Since the election of Hugo Chavez in 1999, Venezuela has achieved impressive gains in health care, education, and reduction in poverty, while at the same time wrestled economic and political control from the country’s elite. Today, soaring inflation, a shrinking economy and a hyper-politicized environment are contributing to unprecedented challenges economically and politically - threatening to undo some of the achievements of the past. These challenges can be attributed to many factors, some structural, such as an oil-dependent economy, and a complex monetary arrangement which has given rise to “bachaqueros” who resell price-controlled items at hugely inflated prices on the black market. Other challenges are more politically driven - they stem from the existence of a hardline sector of the opposition aligned with U.S. interests who oppose the Socialist government's policies of resource nationalism and wealth redistribution.
The international media with its biased coverage of the conflict in Venezuela has failed to adequately report on violent actions against government supporters by extremist sectors of the opposition. It has however, diligently perpetuated the opposition narrative that the crisis in Venezuela is the sole responsibility of the Maduro government, a dictatorship on the brink of collapse resorting to violence against peaceful protesters in a desperate bid to hold on to power. These allegations have little merit, and are similar to accusations made against former president Hugo Chávez. The hardline opposition has never accepted the electoral legitimacy of the Bolivarian governments, and its violent demonstrations have had the full support and backing of the U.S. government. In 2014 alone, U.S government documents show that Obama's administration channelled $5M dollars to opposition groups to help “strengthen” and “protect” democracy in Venezuela. The Trump administration, in turn, has provided unprecedented political support to jailed opposition leader, Leopoldo López , who has been found guilty of public incitement to violence and association to commit a crime. There has been close coordination between opposition-led National Assembly leaders and White House national security advisor H.R. McMaster on how to address the political impasse in Venezuela.
The international media also puts the blame for the economic crisis facing Venezuela firmly on the government's shoulders. They fail to mention the role of business producers of goods who regularly hoard basic items to create shortages and public discontent. Some believe the economic war contributed to the PSUV’s defeat during the 2015 parliamentary elections - due to the lack of black beans. Black beans are a staple of the Venezuelan diet and for some time before election day these had disappeared completely but the day after voting they were back on supermarket shelves.
Similar to the crisis that precipitated the short-lived 2002 coup against Chávez, leaders of the hardline opposition have made it clear that their goal is “regime change”. Henry Ramos Allup of the opposition Democratic Action party and former National Assembly president declared on the first day he assumed that position that they would remove Maduro from power within six months. The opposition referred to their march in October 2016 as the “Taking of Venezuela” (La Toma de Venezuela), an inflammatory title. During that march Jose Alejandro Molina Ramirez, a policeman, was killed by opposition gunfire and two others injured; which contradicts the opposition message that their marches are “peaceful”.
Extremist Elements within the Opposition
The opposition has failed to penetrate beyond its narrow base which is predominately wealthy and middle-class Venezuelans. Their political demands for early elections do little to address the needs of the working class poor who are being increasingly affected by the economic crisis. A recent survey by independent polling firm Hinterlaces indicates that 66% of the population does not agree with the opposition focus on removing the president and feels it lacks any vision on how to solve the economic challenges facing the country.
Julio Borges, the president of the opposition controlled National Assembly, has openly called on the military to take action by becoming part of “the solution” and backing the opposition. He led the 2016, constitutionally illegal initiative to open a “political and criminal trial" against the democratically elected president, Maduro. He has consistently appealed to the Organization of American States to intervene in the internal affairs of Venezuela, even though this is expressly forbidden by that organization's charter, Article 1. of which states that: “The Organization of American States has no powers other than those expressly conferred upon it by this Charter, none of whose provisions authorizes it to intervene in matters that are within the internal jurisdiction of the Member States” .
In a bid to remove President Maduro, the opposition triggered a recall referendum which under the constitution allows for a recall of any elected official, including the president. Due to divisions within the opposition, they launched the signature drive too late in 2016 to have the recall vote in the same year which the opposition demanded. They also submitted a large quantity of invalid signatures including signatures from over 11,000 deceased persons and those of more than 3000 minors according to The National Electoral Council (CNE).
The hardline opposition inspired street protests have intensified in violence over the past few weeks, including deadly street barricades , setting of government food-storage building on fire with Molotov cocktails, an attack on a maternity hospital in the El Valle neighbourhood, violent clashes with state security forces, and attacks against government supporters. More than 42 people have been killed since April 4th many of them during violent opposition clashes with state security forces: eight people were electrocuted during a looting incident; five killed by state security forces; fifteen have died directly or indirectly as a result of the opposition protesters and the rest are still unaccounted for.
Recently, public workers at the Vice Presidency office and National Police Force along with others were targeted and their safety compromised when a group of far right hackers known as “Sons of Bitches” stole their personal data and made it public. This comes on the heels of the murder of two government workers shot dead by sniper fire while participating in pro government rallies, and the assassination of labour leader, Rexol Alexander Acevedo Navas, member of United Socialist Party of Venezuela.
A Strong Participatory Democracy
The opposition has sought to paint Maduro as a “dictator” who fears general elections. Venezuela has one of the strongest and most active democracies in the region having carried out 20 elections in 17 years (presidential, regional, municipal and referenda). It has a strong direct democracy that empowers grassroots groups through communes and communal councils. The councils can undertake community development projects as chosen by the community. Leaders must be elected by the community and decisions are made through popular assemblies. Currently, there are 46,566 registered communal councils in the country.
It was expected the country would hold regional elections in 2016 but the National Electoral Council (CNE) postponed them because of opposition demands to deal with the recall referendum. The opposition used the postponement to highlight yet another example of the lack of democracy in the country. Although President Maduro has called for regional elections, opposition leaders have responded with continued street protests.
During the 2015 National Assembly electoral process, the opposition expressed fears of unfair and rigged elections. They were joined by the Secretary General of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro who condemned Venezuela's electoral process as “unfair” and anti-democratic. Yet the opposition alliance managed to win a stunning victory taking a majority in the National Assembly.
The opposition is demanding that presidential elections be moved up which some consider a violation of the constitution. A recent poll suggests that 65% of Venezuelans prefer to wait and have them in 2018 when they are scheduled to occur.
National Assembly in Violation of the Constitution
In January 2016, the opposition controlled National Assembly was held in contempt of the constitution by the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ) over fraud charges involving opposition deputies from the state of Amazonas who were recorded illegally offering payment for votes. When the TSJ ordered the National Assembly to hold elections to replace the corrupt deputies, the legislative ignored the order and refused to remedy the situation.
The most recent political impasse between the country's two major institutions took place when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Venezuela’s state oil firm PDVSA, which was seeking to establish a joint venture with Russian oil company Rosneft to generate investment in the struggling economy. The opposition controlled National Assembly blocked the investment opportunity, while its president, Julio Borges, a leading opposition member of the Justice First party sent letters to investors and bankers, lobbying them not to invest or extend credit to the government. The TSJ ruling stated that while the legislature continues to violate the constitution, it would stand in where necessary to ensure the “rule of law” or until the situation is resolved.
The decision generated intense debate among many in Venezuela. Some, like constitutional lawyer Hermann Escarra and Ombudsman Tarek William Saab denied the courts acted unconstitutionally but others like Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz strongly criticized the ruling. Although the ruling was immediately reversed, the opposition still called for street protests, many of which turned violent.
Coincidentally, concerns over Venezuela’s’ joint venture with the Russian state owned oil company aren’t unique to the Venezuelan opposition but also shared by the US administration. US senators Marco Rubio and Ben Cardin recently introduced legislation entitled “the Venezuela Humanitarian Assistance and Defense of Democratic Governance Act” to “help” the Venezuelan people overcome the crisis and prevent the merger with Rosneft. The administration sees the merger as a threat to their national energy security and fear the joint venture could allow Rosneft to gain “control of U.S. energy infrastructure”. Venezuela's state-owned oil company PDVSA, owns U.S. Oil Company Citgo based in Texas which has refineries, gas stations and infrastructure in the US. The legislation also earmarks $9.5 million for opposition groups working to “defend human rights” in Venezuela.
Opposition members of the National Assembly have begun to threaten Ombudsperson Saab unless he agrees to give them the green light to remove TSJ judges. The ombudsperson accused Freddy Guevara from the opposition Popular Will party of making “criminal threats” against his office. Multiple offices of the national human rights watchdog have been attacked nationwide and the local Ombudsman’s office in Valencia was firebombed by “masked opposition militants”.
Opposition Lacks Alternatives
Despite the economic challenges facing many Venezuelans, this opposition coalition, the Democratic Roundtable, appears to be narrowly focused on removing Maduro from office and “making the economy scream”. Since taking control of the National Assembly, the coalition has put forward no real proposals to address the economic challenges facing the country. Instead, it appears they have used their legislative control to block economic initiatives intended to help the economy, preferring to create a climate of regulatory uncertainty to scare off potential investors. This could lead to the cutting off of access to foreign currency - undermining the economy further and forcing Venezuela to default on its international payments.
Last year the intergovernmental regional organization, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) undertook to lead an initiative for national dialogue. The opposition set preconditions for dialogue with the government. As a demonstration of good faith and in stark contrast to the media narrative that the Maduro government is dead set against negotiations, he agreed to some of the opposition demands. The government released opposition leader Carlos Melo and two other accused of planning terrorist acts. The government agreed to the opposition’s demand for Vatican participation in the dialogue, and that the talks be held in Caracas rather than the island of Margarita.
After several meetings the Vatican sponsored peace talks came to an abrupt end when the opposition walked out - accusing the government of negotiating in bad faith. In an open letter, the opposition made it clear that the chapter for dialogue was closed and would not be re-opened again. They called on their supporters to intensify street protests.
Most recently, the Pope called on all sides to engage in dialogue and to reject violence. He also criticized the opposition as “divided” citing their “resistance to dialogue”.
The opposition coalition has been divided on whether or not to engage in negotiations, more extreme elements see negotiations with the government as treason. María Corina Machado, a former National Assembly legislator and founder of the US funded NGO Súmate criticized the opposition coalition for its error in engaging in dialogue stating “dictatorships don’t hold dialogues” and called for street mobilizations.
Maduro continues to call for the opposition to resume negotiations and welcomes the Pope’s offer to help mediate. The opposition has refused to engage, even after the government fulfilled another one of their demands for dialogue - calling for the CNE to set a date for regional elections.
In a bid to address the country’s political standoff, Maduro has invoked article 347 of the constitution calling for a National Constituent Assembly which will be responsible for re-drafting the 1999 constitution. The assembly will be composed of 500 directly elected delegates, half of which will be elected from among the country’s social movements. Part of the goal seeks to institutionalize important aspects into the Magna Cara such as building a “post-petroleum” economy to address climate change and new expressions of local government.
Opposition leaders criticized the initiative, accusing the president of trying to outmanoeuvre them in the legislature. Despite the staunch criticism, the opposition had in the past advocated for a Constituent Assembly as a solution to resolve the country’s problems. Opposition leaders like Henrique Capriles, Leopoldo Lopez, Freddy Guevara and Maria Corina Machado, all signed a joint statement demanding a Constituent Assembly be called.
The majority of people in Venezuela want to move forward in a peaceful manner to resolve their differences while demanding respect for their sovereignty. However, extremist elements in the opposition have declared themselves in open rebellion against the democratically elected president, rejecting further negotiations and calling for street mobilizations. The International media and their unconditional support for the opposition is fueling the fire, telling half-truths and inadvertently condoning violence and exacerbating the conflict.
By making Venezuela ungovernable the opposition coalition is betting on foreign interference to pressure the government to resign, thus allowing them to regain power - something they have failed to achieve democratically at the ballot box for the past 17 years.
Raul Burbano is the program director of Common Frontiers, a multi-sectoral working group which confronts, and proposes alternatives to, the social, environmental and economic effects of economic integration in the Americas.