When Juan Guaido declared himself interim president of Venezuela on January 23, he thought regime change would be easy, but both Guaido and his backers in Washington dramatically underestimated the Maduro government and its grassroots supporters.
Venezuela’s military brass immediately refused calls to recognise the coup and opposition efforts to provoke a crisis by forcing truckloads of dubious “humanitarian aid” across the Venezuelan border a month later similarly failed.
US vice president Mike Pence reportedly rebuked Guaido for failing to deliver military support, and the increasingly desperate opposition leader called for “all options to achieve liberation” – code for military intervention – but was blocked by regional leaders.
For now, Guaido’s coup attempt appears to have collapsed, but Venezuela remains mired in a deep economic crisis, with increasingly draconian US sanctions turning the screws on ordinary Venezuelans even tighter. The coming months will be treacherous straits for the Maduro government and the Chavista grassroots to navigate. As the threat of military intervention grows by the day, voices from across the political spectrum are scrambling to find an alternative, from dialogue to new elections.
So what options are on the table?
Many, including some on the left, point to early elections as one solution to the crisis. Both sides claim popular support – so why not let the people vote? But for those millions of Venezuelans who cast their ballot for Maduro’s re-election less than a year ago, new elections would be a hard pill to swallow. The opposition refuses to recognise his re-election, but they are often dishonest about why.
Even right-wing voices concede that Maduro won the elections, in large part because the opposition refused to participate, citing the disqualification of opposition candidates for criminal allegations. Why would Chavistas accept new elections imposed by the losers, or what’s worse, by Washington? Moreover, accepting elections would make Maduro – who was only just inaugurated for his second term – appear weak and might set a dangerous precedent.
But this all assumes that the opposition, with Guaido temporarily at its head, actually wants elections, which isn’t clear. While Guaido’s constitutional claim to power was shaky to begin with – premised as it was on Maduro’s abandonment of the office – the constitution is absolutely clear that new elections be held within 30 days. But despite all his talk of democracy, Guaido never called those elections – why?
First, the opposition distrusts the National Electoral Council (CNE), despite its long record of free and fair elections. In other words, it’s not as easy as calling new elections, there remains the question of who would run those elections. But second, and more important, the electoral question has long divided the opposition between moderates seeking to win over a majority and hardliners who favour violent street protests and coups.
Guaido – himself a stand-in for Leopoldo Lopez who is currently under house arrest for leading such protests – represents this hardline approach. Elections, in other words, were never part of the plan: The opposition and Washington want an immediate transition of power.
Perhaps aware of this, Maduro has even dared Guaido to call elections in the most provocative terms: “Why doesn’t he call elections so we can demolish him with the votes of the people? […] Call elections, Mr Clown!”
By the same token, it seems Maduro’s preference is to work with the opposition towards early legislative elections as a sort of temperature check on popular opinion.
As soon as Guaido proclaimed himself interim president on January 23, Mexico and Uruguay stepped forward offering mediation and their call for a negotiated solution has been echoed by the United Nations and myriad voices in Venezuela and beyond. But again, while Maduro has embraced the possibility of dialogue, it is the Venezuelan opposition that most stubbornly refuses to negotiate. In fact, Mexico’s quite reasonable offer was seen as nothing short of a betrayal.
Guaido’s coup had been planned in advance through conversations among the Lima Group, a coalition of predominantly right-wing governments formed to undermine Venezuela’s role in the region. But while Mexico had joined the Lima Group while under the right-wing government of Enrique Pena Nieto, December saw the inauguration of leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who bucked pressure from the Lima Group by refusing to recognise Guaido. The opposition leader was quick to denounce Mexico and Uruguay’s mediation proposal: “If you are neutral in unjust situations,” he wrote in an open letter, “you have taken the side of the oppressor.”
This intransigence is nothing new: Former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodríguez Zapatero spent years brokering an agreement between Chavistas and the opposition, only to express his frustration when the opposition suddenly refused to sign on at the last minute in early 2018.
In the past, opposition parties that have chosen to sit down at the negotiating table have been lambasted by the right for colluding with Chavismo. Guaido and the Trump administration have openly embraced this extreme view.
Finally, both within Venezuela and beyond, the absence of good options has led some to choose no option at all. One recent piece, for example, urges the left to take a stand against “both the US and the Maduro administration,” conspicuously leaving the Venezuelan opposition out of the equation. In Venezuela, a centre-left coalition including some prominent ex-Chavistas has emerged, calling itself the Citizens’ Platform in Defence of the Constitution, and proposing not only dialogue but also the replacement of the CNE and a referendum on the Maduro government. This neither/nor approach is a dead-end, however, not least for the same practical reasons outlined above.
How to replace the CNE and with whom? Who would collect the signatures of 10 percent of the electorate required for a referendum? And most importantly: If the population votes against the Maduro government, they still wouldn’t have voted for any alternative in particular – the crisis would drag on.
But the contradictions of the neither/nor position run deeper still. One member of the Citizens’ Platform, the sociologist Edgardo Lander, appeared on Democracy Now to denounce “a coup carried out by the United States government with its allies, with the Lima Group and the extreme right wing in Venezuela.” What Lander failed to mention is that he and others had sat down with that coup leader just weeks earlier. Refusing to choose is itself a choice.
A negotiated solution to the crisis seems difficult, if not impossible, since the Venezuelan opposition wants nothing less than a coup. How to negotiate with an opposition that refuses to do so? In this dangerous scenario, there are no easy answers, but a few things should be clear nonetheless.
First, there can be no elections under US sanctions. When Nicaraguans voted in 1990, they didn’t do so freely. The Bush Sr administration had declared that it would lift the embargo if the opposition candidate won against the Sandinista incumbent, Daniel Ortega.
With the same people in charge of US policy today, it’s clear that the point of sanctions is to twist the arm of Venezuelans until they vote the way the US wants. The impact of sanctions has already been devastating, and their tightening into a brutal oil blockade means the situation will only get worse.
If the US and its Venezuelan allies really care about electoral conditions, then they should recognise that there can be no free and fair elections with the threat of continued sanctions or foreign intervention hanging over the heads of voters.
Second, some degree of dialogue and negotiation is absolutely imperative to defuse political tensions, avoid violence, and block US intervention. But for too many, negotiation means negotiated transition, a thin veil for US-backed regime change. Any dialogue whose starting point is Maduro’s removal from power is no dialogue at all, and will never be accepted by Chavistas. And if this means replacing Maduro with a discredited clique of opposition leaders hell-bent on a return to neoliberal capitalism, such fake negotiation is a recipe for civil war.
Finally, even if some process is established for negotiating an end to the political standoff, the most daunting challenge remains: You can’t negotiate economic policy. You can’t simply sit two opposing parties down and reach a compromise that will magically stabilise Venezuela’s macroeconomic situation, and if anything, previous negotiations have seen the government grant concessions to a private sector that then continues to sabotage the economy.
You need to get to the source, which is not a government but a system: A century of oil development has left Venezuela dependent on imported goods and unable to produce most of what it needs.
It was this system that led to the crisis that birthed Chavismo three decades ago, and it is this system that threatens Chavez’s legacy today. The only solution lay not in opposition elites, but instead in the grassroots of Chavismo itself.
There, revolutionary movements – frustrated with Maduro but unflagging in their support for the Bolivarian Revolution – have been slowly developing an alternative: communes that produce what people need locally, directly, and democratically.
They are the ones who bear the brunt of both government mismanagement and US sanctions, they are the ones without the luxury of a neither/nor position, and they are the ones with a real vision for the future.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.