As the Venezuela crisis rolls on, the popular interpretation of the crisis has transformed from “politics as usual” to an ongoing “epic”— a result of opposition’s faith in protest and politics, which they believe will lead to eventual elections. Given the array of non-democratic forces arrayed against them domestically and internationally, it’s worth examining these assumptions.
From 2015 to present, Venezuela’s political reality has fundamentally shifted. It has gone from the advantages typically afforded competitive autocrats—theoretically surmountable by a unified, coherent opposition—to the systemic fraud of a hegemonic autocrat who marginalizes the competition and distorts electoral results to the greatest possible extent. Under current conditions in Venezuela, the idea of “maintaining long-term social mobilization focused on free elections” is as seemingly doomed to failure as is the strategy of protesting for an end to the Maduro regime.
Recall that opposition candidate Henry Falcón set conditions to compete in elections that the regime did not accept or later violated—for example the illegal red checkpoints (the promise of social benefits if citizens voted for the government) and threats to voters. After he ran in May 2018 elections—deemed fraudulent by much of the international community—in Venezuela, Falcón acknowledged that he had been the victim of electoral fraud. A year ago, the prospect of a massive coalition of opponents to the Maduro regime coming together to support Falcón was far from a guarantee of success, as most expected it would collide with the Maduro regime’s firewall of the National Electoral Council, the Supreme Court and military and paramilitary forces, all of whom were loyal to the regime. In the face of this severely tilted playing filed, the position of abstention adopted by the majority of the Venezuelan opposition was not extreme: moderate parties including Primero Justicia and Acción Democrática had to accept it, not as a concession to radical factions of the opposition, but as a confirmation that the political environment was closed to legitimate competition. Participating in elections where defeat was pre-guaranteed would only serve to legitimize Maduro and his government.
Does this mean that the active strategy of protests and pronouncements, that started again in 2019 under the leadership of Juan Guaidó, was the optimal course of action with the greatest chance of success? No. But it was the only option left to the opposition, following the collective inaction of the world’s democracies following the fraud of the May 2018 elections. The opposition’s plan—which is staked on defense of the National Assembly as the last remaining democratic institution in the country, street mobilizations and international solidarity with Guaidó—did come with risks: namely, citizen fatigue as a result of repression, popular impatience with voluntarily taking to the streets, communication, and the inconsistencies of foreign allies. Still, it seems to be the only viable course of action at this point in time. Any eventual failure is more the result of the political realities in Venezuela—a repressive regime with powerful external allies—than of the way the opposition leadership and citizens have chosen to carry out the strategy.
The political, social and economic crisis will continue in Venezuela, plunging the country deeper into an abyss. Maduro will be able to survive with an authoritarian apparatus and an ineffective state. But despite the waves of migration, internal disaffection will continue, transcending temporary ebbs. The possibility of a peaceful solution—with dialogue and internationally monitored elections—will depend on the United States, Europe and Latin American democracies being more coherent and steadfast in their support and pressure. The continuation of epic mass mobilizations and international pressure is the only thing that will create the necessary conditions for the return of political normalcy in Venezuela. Ojo: it may take a while, and it won’t be easy.
Armando Chaguaceda is a political scientist and historian. He teaches at the University of Guanajuato.