On March 9, Venezuela’s parliament convened the nominations committee to appoint rectors to the National Electoral Council (CNE). First Justice (PJ) Deputy Angel Medina was selected as president of the committee and ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) lawmaker Julio Chavez as vice president. They were both elected unanimously: that is, both the pro-government bloc and the opposition voted for the leadership of the committee. The National Assembly by way of consensus has taken an unprecedented first step in opening the possibility for an electoral outcome.
The day before, on March 8, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro met with the head of US Southern Command, Admiral Craig Faller, signing a Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation Agreement (RTD&E) with the US government. Trump had received the hard-right Brazilian leader on March 7 and Colombian President Ivan Duque on March 2. The main order of business: Venezuela. A journalist asked about the possibility of a naval blockade of Venezuela and Bolsonaro responded that it was possible “if the situation merited it.”
Two scenarios – military intervention and elections – have unexpectedly emerged in an apparent bifurcation.
There are still eight months left in the US presidential campaign and Trump could be planning actions against Venezuela that boost his appeal with Latino voters. The message relayed by Tillerson, Bolton, and Pence in recent years in relation to Venezuela was repeated in a compact way in the meetings Trump has held so far this month. If the message was not clear before, now it comes from the mouth of the US president: “One of the things we’re talking about is Venezuela. A big subject for us.”
Deputy Angel Medina, now president of the nominating committee for the new CNE, has spearheaded a discursive shift on the part of the opposition. He has explained what was done to reach an agreement not only with Chavismo but with the dissident opposition. Up to this point, everything seems very rational, in accordance with constitutional requirements, as part of a partially worked out agreement. Medina’s party, PJ – whose president Julio Borges is exiled in Colombia –, has not repudiated nor called into question the deputy’s statements, though publically the right-wing party holds on to the mantra that Maduro must be removed from office before elections can be called. PJ and the rest of the less radical parties have realized that they must focus on the parliamentary elections this year, with or without Maduro in office, rendering the opposition’s regime change mantra effectively void.
The leader of hard-right party Vente Venezuela, Maria Corina Machado, quickly erupted in outrage: the possibility is opening for parliamentary elections with Maduro in government, which is unacceptable to her radical faction.
What is clear is that the commission headed by Medina, which has issued bipartisan statements, will have between 50 and 56 days to designate a new CNE. This is an unprecedented step which a little while ago seemed impossible but now appears to have the support of the majority of political factions in the dispute. The consensus, however, does not exist on Twitter, which is dominated by radical accounts, many of them controlled by Venezuelan media abroad.
Until now, the opposition has been divided on whether to participate in elections. The electorally-oriented parties have generally cowered before the spiral of silence imposed by the radical elements, who accuse them of being “collaborators” for wanting elections. However, this past week has seen several opposition spokespeople raise the electoral question.
For its part, the government, which was provoking the opposition with the prospect of imminent legislative elections in a bid to divide the radical and “moderate” factions, has stopped threatening unilateral action in this regard.
It would seem that an air of conciliation, unthinkable just days ago, is beginning to settle on both sides of the Venezuelan political divide. However, the smallest provocation can rekindle the flames of confrontation.
Two days before meeting with Trump, Bolsonaro had withdrawn Brazilian diplomatic personnel from Venezuela. Afterwards, he affirmed, “March is the month of a maximum campaign against Nicolas Maduro.”
Back when Bolsonaro assumed office, there was much talk about the non-interventionist character of the Brazilian military and the unfavorability of starting a conflict with Venezuela. The novelty of the agreement with Southern Command is the opening of a strategic line of direct financing to the Brazilian military that could last several years.
For his part, Duque in his meeting with Trump continued to employ threats in lieu of diplomacy: “It is very important that we remain firm with sanctions.” While the Colombian leader was slapped on the wrist for not taking the initiative on the use of aerial fumigation against coca crops, he went home with a US $5 billion credit to carry out actions that will surely be met with resistance from Colombian social movements, which have been very active since October 2019.
Responding to Trump’s meetings with Duque and Bolsonaro, Maduro said that the Brazilian leader “wants to push Brazil into an armed conflict with Venezuela” and that the coordination of both presidents with Washington follows the same strategy as Guaido’s invitation to the White House. According to Maduro, Trump could be moving all of his pieces to achieve some gains in Venezuela, with Brazil and Colombia promoting “violent acts” in the country. “We call on the democratic, humanistic sectors, the Brazilian people and the armed forces to halt any adventure on the part of Jair Bolsonaro,” the Venezuelan president stated.
Let’s recall that Guaido’s appearance during Trump’s State of the Union address received support from Republicans and Democrats alike. That is, regime change in Venezuela is a point of bipartisan consensus in the US political establishment.
The question of Venezuela is, of course, one of caution. So far, the actions taken by the United States have ended in defeat after defeat, with a number of top Trump officials implicated, including Vice President Pence (the failed attempt to force in “humanitarian aid”), Elliott Abrams (the April 30 military coup in which he said that several Maduro government officials allegedly conspiring with the opposition had “turned off their cell phones”), and former National Security Advisor John Bolton, the great failure at the helm of the disastrous campaign attempting to bring Guaido to power. Therefore, military action would not necessarily be a predetermined success and could even be a political debacle for Trump.
Responding to the abovementioned presidents’ declarations, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza denounced intentions to “bring about a naval blockade against Venezuela” and stated that such an action is considered an “act of war” by the United Nations.
As tensions rise, Maduro ordered surprise military drills on March 9. Troop movements began in the morning, deploying to strategic points throughout Caracas in an unprecedented display of force in terms of the calibre of arms involved.
March 10 mobilizations
The March 10 march was the first mobilization called by Guaido in the wake of his international tour at the beginning of 2020 which saw him meet Trump and other Western heads of state. After he returned to the national political scene, the National Assembly’s CNE nomination committee was established and the more “moderate” parties have been able to promote internal discussions to push forward an electoral solution: could Trump have given Guaido a green light to participate in parliamentary elections with Maduro?
During the March 10 march, the electoral question was not broached on stage, as it remains taboo. But some leaders like Henry Ramos Allup of Democratic Action, one of the most important opposition parties, put an end to the speculation and openly declared during the march, “Let’s prepare for the elections that the Constitution says we must hold, which are for the National Assembly.”
Unlike the majority of opposition mobilizations, this one did not end in violence despite security forces not allowing the march to reach the National Assembly in the center of Caracas. Opposition marchers opted instead to remain in Alfredo Sadel Plaza in the east of the city, main stronghold of the opposition. Opposition leaders unveiled a document on the national conflict that privileges the articulation of social sectors hard hit by the economic crisis over international pressure, which was the main strategy in 2019.
For its part, the government likewise mobilized its supporters in a rival rally in the city center, demonstrating that Maduro retains street-level mobilization despite the continuing economic crisis.
Up to this point, it would appear that the solution will be a national-political one and not depend on foreign elements. But the US and its allies are also imposing their own logic and could, as in the 2018 presidential elections, block the opposition’s electoral participation and in the words of Ramos Allup “hand over” the National Assembly to the government.
How will the arrival of coronavirus in Venezuela impact this complex correlation of forces?
Different political sectors will inevitably seek to take advantage of this new situation, which demands some level of conciliation and collective action, contributing to generalized political demobilization. This is precisely what Maduro needs to finish pacifying the opposition, and for Guaidó it would be a mortal blow, because his political survival depends on the perpetuation of the standoff. We will examine the political implications of the COVID-19 pandemic in our next installment.
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.