Andrés Oppenheimer’s latest article, “Has Venezuela’s opposition lost its voice?”, addresses a critical question. It’s undeniable that in the past year the Venezuelan opposition has disappeared as a visible, coherent public and political force in the country.
The trajectory of the Venezuelan opposition has been tragic and not always of its own doing. In December 2015, opposition candidates won a supermajority of 112 of 167 seats in a landslide legislative election victory, giving them the majority in the country’s legislature for the first time in 16 years. However, almost two years later, the opposition-led parliament has been weakened, first by the electoral council’s denial of the seats necessary for a supermajority, next by the Supreme Court’s rejection of the authority of the legislative body, and finally by unconstitutional elections to establish a constituent assembly that now rules in the place of the National Assembly. Today, prominent members of the opposition have been threatened with jail time or have fled the country and are living in exile.
As the Maduro regime cements its grip on power, there is one fact which is mostly overlooked: the opposition’s increasingly hardline tactics have stoked the radicalization and authoritarian turn of the Maduro regime.
The heyday of the Venezuelan opposition
As a member of diplomatic corps in Venezuela, I witnessed President Maduro’s addresses to the National Assembly on two occasions. I listened to him on Independence Day in 2014 at the Venezuelan National Assembly, which was dominated by the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Afterwards, on January 15th, 2016, I attended the opening ceremony of the National Assembly after the opposition’s sweeping victory.
There was a stark difference in the climate of each address. It was apparent that the change in the composition of parliament in favor of opposition had caused uneasiness and anxiety among Maduro and his party. Having received a warm, enthusiastic reaction from chavista lawmakers in 2014, Maduro seemed unsettled in the face of protests from the opposition-controlled Parliament. A number of security guards uncommonly took to the front of stage before Maduro started to give his annual address. His speech was constantly interrupted by boos and shouts of indignation by the opposition members.
At this tense moment, a hardliner opposition member, Henry Ramos Allup, elected as the new President of the National Assembly, proceeded to the stage after Maduro’s address to give a speech. With Maduro listening on from the audience, Ramos pledged that the opposition-controlled assembly would attempt to legally remove President Maduro from power within six months.
As Ramos Allup spoke, I realized it was inevitable that Maduro would try to defang the National Assembly if opposition leaders continued with their hardline plans to threaten the survival of the Maduro regime.
In the face of pressure, the Maduro regime acts
In the weeks and months that followed, the opposition maintained its tough stance and pursued its radical strategy against the embattled Maduro. The hardline wing of the opposition continued to promise to hold Maduro and other officials accountable for what the lawmakers described as an inept and corrupt government. Venezuela’s opposition-controlled parliament also rejected some executive decrees, proposed by President Nicolás Maduro, which laid the groundwork for the Maduro regime to begin to weaken the legislative body. In addition, Ramos Allup instructed the Assembly staff to remove all portraits of Chávez and take them to the trash. During this power struggle between diametrically opposed, theoretically co-equal branches of government, important problems facing increasingly crisis-ridden Venezuela continued to await serious solutions.
To be fair, President Maduro, in the earlier stage, adopted a more conciliatory tone against the opposition-led parliament. However, the radical clique of opposition has constantly vowed to oust Maduro from office in every occasion since it secured a majority in the National Assembly.
Furthermore, the opposition focused heavily on freeing political prisoners, the most prominent of whom is Leopoldo López, who was convicted of inciting violence against the in 2014 protests in which some 40 people were killed. Yet, the issue of political prisoners was into a red line for Maduro, who has repeatedly called them as “terrorists”. After the National Assembly’s leadership had requested the liberation of political prisoners as a prerequisite to negotiations with the government, the glimpse of hope for the collaboration between the Maduro and the opposition faded away.
Moreover, the power struggle between the executive and legislative branches strikingly influenced the diplomatic corps in Venezuela. Amid the tension between Maduro government and the legislation, the Embassy received an unusual letter, which invited the diplomatic representatives to a special program to be held by the opposition, directly sent by the President of National Assembly. This way of direct communication was clearly out of any well-established diplomatic practices. The communications from any authority in the country were supposed to be delivered through Minister of Foreign Affairs. Having sought to bypass any executive institutions in the country, the unusual practices of the opposition led parliament highly increased the uneasiness among the government members.
Following this event, then-Ministry of Foreign Affairs Delcy Rodriguez summoned the heads of a number of diplomatic missions and strongly emphasized the fact that any diplomat in Venezuela was accredited to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, not the National Assembly and all diplomats were supposed to contact to the legislative branch through the Ministry. However, the National Assembly continued to send similar communications in the following days. These practices towards foreign representatives have further intensified the feelings of regime to be insecure and lose the control over the state.
This dilemma of power-sharing among the state branches stifled any possibility of fixing the chronic food and medicine shortages, steep inflation and violent crime facing the Venezuela. While the opposition continued to challenge the government in many political issues, it failed to provide an alternative policy which would truly tackle hyper-inflation and an acute shortage of basic goods and medicine.
More importantly, these imminent and tangible “threats” posed by the legislature, as perceived by Maduro and his allies, pushed the regime to become more authoritarian in the years that would follow. The Maduro government had much to lose in any political transition favoring democracy and the rule of law. They were well aware of the fact that a transition could lead them to face life in prison (or worse) on account of their involvement in political crimes, corruption and drug trafficking.
In the end, the hardline discourse and policies of the Venezuelan opposition’s radical wing escalated the incentive for the Maduro regime to tighten its grip on power. When controversial May 2018 presidential elections arrived, the regime had already banned candidates and political parties and manipulated the electoral calendar to benefit the ruling party. By creating an illegal Constituent Assembly by referendum, the government replaced the democratically elected, opposition-controlled legislature. In the face of the greatest threat to its survival, Maduro and his allies fundamentally eliminated Venezuela’s remaining democratic instruments, and for now at least saved their skins.
Are there any lessons to be learned from this episode? There is no doubt that for authoritarian regimes, staying in power is always the primary objective. Any existential threat to the survival of the regime pushes it to tighten its grip on more power at the expense of democracy and human rights.
Unfortunately for Venezuelan democracy and the millions of Venezuelans struggling under the Maduro regime, a clique of opposition leaders blew its chance by radicalizing when it took control of the National Assembly. Ramos Allup and his fellow opposition leaders failed to heed Sun Tzu’s timeless advice: “When we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away.”
Imdat Oner is a PhD student at Florida International University.