Since Hugo Chávez took power in 1999, the Venezuela people have gone through a series of emotions, including hope, disbelief, fear, anger, turmoil and disappointment. But after 24 uninterrupted years of the Chavista regime — first under Chávez (1999-2013) and now under Nicolás Maduro (2013-present) — they have settled on the most serious mood of all: hopelessness.
In recent years, amidst an economic and humanitarian crisis, the majority of Venezuela seem more concerned about surviving on a day-to-day basis, rather than seeking political change. This notion has been repeated by analysts, political scientists, opposition leaders and media outlets (including this one). That’s why, despite the high participation in the opposition presidential primaries that were held on Sunday, October 22, nobody feels that the end result is necessarily a successful one.
Two million Venezuelans — both inside and outside the country — cast a ballot in the elections that were organized without the support of the state. Even those who organized the process had their doubts — it was a surprise to see that so many citizens wanted to express themselves. Unsurprisingly, however, following the vote, the Maduro government responded by opening a judicial investigation against the organizers of the primaries.
In Venezuela, nothing can happen for months… and then, all of a sudden, everything can happen in a week. Such is the case today. To summarize, in recent days, negotiations between the government and the opposition have resumed. An agreement has been made to hold presidential elections in 2024 with the presence of international observers, while the United States has announced the lifting of sanctions on Venezuelan oil and gas. The regime also released five political prisoners and the opposition held self-managed primaries with unexpected success. For a country that has lived through repeated crises for years, any one of these events would be newsworthy. Combined, they represent an overload of information. But when speaking of Venezuela, caution is necessary. Are there really reasons to consider that a democratic transition is afoot?
In Barbados, at the negotiating table, the Chavistas agreed with the opposition to allow the primaries to be held. However, Maduro’s delegates didn’t withdraw a political ban on María Corina Machado, the politician who was expected to overwhelmingly win the primary elections (which she ultimately did). President Maduro made this his red line, according to the sources consulted by EL PAÍS. Under no circumstances does the Venezuelan president want to face her in the 2024 elections, as he would have everything to lose.
The strategy of the opposition — now united around Machado — is to demand the rehabilitation of the political rights of all citizens. Yet, the reality is that the majority of Venezuelans recognize that it will be very difficult to get Maduro to allow the winner of the primaries to register as a candidate in the general election. The regime controls the judicial body that issues electoral disqualifications for the most absurd reasons.
Machado, meanwhile, could opt to step aside for another unity candidate, or demand her right to run at all costs. “The latter would open up a scenario of conflict that would radicalize the government,” predicts Luis Vicente León, director of the Datanalisis consulting firm. In the alternative scenario, the current weakness of the ruling party — along with the renewed strength of the opposition — would assure that any candidate supported by a united opposition could still defeat Maduro.
León believes that there’s “zero probability” that Maduro would risk losing power in truly democratic elections. If he were to prevent a democratic outcome, there’s the possibility that the United States would reinstate sanctions — the withdrawal of which depends on the Venezuelan government taking steps towards liberalization — while the president of Venezuela could further entrench himself in his authoritarian position. “We would enter a higher level of autocracy. Maduro would be Nicaraguanizing the country,” he continues, referring to Daniel Ortega’s crackdowns in his Central American dictatorship.
Other analysts, however — such as Geoff Ramsey, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council — are confident that this situation won’t come to pass. Washington is interested in trade with oil-rich Venezuela, the government is interested in getting assets unfrozen, while the opposition is interested in holding elections. In the middle of this triangle, the future of Venezuela is at stake. “I see no interest in Washington in returning to the status quo,” Ramsey emphasizes.
The opposition will have to decide in the coming weeks what to do if the Venezuelan regime refuses to rehabilitate Machado. The majority of democratic forces are in favor of finding a replacement candidate and applying what is already known as the “Barinas strategy.” In that Venezuelan state, the opposition won the elections against the United Socialist Party in 2021. However, the ruling party didn’t accept the results and the Supreme Court of Venezuela ordered that the process be repeated. The winner was disqualified, as were the two successive candidates presented by the opposition… all part of a ruse by the government to prevent Hugo Chávez’s birthplace from being lost. However, the fourth candidate was considered suitable and won again at the polls. Today, he governs the state. Under this logic, the opposition would have to designate a new candidate and — faced with possible disqualifications — present as many alternative candidates as necessary, until one of them receives authorization to confront Maduro with the support of everyone.
That scenario is still uncertain. It doesn’t seem at all easy for the opposition — in which there are very different positions present — to maintain unity in the face of the immense challenge that lies ahead. Other political forces that haven’t participated in the primaries could also run in the 2024 general elections and fracture the united vote, which would favor Maduro. Those who act independently are known as the “scorpions” — an ad hoc opposition to the government that doesn’t actually represent any threat to the ruling party. “Right now, any candidate could beat Maduro if the entire opposition is united. If it’s divided, it will have very little chance,” Ramsey affirms.
A hard-line candidate
María Corina Machado has fallen like a meteorite in the middle of the negotiation. Neither the United States nor the Unitary Platform of Venezuela — the coalition of opposition parties that attended the negotiations in Barbados — nor the Maduro regime were counting on her overwhelming victory. A minor presidential candidate in the past, she ended up winning the primaries with more than 90% of the vote — something totally unexpected as of just a few months ago.
“None of the three actors (the U.S. government, the Venezuelan government and the opposition) are fans of her,” a source familiar with the negotiation process notes. While the negotiations on both sides of the process had some basic lines of understanding — which were agreed to in Mexico in 2021, before Maduro froze the negotiations — Machado has now thrown everything into question.
The former congresswoman never agreed to hold negotiations with the government, considering talks to be a form of legitimizing the regime (although she has somewhat moderated her position in recent months). For the past few years, the politician also didn’t support the opposition participating in elections. She now intends to do so. This is why the decision she plans on making in the coming weeks is unknown.
Despite the thousand edges to a conflict that risks becoming further entrenched, everything indicates that something is finally moving in Venezuela. “It’s a moment of hope,” opines Paola Alemán, the national vice president of the center-right Primero Justicia (Justice First) political party. She affirms that “dictatorships make mistakes” and emphasizes how Maduro thought that “fear and terror” were enough to stop the people. He didn’t comprehend the resilience of the opposition, which — after many years of tension and mistakes — was able to mobilize two million people on October 22.
Alemán — who holds a doctorate in political science — recognizes that now the “undisputed leader” of the opposition is Machado and that this vote must “translate into an electoral machinery that is capable of overcoming the obstacles that will arise.” First, they will have to fight for her authorization to run and — on the horizon — ensure that the opposition remains united until 2024 to “defeat Maduro.”
However, if Maduro were to lose the 2024 elections, would the regime really leave power? “It’s very unlikely,” Ramsey admits, “but that doesn’t mean that the international community should stop offering incentives to key [Chavistas] to support a transition. There are people within [the government] who are interested in a political future and would support a negotiated transition.”
León offers as an example from Spain. When the dictatorship was replaced by a parliamentary system in the form of a constitutional monarchy — a process that took place between 1975 and 1982 — an amnesty law was simultaneously enacted, to protect those who had served Francisco Franco. She also acknowledges that it’s difficult to believe that Maduro — who is a wanted man in the United States, with a reward of $15 million hanging over his head — will simply abandon power without further ado.
The voices that ask that — just as Chile peacefully overcame the Pinochet dictatorship — Venezuela move towards a negotiated transition are increasingly numerous. For example, this position is being pushed by opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski, who lost the 2012 presidential election to Chávez and the 2013 election to Maduro. He’s a nemesis of Machado’s opposition bloc.
Due to the latest moves made by the Chavista leaders, there’s a certain nervousness perceived in the ranks of the United Socialist Party. One of the most immediate problems that can arise for the opposition is the judicialization of the primaries. Tarek William Saab — the country’s attorney general — has announced a criminal investigation against the organizers of the primary elections. This past Friday, he demanded that three of them — Jesús Maria Casal, Mildred Camero and Roberto Abdul-Hadi Casanova — be summoned to testify.
In a message that he posted on social media, Saab wrote that the Constitution states that the organization of events such as the opposition primaries must be carried out by the National Electoral Council (CNE). While this is stated in the Constitution, the truth is that the opposition spent months waiting for the CNE — a Chavista-controlled body — to respond to their request for support. When officials from the CNE finally replied, too much time had passed: the opposition was forced to organize the process on its own.
It remains to be seen whether the accusations made by the government’s institutions will extend to the rest of those involved in the primaries. This would mean a breach of the agreement that was signed in Barbados, which had called to respect the process.
“It’s a turning point, because the government didn’t expect this — it signed the agreement and didn’t count on people going out to vote, thinking that [Venezuelans] were fed up with politics. But it turns out that Venezuelans voted en masse,” explains Margarita López Maya, a Venezuelan historian.
Luis Vicente León agrees. He believes that, at this point in time, Maduro must regret having allowed the process to take place. López Maya, meanwhile, sees a window of opportunity. She feels that the moment favors the opposition.
“[The regime] is in a position in which it has no choice but to negotiate. When the [Barbados] agreement became known, I thought it was a strike from the United States against Jorge Rodríguez (head of the government’s negotiating team). [The Chavistas] signed without foreseeing what was going to happen… and now they have to get their act together.” López Maya is also sure that — in fair elections — the government knows that it cannot win.
For the past five years, Venezuela has been stuck in a negotiation that, every time it takes a step forward, it then takes two steps back. The most pessimistic observers feel that the rapprochement between the parties is doomed to failure. The optimists, on the other hand, feel that the country is living through a moment of change… although they cannot be sure if it’s definitive.
There are still many battles ahead, but the Venezuelan opposition has scored its first goal after years of erratic strategies. The best proof of this is how Maduro’s government has been rattled.
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