Venezuela and Latin America’s October Storm

The neoliberal right is in deep crisis across Latin America. Ociel Lopez analyzes the geopolitical implications for Venezuela.

The election results in Argentina and the popular revolts in Ecuador, Haiti, and most significantly Chile are signs of a new progressive wave in the region. This new situation will affect Venezuela and its relations with the rest of the continent.

As 2019 comes to a close, the mechanisms implemented to encircle Venezuela (activation of the TIAR military treaty, the Lima Group, and the threats of an invasion) appear to be coming apart.

In what follows, we will analyze the possible consequences and implications for Venezuela in the wake of October 2019, which has, without warning, shattered existing paradigms and battered the most stable right-wing regimes in the region.

Maduro: From dead to almighty red

The single biggest winner from everything that has occurred in Latin America over the course of October is Nicolas Maduro. The Venezuelan president began the year with the image of a tropical Saddam Hussein awaiting his imminent overthrow. Now he is accused by right-wing presidents and ministers of being behind most important continental revolt in around fifteen years. Maduro is alleged to be the architect of rebellions, which despite initially appearing limited to a minority, exploded into truly popular uprisings which in the space of days shook the most seemingly stable governments, rolling back neoliberal austerity measures and leaving various presidents politically bankrupt. Maduro began the year as the weakest leader in the region and closes 2019 as a continental leader with transnational reach, or so the Right claims. Entering November, the Venezuelan government is more stable than Piñera’s. And Macri has been buried after an unexpectedly short time in office.

Venezuela, which the international corporate media has painted as an anti-model that must be immediately eradicated, has long served as a one-word justification for neoliberal adjustment policies. “Not ending up like Venezuela” appeared to be a sufficient rationale for decreeing price increases for gasoline, public transit, and food.

As the decrees were signed, the social explosions began, first in Ecuador and then in Chile. This latest uprising threatens to topple the neoliberal model par excellence, rendering the right-wing offensive in the region meaningless. The defeat of Uribismo in the Colombian local and regional elections forces Duque, like his right-wing regional counterparts, to focus on his own governance in lieu of Venezuela, which was the center of continental attention for the first half of the year. Similarly, the Canadian Liberal Party’s loss of a majority in recent parliamentary elections will turn Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s attention inward, likely reducing Canada’s leadership role in the Lima Group.

Now, with the triumph of Fernandez in Argentina, a window is tentatively opened for the Chavista government to seek a possible solution to the crisis. As we will see, the return of Peronism to power appears to provide a desperately needed boost not only to Maduro but also to a certain sector of the Venezuelan opposition.

Peronism triumphant

The victory of Peronism represents a new strategic opening for Venezuela and Chavismo. We can’t expect a radical shift as we don’t yet know the political orientation of the new government of Alberto Fernandez and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who have had important disagreements in the past. But we can expect that the new administration will contribute, alongside the popular uprisings, to reducing the international pressure on Venezuela.

Although Latin America continues to be governed from the right, the triumph of Fernandez entails a shift that will be read by heavy hitters like Mexico as a sign that now is the time to restore the balance of power, strengthening the region’s leftist bloc with the possibility of setting off a new progressive cycle and consolidating a regional counterweight to a US interventionism emboldened by right-wing regimes.

This scenario of stronger ties between Argentina and Mexico could provide desperately needed relief to the Venezuelan government. But it could also be viewed as an opening for Chavismo to withdraw from its trenches and have minimum guarantees necessary to participate in a new electoral process aimed at normalizing political life. A constitutional provision like a recall referendum, which could be initiated in 2022, emerges as a possible option for resolution of the conflict.

With the continent shifting leftward (though not in a radicalized direction), the government will have to decide if it will take part in processes of international economic cooperation that allow it to evade US sanctions but which come with the demand to make concessions to more moderate opposition sectors. This could mean incorporating their representatives into the country’s electoral watchdog and more generally restoring confidence in the electoral process after last year’s 52 percent abstention in presidential elections.

A shot across the radical opposition bow

For the radical Venezuelan opposition, the triumph of Fernandez is devastating and can contribute to its crisis of hegemony within the opposition. Here we are talking about the powerful opposition factions that operate from the United States and whose only solution to the current standoff is foreign military intervention, which appears increasingly improbable.

After the firing of former US National Security Advisor John Bolton – who placed Venezuela at the top of the US geopolitical agenda next to Iran –, the Venezuelan opposition’s main allies became neighboring right-wing presidents, who still form a majority in the region. In the wake of October’s progressive breakthroughs, the radical opposition has been left hanging by a thread, because it invested everything in its foreign lobbying efforts. Under the slogan, “alone we can’t [topple Maduro],” they focused all of their efforts on securing foreign military intervention and sabotaging political solutions, including electoral ones.

In contrast, the Argentine reversal could benefit the internal opposition, that which remains in Venezuela and has been held captive by the economic dominance and media blackmail exercised by the radical opposition which regards as anathema all efforts to participate in dialogue and elections. This economic and media leverage has forced more moderate, historically pro-electoral opposition sectors to jump on the radical abstentionist, pro-foreign intervention bandwagon. The collapse of the Lima Group product of these geopolitical shifts could help prepare the ground for a rebellion by the internal opposition, which may return to the electoral arena and distance itself from the radical sectors. If the opposition once again opts to abstain from the 2020 legislative elections it will surrender the only branch of government it currently controls. The opposition has only a few weeks left to decide because the National Constituent Assembly could call the elections as early as the beginning of next year.

The return of UNASUR?

Following the defeat in Colombian local elections, Duque has also been weakened vis-a-vis Maduro. The Colombian left took Duque by surprise, making important in-roads not seen in years. The Colombian leader has moreover become increasingly unpalatable for many governments. Trump has pressed him over the rise in drug trafficking under his administration. The rampant human rights violations are becoming difficult to ignore. Duque’s only hope is to provoke a fight with Maduro in order to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the most retrograde forces of Colombian society, which appear ever more weakened.

In light of all of these developments, it’s not implausible that the Lima Group – the regional right-wing anti-Venezuela platform – could be dissolved in the coming months. The Argentine reversal is crucial, while the governments in Chile, Peru, and Ecuador will now be forced to focus on internal affairs and fight for political survival.

Under these circumstances, the application of the Inter-American Reciprocal Assistance Treaty (TIAR) faces major stumbling blocks. The US-led mutual defense treaty was activated by several countries in the region in September, authorizing sanctions against Venezuelan government officials and Chavista figures. But the TIAR also has a clause allowing military intervention if one of the signatories is threatened, which will be much harder to implement than previously thought.

The rebirth of UNASUR as a space for regional diplomacy independent of Washington is still improbable in the short term. For that to happen, a greater leftward shift in the regional correlation of forces will need to take place, above all in Brazil which has presidential elections set for 2022 amid already tense internal dynamics. The recent revelations linking President Jair Bolsonaro to the asssassination of Congresswoman Marielle Franco represent a further blow to the far-right administration’s legitimacy, limiting its ability to act against Venezuela and increasing the left’s electoral chances going forward.

At the end of the day, Fernandez’s victory creates expectations not only among Chavismo – which had lost its principal regional allies such as Dilma Rousseff, Rafael Correa, and Cristina Kirchner –, but also among different opposition factions that have been tied to abstentionist line pushed from the US. More importantly, the general situation in Latin America and the extremely high level of social conflict seen in October helps break the right-wing siege against Venezuela. This opens up new scenarios of confrontation throughout the continent, lifting some of the pressure on the Maduro government despite the deepening of the economic crisis. The conflict is now displaced to the internal crises faced by each of the region’s right-wing governments, which they sought to evade by feigning an exaggerated concern for Venezuela. Piñera and Moreno now have their own problems to tend to. And Macri will have nothing to worry about at all. So November 2019 begins in Latin America.

Ociel Alí López is a Venezuelan researcher who has published numerous written and multimedia works. He is dedicated to analyzing Venezuelan society for several European and Latin American media outlets. He is a co-founder of alternative Venezuelan state television station Avila TV in 2006. He is the recipient of the CLACSO/ASDI researcher prize and the Britto Garcia literature award.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.