venezuela's democratic forces take their setbacks to heart, opportunities await. The opposition's way forward may lie in recovering a strategy from the recent past: steady pressure by peaceful protest and the corrosive power of exposing fiat it cannot overthrow. In the decade since 2006 and working within the crooked lines of Chavismo, opposition parties gained momentum and international cachet by repeatedly fielding candidates for national elections. Amid gerrymandering and despite rules slanted to ruling party contenders, that tenacity led them to win won control of the National Assembly in 2015.
True, Maduro's governing claque countered by creating an overarching constituent assembly , stacked with Chavistas, effectively neutering the legislature. Yet the opposition showed it could draw blood. It also showed refreshing unity by agreeing to rotate the presidency of the legislature according to who garnered the most votes in subsequent elections. “The argument I hear time and again is that Venezuelan politics is played on a tilted field. The opposition should participate not because the system is free or fair, but precisely because it's not free or fair,” New York University historian Alejandro Velasco told me. “The opposition should pursue the ground game, hit the street and work the barrios to show the people the naked power plays. That's not a strategy for the short term.”
Betting on the short term led the opposition to overstate its clout and set up its followers for disappointment. The biggest misstep perhaps was selling the idea that regime change was just a protest away. Alliances of international convenience fed the illusion, not least the sugar rush of apparent U.S. backing. “In 2019, Venezuela became a geopolitical plaything,” said David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at Tulane University. “Trump was convinced that Chavismo was falling, and the opposition believed he had their back.” Now Trump's attention has drifted to the U.S. electoral cycle, giving Maduro a pass. China, Venezuela's biggest creditor, is leaning in, while “Russia has decided Venezuela is a nice satellite,” said Smilde.
Such setbacks also present opportunities. One is to hammer on the contradiction of a regime whose failings have backed the government into precisely the “neoliberal” heresies it has long decried: dollarization in the face of hyperinflation, free-market initiative as price controls collapse, and austerity to counter fiscal incontinence. “We are seeing a huge gap between rich and poor, and a shrinking class of people with access to dollars. This is an evident campaign bonus the opposition can exploit,” said Velasco.
None of this will bring results, however, unless the opposition can reset its strategy to the long game of negotiation and forsake risky demands for regime change in favor of a war by attrition. Engaging with the enemy involves risks, but so does abstinence and partisan intractability. The opposition mistakenly criticized the Latin American development bank C.A.F.'s $350 million loan to Venezuela to repair the shambolic power grid in four Venezuelan states, lest it be seen as collaborating with the Maduro regime. Opposition leaders are also torn over whether to field candidates for legislative elections in 2020, a contest they feel certain the government will try to game.
There's good reason to be skeptical. Too often, the opposition has found bargaining with the Maduro regime a fool's errand. That sentiment led Guaido's coalition to quit Norway's sponsored conciliation talks in Barbados after Maduro walked away amid U.S. oil sanctions. Yet by scuttling negotiations, “the opposition handed Maduro the initiative,” said Smilde.
After a year of frustrations, Venezuela's opposition needs to work on outlasting, not out-muscling, an encastled ruler. In that sense, the legislature's commitment to maintain Guaido, a dexterous conciliator, as interim president is encouraging. Venezuela's democratic leaders would do well to embrace a return to dialogue, at a table where the U.S., Russia, China and even Cuba also have a seat. “The government and opposition can't have a better alternative than trying to reach a negotiated solution,” said Smilde. Venezuela's democratic opposition tried all the alternatives in 2019. They'll have to change course or spend another year falling short of a goal that requires long-term commitment.
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Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”Petroleumworld reprint this article in the interest of our readers.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published by Bloomberg, on Dec. 17, 2019. All comments posted and published on Petroleumworld, do not reflect either for or against the opinion expressed in the comment as an endorsement of Petroleumworld.
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