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There Can Be Transition in Venezuela: Here’s How

By: Gustavo Rojas Matute - Feb 24, 2015, 1:55 pm
La coalición que sostiene a Nicolás Maduro en el poder deberá percibir los beneficios de abandonarlo para abrir la puerta a la transición en Venezuela.
Nicolás Maduro’s coalition will have to see that the benefits of abandoning him outweigh the risks. (@DiarioMirador)

EspañolThe economic crisis in Venezuela has deepened the country’s political crisis, prompting many to ponder an eventual transition, and the popularity of President Nicolás Maduro has abruptly fallen to around 20 percent. According to the latest surveys by consulting firm Datanálisis, the opposition enjoys for the first time in the history of Chavismo a lead that almost triples the number of those planning to vote for the government (59.6 percent versus 22.5 percent).

But it’s important to remember that Maduro doesn’t stand alone. He counts on the support of a coalition that includes all public institutions, such as the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, the National Assembly, the National Electoral Council, and above all, the National Armed Forces. And as if that weren’t enough, up until now he’s enjoyed the support of almost every country in Latin America, UNASUR, and Petrocaribe countries.

Nevertheless, the economic crisis is changing the picture. There are fewer oil profits to share around, and internal and external loyalties are wearing thin. Holding onto power via elections, as successive Chavista governments have done up until now, is increasingly unlikely to bear fruit again, and the government and its allies know it.

But transitions don’t happen by magic, and good intentions have little to do with anything. For democratic change to take place there will have to be a split within the government’s coalition. Its members will have to perceive that the benefits of abandoning Maduro outweigh the benefits of continuing to support him.

For this to happen, the participation of a strong actor will be needed, with power and credibility, capable of showing certain sectors of the coalition the benefits of abandoning Maduro.

Exit Routes

How could this happen? There could be multiple scenarios. First, the US government and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) could negotiate with the soldiers that form part of the Soles Cartel to withdraw their support from Maduro.

The soldiers could force Maduro to resign and hold presidential and parliamentary elections. The DEA has enough power and credibility to negotiate, and there’s some evidence that something like this could happen at the moment. But this picture would evidently stir up nationalist feelings and complaints of US intervention.

Second, the opposition could win the parliamentary elections. In this way, the opposition would have greater power to negotiate with Chavismo and hold a recall referendum or pressure Maduro to resign. Despite the opposition’s strength, however, the latest figures suggest that the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) must improve its message and activism to be perceived as a genuine political alternative to Chavismo.

In another scenario, elements within Chavismo could negotiate among themselves to bring about Maduro’s downfall and attempt to begin a process of transition.

A fourth option is a rebellion or collective uprising that generates such street-level pressure that both soldiers and members of Chavismo are forced to withdraw their support from Maduro. This would be a complicated scenario, because the government has shown its capacity to ferociously repress any attempt at protest.

All of these scenarios are completely speculative, but they could be a tool both for the opposition and for the government, if either were to consider the issue seriously.

Negotiation a Must

The key issue here is that neither the government nor the opposition will be able to carry out a transition without negotiating with the other group. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that trying to do so without joint agreement would bring about an unworkable political situation. Maduro’s stepping aside without a viable alternative would only lead to an unstable government with little long-term possibility of survival.

We should learn the lessons of the past: denying the rival party a role results in disaster, just as Pedro Carmona sought to establish a government in 2002 by absorbing all public powers. It failed to last 48 hours because he wanted to impose himself in power without creating the consensus of a coalition.

In Egypt, after the eruption of the Arab Spring that deposed Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood won democratic elections, but their government couldn’t last as it sought to impose an Islamic style of rule that went contrary to the non-Muslim and liberal traditions of large sectors of the population.

If an agreement between Chavismo and the opposition is reached, a consensual political transition could be within reach of the government by the 2016-2019 period. This would permit the restoration of equilibrium between public institutions and the calling of free elections in 2019. By contrast, an unbalanced situation would lead to still further unpredictable consequences for the country.

An agreement is necessary, not only for an eventual transition, but to prevent the government from continuing to crush democracy underfoot, including even trying to avoid parliamentary elections in 2015.

Translated by Laurie Blair. Edited by Fergus Hodgson.