The shocking 19 February arrest on coup charges of the mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, marks a sharp new drop in the downward spiral of Venezuela since protests and harsh repression erupted in its main cities nearly one year ago. To find stability, Venezuela needs urgent help from its friends to build political consensus. So far mostly silent, regional states and organisations, as well as the international community at large, must act firmly, not with unilateral sanctions, but with pressure for dialogue between the two sides. By JAVIER CIURLIZZA, Latin America Programme Director at the INTERNATIONAL CRISIS GROUP.
Crisis Group and other organisations have repeatedly warned of Venezuela’s dangerous polarisation since the violence that killed 43 people, landed 61 in jail (now including Ledezma) and resulted in judicial restrictions on another 2,000. Neither government nor opposition, however, has responded with more than pompous sermonising.
Sounding the alarm about Venezuela’s imminent collapse, coups, riots and other calamities can resemble the boy who cried ‘Wolf!’ However, a recent trip to the country felt worryingly different to others over the past two decades. Venezuelans are starting to prioritise self-reliance over solidarity and individual survival over collective projects. This atomisation impacts everyone, but perhaps most acutely government supporters.
Relief agencies and Catholic Church representatives told Crisis Group that a humanitarian crisis is around the corner. We had been sceptical: Venezuela’s resources include the world’s largest oil reserves. It should be “too big to fail”. But hard data and recurrent testimonies from the barrios show that medicine is scarce and people queue for hours for basic goods, anxious about how to feed themselves. A fever epidemic in 2014 took twenty weeks even to report. It has spread fast, epidemiological bulletins have reportedly been suppressed and doctors intimidated into not naming it.
The economy is at a tipping point; violent crime is intolerable, killing more than 55 in Caracas alone during the weekend before my visit; and 2015’s parliamentary elections will test an ailing government and an opposition struggling for unity. For the first time, the “chavismo” that buoyed the late President Hugo Chávez until his death in 2013 is challenged by a strong current of discontent: Maduro’s popularity has plummeted to around 20 per cent in recent weeks.
Internationally, the government is feeling new strain. A Middle East trip by Maduro failed to boost the oil price; a China visit won only a vague promise of new loans. Shortly after he returned, he asked the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) to “mediate” with the US over its sanctions on officials allegedly linked to serious human rights violations.
There is not much that the more distant world can do. Washington says it has cancelled visas for a first group of officials. Further sanctions – even more likely after Ledezma’s arrest – could add to pressure on a regime in which personal interests can outweigh loyalty to Maduro or the revolution. But, as Crisis Group argues here, such punitive measures would more likely backfire by feeding the “anti-imperialist” discourse and deter moderate chavistas who have begun to distance themselves from government excesses. Europeans are far away in body and mind. China may be increasingly reluctant to bankroll its partner, but is still focused on trade and other bilateral affairs.
The region, and UNASUR in particular, thus has a new opportunity. A year ago, UNASUR pushed the government and the Democratic Unity Roundtable (the Mesa de Unidad Democrática, or MUD), an umbrella coalition of opposition political parties, to sit together and create thematic working groups. But dialogue stalled and recriminations mounted. Little could be expected while the government persecuted and jailed its opponents, and a radical MUD faction known as ‘La Salida’ (‘The Exit’) was on the street demanding the president resign. The only resignation that resulted, a few months later, was that of MUD’s own secretary general.
Venezuela’s deterioration has attracted only marginal and episodic attention from Latin American neighbours, who have ignored Washington’s new message: “Solve the mess or sanctions will be imposed”. Regional bodies, diplomats and politicians feel uncomfortable talking about Venezuela’s woes, either citing “non-intervention” and “respect for sovereignty”, or pointing fingers at other “much worse” countries. Members of the Organisation of American States have barred even putting Venezuela on the agenda.
Some South Americans are aligned with Caracas and see the crisis as part of an imperialist plot; others privately criticise the government’s “mismanagement” but refuse to do anything that might “endorse political change from the streets”. Others behave like proverbial ostriches: “if I refuse to look, maybe nothing bad is happening”. The few voices calling for dialogue come from peripheral Latin American politicians and ex-presidents. The left-right divide hinders a common response. Regional human rights mechanisms cannot compel the government to act.
UNASUR, despite constraints, remains the player with most leverage to help. But it is hard to imagine it as a champion of human rights and rule-of-law. Though formally committed to democratic values, the region will not move decisively in the absence of a coup. How Venezuelans interpret democracy is in practice of no concern to neighbouring leaders. Brave steps to fix Venezuela’s internal affairs, they may think, opens the possibility the same might be done to them. They will worry if new violence and repression erupts. But most will continue to extend a carte blanche to a government which – after all – did emerge from the ballot box.
Time is running out to bring government and opposition to the table. Parliamentary elections, expected in the second half of 2015, mean that little more than equitable electoral rules can be discussed. These were threatened – as Crisis Group noted here – by the government’s December 2014 trampling over Constitutional niceties to establish tight control over the Electoral Council (CNE) and Supreme Court.
Rapidly losing credibility, the government is trying to change the story with distracting allegations of a new Washington-orchestrated coup plot. Sudden breakdown caused by internal dissent and active destabilisation cannot be ruled out, but the greatest threat appears to be a prolonged agony that brings Venezuela to the verge of social implosion.
What is missing is realistic dialogue, internationally monitored and facilitated. Crisis Group has repeatedly advised the government, opposition and civil society to come together on an agenda and timetable for consensus decisions on rules for coming elections, economic reforms and humanitarian relief. Solid foundations for stability cannot be built by a coup, anything that resembles an illegal ousting of the government, or a prolonged repression.
Such contacts should start in private, with the goal being stable and mutually respected rules that would provide basic, constitutional certainties for the government and the opposition. There should be no attempts at regime change outside the constitution, or any pre-empting of the discussion with big political agendas. But the government must also accept the need to compromise with opposition and civil society alike.
These rules can be divided into urgent, short-term requirements and longer-term aspirations. The former are evident: a basic agreement guaranteeing a level electoral field, including more Electoral Council (CNE) transparency and equal access to resources and media for the two sides. The parties, and society, must also agree on basic economic reforms, such as transparent economic indicators, channels of distribution for essential goods, and a painful but inevitable removal of domestic oil subsidies.
Neither elections nor the economic crisis can be tackled without first addressing human rights. The government must release all political prisoners (including Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma), end persecution of dissidents, and allow credible international observation of agreements. It also must restore access to the mechanisms provided by the American Convention on Human Rights. Disarmament of illegal groups, the restoration of judicial independence, and measures to tackle should take place after the elections.
This dialogue does not need more cameras and publicity. Indeed, if the parties are primarily focused on their images – particularly with their constituencies – any talks will capsize again. However, after these confidential consultations, the parties do need to project to all Venezuelans that they are capable of reaching basic consensus on dealing with the political, economic and social crisis.
The mood in Caracas now resembles scenarios I lived through in my country, Peru. The first was the acute economic crisis around 1988, when thousands of Peruvians wandered the streets looking for milk, flour and other essentials. The second was in 2000, after President Alberto Fujimori’s third re-election, when despair, collective depression and impotence overwhelmed democratic institutions and civil society. The first crisis was the prelude to the system’s demise and authoritarian rule; the second anticipated rapid government collapse.
What I felt in once resilient Venezuelan friends, and what I could see in markets and shops, is a fatal combination of these two memories. Across the political spectrum, feelings range from concern to despair. Food riots are a not distant possibility; in such an environment, desperate solutions will trump politics. Grandiloquent speeches will not matter. Everybody should help Venezuelans to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe, especially reluctant neighbours, who will be hard hit if the crisis spins out of control. DM
Photo: Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin (not pictured), in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, 15 January 2015. EPA/PAVEL GOLOVKIN / POOL
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