Hope for Democracy in Venezuela: New Political Crisis Creates Window of Opportunity

Photo: Leo Álvarez

The political and economic crisis in Venezuela has reached a tipping point: Maduro’s claim to the presidency is in jeopardy, and the National Assembly is faced with the responsibility of taking action. On January 9th, the six-year presidential period that started in 2013 with Hugo Chávez, followed by Nicolás Maduro, came to an end. In any normal scenario, this would mean that the newly elected government would take office the following day, but in the case of Venezuela it means that as of January 10th, 2019, the country has two illegitimate presidents—one being Maduro, and the other being the newly elected President of the National Assembly, Juan Guaido.  

Context

After the 2017 political turmoil, in which over 140 civilian protesters died as a result of state violence, Maduro’s popularity crashed below 20 percent and international democratic leaders like the Government of Canada and organizations like the European Union and the Organization of American States supported the opposition’s claims of systematic violations of human rights in Venezuela. Surprisingly enough, Maduro turned out to be reelected with 68 percent of the vote in the 2018 presidential elections in a process that was—for many reasons—not recognized as legitimate by the international community. The election didn’t meet any standards of transparency or equity of conditions for contestants, and it had a participation rate of only 46 percent, according to official Venezuelan government sources. While 46 percent is already a historic low turnout, the real participation rate is expected to be even lower than government sources claim.

Since then, Venezuela’s hyperinflation has crushed the six-digit mark causing dire economic and financial circumstances with consequences such as increased violence, poverty, and starvation. This has also resulted in Venezuela’s migration crisis becoming the worst in the history of Latin America.

A president-less nation

This new episode of political instability and uncertainty adds a whole new layer of complexity to the Venezuelan crisis. After January 9th, governments from all over the world made it very clear that they will not recognize Nicolás Maduro as president for another period, making the National Assembly the only democratically elected (and recognized) body remaining in the country. With this scenario on the table, the popular claim among members of the opposition and the international community is that the National Assembly’s newly elected president—young leader Juan Guaidó—should be the interim president of Venezuela in compliance with the Article 233 of the National Constitution. In doing so, he should immediately call for new presidential elections to be held in the upcoming month as the Constitution mandates.

On the other side of the story, Maduro and company showed, once again, their disregard for the laws when he took the formal oath of office before the Supreme Court instead of the National Assembly, as mandated by the constitution. This was considered by many a deplorable act. Venezuela’s Supreme Court is widely seen as illegitimate and a cynical tool of the Maduro regime.

What is the opposition doing?

The opposition seems to finally be organized on a single course of action that involves:

  • creating social and political momentum around the case of non-recognition of last year’s elections, and therefore the absence of a true president, and

  • enacting the constitutional mechanisms that would restore the rule of law.

In this course of action, Juan Guaidó plays a key role and will be the target of the government (and a small faction of the opposition). His claim to the presidency is legitimate enough that debate has even broken out on Wikipedia; Venezuela banned the entire online encyclopedia after editors changed Gauidó’s title on his page to ‘President.’

Since January 13th, the leadership of the opposition to Maduro began to rally in ‘Cabildos Abiertos’ (town meetings). The first was held in Guaidó’s home town. On his way to the event, Guaidó was kidnapped in the middle of a highway by National Intelligence officials and released minutes later.

On January 15th, the National Assembly signed two acts that could mean trouble for the Maduro regime. The first one is a resolution from the Assembly that recognizes the need for an amnesty law for civilians and military personnel who collaborate in the restitution of the rule of law. This is likely to have a big impact on the security forces’ support of the regime, especially after the detention of the officials that executed Guaidó’s kidnapping. In effect, the National Assembly, by passing this resolution, is moving towards allowing citizens and military personnel to be excused from actions that oppose the Maduro regime.

The second resolution is a declaration of usurpation of the presidency by Nicolás Maduro. By enunciating the existence of a power vacuum, opposition lawmakers are creating the legal conditions necessary to act according to the mechanisms defined by the Constitution.

Furthermore, nationwide protests were called for this January 23rd, a very significant date in Venezuelan politics. This was the date that the last Venezuelan dictatorship was overthrown.

Challenges ahead

If the opposition’s plan is to act according to what is stated in Article 233 of the Constitution, its leadership will face some serious challenges interpreting and applying it to the current political situation. Most significantly, they will struggle to find a way around the government-controlled National Electoral Council, which is loyal to Maduro. This council, whose function it is to oversee elections in Venezuela, was instrumental to the fraudulent election of Maduro in 2018.

This poses a major obstacle for the opposition movement moving forwards. Article 233 indicates that the interim president will call for elections 30 days after taking office—an impossible task with the existent National Electoral Council.

In this regard, the prominent professor Jose Ignacio Hernández indicates in his most recent article that prior steps need to be taken before Article 233 can be applied.

Hope for a new government

The Maduro government was not expecting the international community and domestic opposition coalition to be so effective and determined around the issue of presidential legitimacy. The widespread and organized opposition seems to have caught the government off guard. The government, in contrast, has not been as coordinated in its reaction. In response to the opposition’s call to action on the 23rd, the government called for three different ‘celebrations’ of the fall of the last dictatorship on the same day, hoping that the expectation of possible conflict will undermine the convening power of the opposition.

Many elements had to be aligned in order to create this opportunity for change. The new opposition leadership seems to be finally consolidating, leaving partisan interests behind. Their claim is legitimate and has large international support. In front of them, there is an authoritarian government with the support of strategic international allies like Russia and China and the support of the state’s security bodies. The time may be finally right for the opposition to turn things around and put an end to Venezuela’s twenty-year-old regime.

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Andrés Peñaloza is a Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs student from Venezuela. He is an urban planner with experience in local governments and NGOs and he is mainly focused on strategies for ensuring social and economic development in urban environments.


All photos by Leo Álvarez