The Final Blow to Venezuela’s Democracy: What Latin America Can Do About It

Foreign Affairs, Vol.95 (6) noviembre-diciembre 2016 
Christopher Sabatini, profesor (Columbia University) y director ejecutivo de Global Americans

For months, most Venezuelans (not to mention the country’s neighbors and the international community) held out hope that there would be a popular vote on President Nicolás Maduro’s mandate this year. It seemed possible that the Venezuelan government would abide by the opposition’s request for a referendum that would put Maduro to a popular vote of confidence and perhaps lead to a change in government. But on October 20, Venezuela's National Electoral Council (CNE) indefinitely suspended the process that could lead to such a referendum, closing off the last constitutional option to resolve the political crisis that has convulsed the petro-state.

Foreign observers have long debated how to best characterize Venezuela’s political system: it has been described as a participatory democracy, an illiberal democracy, and a competitive authoritarian state. Today, none of those labels hold. By repeatedly violating the constitution and denying citizens the right to express themselves electorally, the Maduro government has shown that it has become a full-on dictatorship. The deeply unpopular president governs by decree, the opposition-dominated National Assembly has been shut out of the decision-making process, the judicial system is under the control of the president, opposition media outlets have been harassed and shut down, and—as the recent declaration on the referendum showed—even the electoral council is in the pocket of the government.

This state of affairs is the result of a long process that began in 1999, when former President Hugo Chávez took office. Over the years that followed, Chávez, Maduro (who Chávez tapped as his successor before his death in 2013), and their party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), systematically extended their control over the Venezuelan state, crushing the checks and balances enshrined in the constitution that their own movement introduced a year after taking power.

Some members of Venezuela’s opposition have decried the government’s suspension of the referendum process as a coup. The opposition is correct to do so: it is only on the surface that recent events do not conform with that label. One third of Maduro’s cabinet ministers are active duty or retired military officers, and 12 of Venezuela’s 23 governors, all of them pro-government, are former military officers. In late July, Maduro promoted General Vladimir Padrino López, Venezuela's defense minister, to a newly created position overseeing the production and distribution of Venezuela's foodstuffs, granting him a crucial role in trying to address food shortages. The loyalties of Padrino and the rest of the military are clear: just last week, Padrino issued a statement denouncing the opposition’s calls for peaceful protests as an effort to create "chaos and anarchy" and overthrow Maduro and reiterated the military’s “unconditional loyalty and unbreakable commitment” to the embattled president. This was a coup with a civilian mask—but a very thin one. It is time for Venezuela's neighbors to step in to resolve the crisis.


Venezuela's opposition faced two hurdles in attempting to unseat Maduro through constitutional means. The first was the timing of the referendum. According to Venezuela’s constitution, if a referendum is held after the first half of a president’s six-year mandate, twenty percent of registered voters back a recall, and a majority of Venezuelans then vote against the sitting president, the government is required to hold an election for a new leader. Given the level of social and economic stress in Venezuela and Maduro’s dismal approval ratings, which have dropped to around 20 percent, there is little doubt that he would lose such a referendum and that the opposition would win the election to replace him. On the other hand, if a president loses such a referendum during the last two years of his mandate, the vice president takes his place for the rest of the term. For Maduro, the crucial date is January 10, 2017: if there is a vote of no confidence after that, Vice President Aristobulo Isturiz will assume the presidency.

The second hurdle was the CNE. Although the council's performance in past elections—including the 2013 contest that elected Maduro—left few doubts about the electoral body’s ties to the PSUV, until this month, there was still hope that it would abide by the constitution’s terms. Instead, it hewed to the government’s political calculations and alleged that the opposition had committed fraud in its effort to collect the signatures necessary to initiate a referendum.

The government’s tactic is to delay a referendum as long as possible in the hope that it can hold out until the price of oil, which accounts for 95 percent of Venezuela’s exports, climbs higher. Officials are betting that they will be able to use the funds that result from higher prices to buy popular support, much as they did shortly after Chávez’s election, when oil prices soared. This plan is less reflective of PSUV officials’ unrealistic sense of optimism than it is of their desperate calculations to maintain power for as long as possible. Facing credible allegations of ties to drug trafficking, illegal mining, and massive corruption (one conservative estimate holds that graft has cost the country some $70 billion), many PSUV leaders fear what will confront them should they leave office and lose state immunity. They need only look to Argentina and Brazil’s trials of former officials—many of whom were charged with far lighter crimes—to see what could await them should the opposition come to power.

Given the state of Venezuela’s economy, the hope that the country will somehow improve is a long shot. This year, inflation is expected to reach at least 700 percent, and the economy will shrink by around ten percent; in 2017, it will likely go through its fourth straight year of contraction. Around 20 percent of Venezuela’s workers are unemployed; food shortages have sown widespread malnutrition; and medical shortages in overcrowded, under-equipped hospitals have left sick people and newborn babies untreated.
Making matters worse, the country faces a looming default on its debt. According to Forbes, at the end of September, the Central Bank had only $12 billion in reserves, $7.7 billion of which was in gold. This month, the state oil company, PDVSA, tried to refinance its outstanding debt through a $7 billion bond swap on 40 percent of its debt. But investors agreed to only $2.8 billion worth, leaving the government and PDVSA struggling to pay off nearly $10 billion of debt in 2016 and 2017—with close to $4 billion due before the end of this year. As for oil prices, although they have risen this year, Maduro’s attempts to convince other exporters to boost them further by cutting output have not yet had much success. Even China, which has loaned Venezuela around $50 billion and which the chavistas once saw as a comrade in arms, has refused to bail out the government, leaving it to twist in the winds of its misguided and profligate policies.


The CNE’s suspension of the referendum process sparked immediate protest from the political opposition. Yet again, the government had pulled the rug from under its opponents, even after the international community, the former presidents of Colombia and Spain, and the Organization of American States (OAS) had voiced their support for a referendum. In response, on October 25, the opposition coalition in the National Assembly voted to begin impeachment proceedings against Maduro. Their efforts, however, were only symbolic: the constitution charges the Supreme Court with trying the executive for alleged misdeeds, and the court stands firmly behind Maduro.

The next day, protesters responded to the opposition’s call to take to one of the few spaces that remains open to popular politics: the street. Demonstrators filled cities across the country to demand Maduro's ouster. "Democracy yes; dictatorship no," they chanted. According to local reports, at least 20 people were injured and more than 200 detained; one policeman was killed. Street protests have been a favored tactic for the opposition since the early years of Chávez’s presidency. Yet the recent demonstrations were different. Because some 80 percent of Venezuelans disapprove of Maduro, the opposition now extends far beyond the leaders that the government has dismissed as oligarchs and protectors of Venezuela's ancien régime.

Even as the opposition was calling Venezuelans to the streets, it was dealing with its own internal problems. A few days after the electoral council's decision, the Vatican, together with Maduro and Jesús Torrealba, an opposition leader, announced that they would hold a round of mediation talks on October 30. But it appeared that Torrealba had agreed to the talks without consulting the other members of the opposition: many of them denounced the effort at mediation and Torrealba’s claim to represent them. Even Leopoldo López, an opposition figure jailed in 2014 for organizing peaceful demonstrations, tweeted his opposition to the talks from prison. The competing positions threatened to divide the opposition at a critical time and become a public-relations disaster. On the one hand, the National Assembly and demonstrators were protesting the government’s antidemocratic putsch and demanding that the president step down; on the other, a member of the same opposition had agreed to talks with the president.

When the parties first met for talks on October 30, two of the opposition’s main leaders—Torrealba, the head of the opposition coalition, and Henri Falcón, an opposition governor—sat down with the government and mediators. The opposition leaders in attendance were wary of the negotiations, making clear that they considered them “exploratory.” Nor did their attendance represent a consensus within the opposition: other opposition leaders were planning another demonstration for later in the week.

There is good reason for skepticism about the talks. At every stage of Venezuela's political and economic meltdown, the international community, including the OAS, Spain, the United States, and neighboring countries such as Brazil, have touted mediation as a way to resolve the country’s polarization. Yet nothing has ever come of such negotiations, and even when the opposition has participated in them, the government has not been held responsible for its abuses. Past attempts at dialogue have failed to secure even minimal concessions, such as the release of political prisoners, from Maduro’s government. In the spring of 2014, after Maduro and the opposition sat down for Vatican-mediated talks, the police and the army continued to crack down on protesters in Venezuelan cities, refusing to address credible allegations of torture and other human rights abuses that had arisen earlier that year.
The latest talks hold the same dismal promise. In yet another repetition of a failed formula, the Vatican and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) have convened the talks with no preconditions on the government. As a result, the opposition, which has been thwarted at several turns—most recently its pursuit of a referendum, with the endorsement of the international community—is once again being asked to sit down with a government that has consistently shut down any efforts at democratic opposition. In the two and a half years since the initial efforts at dialogue, the international community has failed to place real pressure on the Venezuelan government or hold it accountable for its repeated violations of its stated wishes for improvement in human rights and—now—a constitutional recall referendum.

For the past decade, Venezuela's neighbors have sat on the sidelines as the chavista government made its anti-democratic ambitions clear.

Much of the blame lies with UNASUR, the institution in charge of the mediations. UNASUR has become the go-to forum for autocrats seeking either a platform upon which to denounce the United States or a way to avoid accountability for rights abuses. Formed in 2004 as a counterbalance to the OAS and that organization's commitment to representative democracy, UNASUR lacks the power to bring negotiating parties to the table or to sanction noncompliant parties, such as the Maduro government. The result is an implicit bias that favors the state over the people.

For the past decade, Venezuela's neighbors have sat on the sidelines as the chavista government made its anti-democratic ambitions clear. Now that more conservative governments have taken power in Argentina, Brazil, and Peru, the question is whether Venezuela’s neighbors—many of which came out of their own dark dictatorships a few decades ago—will finally step up. Some have started to raise their voices, as when presidents Mauricio Macri of Argentina and Tabaré Vázquez of Uruguay suggested in mid-October that Venezuela should be removed from Mercosur, a regional trade bloc. The failed vote on Colombia's peace accord with the FARC may make that country's leaders more willing to pressure Maduro, too, since the success of the peace process now depends more on appeasing Colombian conservatives than on maintaining the support of the Venezuelan government and its partners in the guerrilla group.

But Venezuela’s neighbors need to do more. The first step should be to call for another discussion and even vote on the democratic situation in Venezuela at the OAS. By invoking the OAS’ 2001 Democratic Charter, the organization’s members would collectively call out the brazen violations of democratic and human rights in Venezuela and give license to individual members to voluntarily impose sanctions on the government. Although such a vote would surely encourage the Maduro government to denounce it as a foreign intervention, it would likely initiate the first serious talks between the PSUV and the opposition. The second should be to follow the lead of the United States and selectively deny visas to Venezuelan officials tied to human rights abuses and corruption. That would send a strong, regional signal that public officials who have taken part in human rights violations would not be able to travel to select countries and could have their assets frozen—a sign that Venezuela’s neighbors will not tolerate official impunity and an incentive for PSUV officials to consider options beyond clinging to a sinking government.

The third should be to drop the farcical belief that UNASUR or the Vatican can convene a serious mediation effort without the will or power to either recognize the Maduro government's responsibility to protect its citizens and respect human rights or sanction his government's noncompliance. For too long, Venezuelan opposition leaders have had their constitutional rights trampled on, despite the exhortations of the international community. Future talks need to begin with accountability for the government’s violations of human and democratic rights. For its part, the international community needs to reinforce its commitment to a democratic recall referendum, which so far it has been willing to promote but not to enforce. It is time for neighboring countries, the OAS, Canada, the United States, and even UNASUR to demand accountability for the Venezuelan government’s refusal to abide by their repeated and unanswered calls for greater respect for human rights and a recall referendum.

The threat of broad social conflict or collapse in Venezuela is real. Seventeen years of chavista government have hollowed out and corrupted the state, sent the economy into a downward spiral, brought food shortages and malnutrition, and turned Venezuelans against each other. With no other means left for Venezuelans to express their frustrations and demand accountability for the humanitarian disaster they now face, citizens will increasingly take to the streets, but they have no clear end goal. At some point, the standoff between the government and its citizens could explode. Until now, Venezuela's neighbors have been largely silent bystanders, hoping that the crisis will somehow resolve itself. As the electoral council's announcement and the failed mediation that followed showed, it will not.

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