Power without the People: Averting Venezuela’s Breakdown

International Crisis Group Briefing 36, 19.06.2017
  • Violence is escalating in Venezuela, killing 70 people in over two months of ever-angrier popular protests against a government that is abandoning representative democracy. Regional states should avert a humanitarian catastrophe by pressuring the Maduro regime to withdraw plans to elect a phony constituent assembly on 30 July.


I. Overview

Venezuela is in turmoil after more than two months of almost daily mass demonstrations organised across the country by the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance. Almost 70 people have been killed; human rights groups ascribe at least a third of these deaths to excessive force by National Police (PNB) and National Guard (GNB) riot squads, sometimes accompanied by groups of gunmen on motorcycles (so-called colectivos). Thousands have been arrested – some in violent raids on residential properties carried out without warrants – and hundreds arraigned before military tribunals, in violation of the constitution. Systematic looting in several cities adds to the misery of daily life in a country suffering from chronic shortages of food, medicines and other basic goods. Armed thugs, either affiliated with or tolerated by the government, hold de facto authority in many areas.

Venezuela has ceased to be a democracy. President Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro have systematically eroded constitutional checks and balances over nearly two decades. The government has suspended democratic elections and stripped the opposition-led National Assembly of virtually all its powers. It intends to rewrite the 1999 constitution, electing a 545-member constituent assembly next month under a specially designed system that almost guarantees a loyalist majority, despite the government’s low poll ratings. The assembly will be empowered to write a new constitution that sweeps aside existing institutions and installs a “communal state”. Government spokesmen have threatened to close the National Assembly, eliminating legislators’ parliamentary immunity and “turn upside down” the prosecution service (fiscalía general) whose head – the former loyalist Luisa Ortega Díaz – now publicly opposes the president.

Venezuela’s descent toward violent anarchy threatens not only its 31 million inhabitants but also the wider region, whose leaders are unable to agree on how to help their neighbour restore democracy, the rule of law and stability. A negotiated resolution remains the best hope for avoiding even greater bloodshed, but not by returning to the futile, time-c0nsuming “dialogue” of 2016. Negotiations should be rigorously structured, with an agreed timetable and agenda, and mediated by external actors able to act as guarantors. The active engagement of the Organization of American States (OAS) will be essential.

Since the present government has rejected such negotiations, however, there is little hope for progress without the emergence of significant fractures between pragmatists and hardliners within both the military and civilian leaderships. Carrots as well as sticks are needed. Chief among the former is a credible plan to restore peaceful democracy that offers guarantees to both sides, including a transitional justice scheme. But first the government must abandon its project for a constituent assembly, which would only intensify the conflict and make a solution even more difficult.


II. What Provoked the Latest Protests?

At the beginning of 2017, the Maduro government was in a buoyant mood. It no longer faced the threat of early presidential elections, having used its institutional stranglehold to block a presidential recall referendum in 2016. The appointment of Aragua state Governor Tareck el Aissami as vice president reinforced the hardliners. The MUD was in disarray, internally divided and seemingly unsure where to go next. An abortive dialogue facilitated by the Vatican, which began in late October, fell apart in December, having succeeded only in demobilising street protests and undermining the credibility of opposition leaders. The MUD reorganised, dismissing its secretary general, Jesús “Chuo” Torrealba, and adopting a cumbersome system of coordinating bodies seemingly designed to paper over the splits among member parties.

Then in late March, the Supreme Court (TSJ) issued two resolutions that would trigger new conflict, uniting and reinvigorating the opposition. Most controversially, Resolution 156 transferred legislative powers of the National Assembly to the court, a move the MUD condemned as a coup d’état. The resolutions also accused MPs of treason, virtually eliminated their parliamentary immunity and threatened them with trial by military tribunals. On 31 March, Attorney General Luisa Ortega, previously considered a hardline government loyalist, declared that these decisions marked a “breakdown of constitutional order”. To limit the damage, the government convened the National Defence Council, chaired by Vice President Aissami, which “exhorted” the Supreme Court to reconsider the resolutions – an order the judges promptly obeyed by partially rescinding them.

The next day, opposition legislators called the first in a series of demonstrations to demand early general elections and dismissal of justices responsible for the rulings. The OAS Permanent Council, which only days earlier had held an inconclusive meeting on Venezuela, reconvened on 3 April and passed a resolution declaring the court rulings “incompatible with democratic practice” and a “violation of constitutional order”. The resolution invoked both the OAS charter and the Inter-American Democratic charter, which includes provisions for dealing with the breakdown of constitutional rule in a member state. It also called for a consultative meeting of OAS foreign ministers. In protest, Venezuela announced it would leave the organisation.

Though the partial reversal of the Supreme Court resolutions seemed to indicate a climb-down, the Maduro government soon made clear that it was ready to pour more fuel on the fire. On 7 April, the comptroller general announced that it was banning Henrique Capriles, a key opposition leader, from holding elected office for fifteen years. The MUD announced that street demonstrations would continue until the government backed down. A pattern emerged of at least three major rallies or marches a week, which were then blocked, dispersed and violently attacked by police and National Guard riot squads, backed in Caracas by armoured vehicles and water-cannon. On average, one person – a demonstrator, a passer-by or a member of the security forces – was killed every day. On 1 May, Maduro announced his plans for a constituent assembly, saying this was the only way to restore “peace”. The opposition dismissed the proposal as a fraud to provide quasi-legal justification for dictatorship.


III. Goodbye to Representative Democracy

Like his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, Maduro came to power through an election, though he won the presidency in April 2013 by only a narrow margin and despite legal challenges.The g overnment’s willingness to again face the electorate evaporated after the December 2015 legislative elections, however, when the MUD obtained two thirds of the 167 parliamentary seats. Since then, it has manoeuvred to avoid elections, evade its commitments under international treaties, and finally change the constitution in order to abolish representative democracy altogether.


Avoiding the Electorate

Using the nominally autonomous Supreme Court, Maduro had all laws passed by the opposition-controlled assembly in 2016 declared either unconstitutional or financially unviable. The court’s constitutional bench then removed parliament’s other powers, including oversight of the executive branch and budgetary authority, accusing the assembly of contempt for attempting to seat members from Amazonas charged with vote-buying. The president has ruled by decree under a state of emergency first imposed in January 2016, and renewed (to date) seven times. When the MUD responded by seeking a presidential recall referendum, under Article 72 of the constitution, Maduro used his control of the electoral authority (CNE) to delay and ultimately block the effort.

Elections for state governors, originally scheduled for December 2016, were put on hold. Excuses included lack of funds, controversy over the recall referendum and the court’s decision to launch a complicated, months-long process to “revalidate” political parties, which appears designed to eliminate many of them. On 24 May, the electoral authority announced that the delayed elections would take place on 10 December. However, it also announced elections for a constituent assembly (ANC) on 30 July. Once elected, the assembly will have authority to cancel any other elections, or even eliminate state governorships altogether.


Venezuela’s Divorce from the OAS

Hugo Chávez, who regarded representative democracy as a tool for political control by elites, chafed at the human rights provisions of the Inter-American system, as embodied in the OAS charter and the Inter-American Democratic charter. Although Chávez signed the charter (which, ironically, was first invoked in response to a coup that briefly ousted him in April 2002), he made clear his reservations. He was equally dismissive of the Inter-American Human Rights commission and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, whose rulings the Venezuelan Supreme Court either ignored or ruled inapplicable. Chávez denied the commission access to Venezuela, arguing that its criticisms were part of a U.S.-inspired campaign against his government. In September 2013, Venezuela renounced the American Convention on Human Rights.

This process of withdrawal from the Inter-American system reached its logical conclusion with the Maduro government’s decision to renounce its OAS membership. The unprecedented move leaves Venezuela isolated from the regional body’s other 34 members, along with Cuba, which was suspended from 1962-2009 and has refused to rejoin. Other close allies of the Maduro government, such as Bolivia and Nicaragua, have shown no inclination to follow Venezuela’s example.


The National Constituent Assembly

The government’s decision to convene a constituent assembly or ANC epitomised its rejection of internationally accepted democratic norms. President Maduro says his aim is to promote dialogue and restore peace. Declarations by other leading proponents suggest a different intention, however. Former Attorney General Isaías Rodríguez, a member of the presidential commission charged with promoting the assembly, has spoken of using it to “annihilate” the political right. Diosdado Cabello, vice president of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, said the ANC would close down the National Assembly and eliminate current legislators’ parliamentary immunity, while another member of the presidential commission, constitutional lawyer Hermann Escarrá, said it would even assume criminal justice functions.

Although Article 348 of the constitution states that the president is among those who can trigger the drafting of a new constitution, Articles 347 clearly states that only “the people” can convene a constituent assembly. Most scholars argue that this requires a prior referendum, but the government has refused to hold one.  It is also unclear whether the electorate will get to approve any resulting constitutional text. Under pressure from both the opposition and dissident chavistas, the government modified ANC regulations to include a referendum. However, the final decision will rest with the constituent assembly itself.

Even more serious are problems with how the ANC will be elected. The method proposed by the government (and accepted by the Supreme Court and electoral authority) is skewed against heavily populated urban areas where the opposition is strongest. Each of the country’s 335 municipalities will elect one assembly member, regardless of population size. Municipalities that are also state capitals will elect two. This means, for example, that the city of Maracaibo (capital of Zulia state), with almost a million voters, will elect two members, while the state of Táchira with 29 municipalities but only 826,000 voters, will elect 30. Tiny towns in remote Amazonas state will have the same weight as municipalities in metropolitan Caracas with hundreds of thousands of voters. The system would also make it almost impossible for the opposition to take both seats in state capitals, giving the government a virtually guaranteed 50 per cent of these (ie 23 seats).

The rules also provide for 173 assembly members to be elected by eight arbitrarily chosen “sectors”: students, peasants and fishermen, business owners, the disabled, pensioners, workers, indigenous people, members of communal councils and members of communes. There are no published electoral registers for these sectors; only the government has access to relevant databases. Some – particularly the communes and communal councils – are vulnerable to manipulation by the state.


IV. The Risks of Escalation

The Maduro government has shown that it is willing to use state-sponsored violence to remain in power rather than give in to opposition demands for free and fair elections. Opposition protests have for the most part been non-violent, but its current leaders may not be able to retain control of the anti-Maduro movement, which includes sectors of the population that have little affinity with them. And while a split in the armed forces might bring about a swift conclusion to the conflict, it is also possible that it could lead to protracted violent clashes on the streets, with rival factions, both civilian and military, fighting for control.


Will the Opposition Shoot Back?

The Democratic Unity alliance, which represents the overwhelming majority of opposition political parties, says it is committed to a non-violent, electoral solution to the conflict. Many of its leaders, including members of parliament, have been injured while marching at the forefront of demonstrations without gas masks, helmets or other forms of protection. Despite their rejection of violence, the Maduro government has painted protest leaders as terrorists.

The demonstrations, however, have not been entirely peaceful. Groups of youths, known as La Resistencia, have clashed for hours with security forces, using rocks, petrol bombs and other projectiles, including home-made mortars. Trucks and buses have been hijacked and set alight; in a few cases “infiltrators” allegedly have been lynched. Communities and some outsiders regularly erect barricades in parts of the capital while elsewhere they have set fire to government buildings, ruling party headquarters and even police and military installations, most notably in the western states of Táchira and Barinas but also in Aragua, on the central northern coast, and Sucre to the east. In Zulia and Anzoátegui states, demonstrators have destroyed or damaged statues of Chávez. Protests have also erupted in communities west and south west of Caracas that until recently were bastions of chavismo.

The opposition leadership could lose further control if the conflict is not resolved quickly. Illegal firearms are available in large quantities and there are plenty of people – particularly former members of the police and armed forces – with the skills and experience to make use of them.


Will the Army Split?

On 10 April, three Venezuelan army lieutenants asked for political asylum in Colombia after crossing the border at Cúcuta. Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez called for their extradition, accusing them of plotting a coup. The lieutenants, who recorded a video calling on the armed forces to “turn their back on the tyrant”, belong to an apparently large group of dissident officers, most of whom graduated from the military academy in 2012. Analysts attribute their discontent to the presence of Cuban officers and rampant corruption in the upper echelons of the military. Many officers, from various branches of the armed forces, reportedly are in detention, either in military prisons or intelligence (DGCIM) installations. Some appear to be National Guard officers, detained for ignoring orders to repress demonstrations by force, although information is scanty.

The armed forces appear to remain largely unified, however. This cohesion could be tested if the government uses the army to bolster police and National Guard riot squads. It has already deployed some units to the interior, sending 600 Special Forces troops to the south-western state of Táchira on 17 May, along with 2,000 additional National Guards. Ostensibly, their role is to neutralise “paramilitary” or “mercenary” groups allegedly employed by the opposition to “overthrow the government”.


“Colectivos” Unleashed

On 17 April, President Maduro announced plans to expand the Bolivarian Militia to 500,000 (and eventually 1 million) members, each equipped with a rifle. The militia, he said, would defend the country against a “ferocious offensive” mounted by opposition “traitors”. Diosdado Cabello said there were also 60,000 motorizados ready to protect the centre of Caracas. These armed civilians on motorcycles, also commonly referred to as colectivos, act as para-police groups, enforcing political loyalty in the barrios and sometimes helping police and National Guard break up opposition demonstrations. The government denies involvement with the colectivos, though photographs and videos apparently show armed civilians on motorcycles operating in coordination with uniformed security forces.

A day later, the president authorised implementation of the first phase of Plan Zamora, a military/civilian plan to combat threats to internal order by those allegedly planning a coup. It includes deploying armed civilians alongside security forces and using military tribunals to try government opponents. The pretext for the plan’s launch was an outbreak of looting in the country’s third city, Valencia. Some 780 people were arrested, including 251 put before military tribunals on charges such as rebellion.


A Failing State?

The Venezuelan government is unable to fulfil some of the modern state’s most basic functions. Not only is the country suffering from acute food insecurity and a collapsing health system (see below), but also from rampant and largely unpunished criminal violence: more than 90 per cent of the 20,000-plus homicides committed every year go unpunished.Gangs run many of the country’s prisons, using them to organise extortion, kidnapping and hijacking rackets. The colectivos engage in crime as well as threatening and harassing the opposition. On the Colombian border, a similar role often is played by guerrillas of the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), an armed leftist group engaged in tentative peace talks with the Colombian government, or by the home-grown paramilitaries of the Fuerzas Bolivarianas de Liberación, who operate smuggling, kidnap and extortion rackets and profess loyalty to the government. Both groups have threatened opposition activists in border areas.

Control over certain territories is shifting to quasi-state armed groups. In south-eastern gold and diamond mining areas, the so-called sindicatos (nominally miners’ unions, but in practice armed, criminal gangs reportedly linked to senior military officers and the state government) exercise de facto control, smuggling vast quantities of precious minerals out of the country. “They come and ask for food”, said a farmer in Bolívar state. “If you say you don’t have any, they shoot your cattle right in front of you”. State security forces are increasingly prone to brazenly predatory acts against civilians. National Guard officers at alcabalas (military checkpoints on the highway) extort money from smugglers and legitimate transport companies alike, and they are not alone. Fruit and vegetable vendors in central Venezuela say their costs have increased because of the so-called vacunas (literally “vaccinations”, meaning bribes) that the truckers have to pay en route. Informal alcabalas sometimes spring up even on main highways in daylight.


V. How to Prevent a Catastrophe

Venezuela is immersed in a profound crisis that is not just political but also economic (see graphs 1 and 2 below). Per capita GDP has fallen by more than a third since 2012, the second worst economic collapse in recent Latin American history. Ten per cent of the population living in extreme poverty (around 1.5 million people) admits to obtaining food from the garbage. Infant mortality increased by more than 30 per cent between 2015 and 2016, and more than 11 per cent of children suffer from acute malnutrition.  Most essential medicines are unobtainable. Domestic production has collapsed, with manufacturing firms operating at 20-30 per cent of installed capacity. Imports fell by 72 per cent between 2012 and 2016, and continue to plummet in 2017.

Negative Growth. Venezuela’s national income plummeted in 2015. Although forecasts suggest some recovery, the economy is not expected to grow in real terms for years. (Change in GDP at constant prices). Data after 2016 are estimates. International Monetary Fund and Bloomberg.

Economists forecast that Venezuela’s economy in 2019 will be roughly the same size it was in 1999. (GDP in real terms relative to 1996). Note: Data for 2016 is an estimate, reflecting IEA data showing a drop of 220,000 barrels a day that year. BP, International Energy Agency and Bloomberg.

To pay its most urgent bills (especially the foreign debt) the government is selling off assets at massive discounts. Lack of food, medicines and other basic goods, along with a collapse in the purchasing power of wages, is driving tens of thousands to leave the country, especially to neighbouring Colombia and Brazil, straining their resources. The government’s response is to blame its enemies and radicalise its base – a recipe for further polarisation, violence and poverty. There is no indication that the group around Maduro, including both civilian and military leaders, has any intention of negotiating a return to democracy. Such a restoration will only take place if pragmatists in government and the judicial system gain the upper hand, or if the government collapses, either because it runs out of money, or because the armed forces withdraw support.

The opposition sees little option but to maintain its campaign of non-violent demonstrations in a bid to persuade both the armed forces and/or civilians in key positions (especially the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, the electoral authority and the ombudsman’s office) to break ranks. Offers of leniency to government members through a transitional justice bill passed by parliament could prove useful in that regard. Government hardliners may ultimately need to be offered safe passage to exile, since no feasible transitional justice system is likely to offer them immunity from prosecution for human rights violations or involvement in serious organised crime.

Neither Venezuela’s neighbours nor the wider international community should remain on the margins. The region should put in place a “contact group”, ideally comprising four to six countries, including at least two allies of the Venezuelan government, to push for a negotiated solution. This effort will need to secure broad international support, including from major powers friendly to the chavista regime, such as China and Russia. Such a move already has been contemplated by a majority bloc within the OAS. But a consultative meeting of foreign ministers on 31 May failed to reach consensus, with the fourteen-nation CARICOM bloc of Caribbean states urging “non-interference”. The meeting was to reconvene just before the OAS General Assembly in Cancún, Mexico, 19-21 June 2017.

If the OAS fails to set up a contact group, an ad hoc group of countries should step in to promote a negotiated solution. The most urgent task of either a contact or an ad hoc group would be to put pressure on the Maduro government to abandon plans for a constituent assembly, commit to free and fair elections, and begin complying with the four key commitments it made during the 2016 dialogue but never implemented. The powers of the National Assembly should be restored, political prisoners released, a humanitarian assistance program launched and steps taken to replace government loyalists in the Supreme Court and the electoral authority with independent, respected professionals in accordance with constitutional requirements.

It is likely, as indicated above, that little progress will be made until the Maduro government runs out of alternative options, or is replaced by a more pragmatic leadership. Should neither persuasion nor protest force the government to change course, then the international community must be prepared to deal with the humanitarian consequences of even more intense conflict, including mass emigration, extreme hunger, and even more bloodshed.

Should the government prove willing to negotiate in good faith, however, restoration of constitutional rule probably will require formation of a transitional government of national unity under a mutually acceptable interim president, pending regional elections (currently scheduled for December 2017) and presidential elections in December 2018 as required under the 1999 constitution. The constitution may need to be amended to reinstate adequate checks on executive power and reassure chavistas there will be no witch hunts under a future opposition presidency. Given the massive foreign debt and critical scarcity of foreign reserves, there is also an urgent need for debt relief and a swift injection of capital to restore financial viability. An emergency economic program should also include extensive welfare programs for the most vulnerable groups in society.

There is still time to avert an outbreak of full-scale violence, but only if the government exercises restraint, the opposition shows leniency, and the international community presses both sides to cooperate while holding out the promise of immediate humanitarian relief and long-term economic aid.

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