Outsiders are once again attempting to alleviate political conflict in Venezuela.
A decade and a half after a failed coup against Venezuela’s iconic leader Hugo Chávez, his successor, Nicolás Maduro, is similarly embattled. He faces an emboldened opposition and widespread frustration, as the state of the nation deteriorates.
A petition for a recall referendum to cut short Maduro’s term has garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures.
In late May, President Maduro agreed to a proposal by a relatively new organization – the South American Union of States (UNASUR) – to initiate a dialogue with his political opposition. At the same time, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luís Almagro, called for an urgent meeting to consider democratic deficits in Venezuela.
Outsiders have been called in to Venezuela by either the government or the opposition three times since 2002. They have been asked to help resolve deep antagonisms between those who support Hugo Chavez’s 21st Century Socialism, and those who fear Venezuela will become a poor socialist country like Cuba. The country has become so polarized that there are virtually no individuals or organizations perceived as neutral.
The research in my book, International Mediation in Venezuela, confirms that in extreme political and social polarization, opposing camps tend to form impermeable boundaries. An “us vs. them” mentality takes root.
Once normal political adversaries, opposing parties begin to see each other as enemies to be vanquished. Those in the middle who are ready to dialogue and compromise are labeled traitors. Each side tries to force the entire population to identify with one camp or the other.
This was the case in Venezuela in 2002 and continues in 2016. Stability in this major oil-producing country is at stake. The crisis also poses a test for the regional organizations as they try to get political adversaries to quickly and peacefully resolve deep crises, while defending the democratic rights all hemispheric governments have committed to uphold.
Back to the future
It seems like deja vú.
In 2002, the international community was worried about violence in Venezuela between “chavistas,” Chávez supporters, and their opponents. Tensions were high in a highly armed population during a power struggle that was similar to today’s situation. Following a failed coup against him, Chávez asked former President Jimmy Carter to facilitate a dialogue with the opposition.
At the time, I led the Americas Program at The Carter Center, a non-governmental organization dedicated to promoting peace and democracy. We formed an unusual, joint mediation effort among the Center, the OAS and the United Nations Development Program. One of Chávez’s team members at the negotiating table was a labor leader turned legislator – Nicolás Maduro.
The resulting agreement produced the first recall referendum in Venezuela, in a similar climate of contentious debate over the rules and timing of its process. After defeating the recall referendum, Chávez stayed in power. He consolidated his radical politics until his death in 2013.
Today, a power struggle has reemerged. However, the economics, health and security of the country have deteriorated to such a degree that observers worry about a widespread social explosion of discontent.
Threats to Venezuela’s democracy
Last week, the OAS held a tense meeting of the Permanent Council of ambassadors with the Venezuelan foreign minister. Secretary General Almagro presented his assessment of how essential elements of democracy, listed in the Inter-American Democratic Charter, have been violated in Venezuela.
The Democratic Charter was signed by 34 countries of the hemisphere in 2001 to help defend democracies against military coups and abuses by sitting governments. Article 20 of the Charter allows either the Secretary General, or any member state, to call an urgent meeting if they see “an unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime that seriously impairs the democratic order in a member state.”
Almagro cited the erosion of the separation of powers, lack of due process for political prisoners, and obstacles to the constitutional right of Venezuelan citizens to petition for a recall referendum against elected officials.
The Venezuelan government and its allies in the Bolivarian Alliance of Latin America (ALBA) argued that Almagro exceeded his authority. They claimed he is a lackey of the United States and is allying with Venezuelan opposition to carry out a coup against Maduro.
OAS Secretary General Almagro’s gambit to make the OAS once again the preeminent defender of democracy and human rights was high-risk. His move is caught in the ideological polarization of the hemisphere, which mirrors the polarization within Venezuela.
Venezuela asserts that its sovereignty precludes any international involvement in its internal affairs. Venezuela’s allies in ALBA and Caribbean recipients of discounted oil tend to support this argument. Other countries, including those closest to the United States, assert the region’s obligation to defend democratic and human rights of all its citizens.
A majority of OAS countries welcomed Almagro’s report as important information. However, given the divisions within the organization, they did not make any formal decision to activate the Charter.
Outside pressure could help resolve crisis
The international effort to help Venezuela is embroiled in the hemisphere’s own politics. UNASUR was created by Chávez and his ally, Brazilian president Lula da Silva. They pointedly excluded North America, and UNASUR displaced the OAS as the most prominent regional organization assisting in South American political crises.
Last week’s OAS meeting was not a clear victory for either the Venezuelan government or Almagro. But even without voting to activate the Charter, the body in essence took the first step the Charter lays out to help countries overcome democratic crises - diplomatic gestures and dialogue.
The OAS declared support for the dialogue effort sponsored by UNASUR, while putting Venezuela on notice that countries in the region continue to pay close attention. These actions show a crucial international unity in encouraging Venezuela’s opposing camps to address the crises facing its people.
The United States also opened its own dialogue with the Maduro government last week. This removes the scapegoat of the United States from Maduro’s lexicon of justifications for his economic problems.
The next step to watch is whether the international response spurs Venezuela’s National Electoral Council to facilitate citizens’ rights to petition for a recall referendum on Maduro’s presidency. The Council has until July 26 to determine whether the first requirement – 1 percent of voters signing – to initiate the process was met this past week. If so, a process to open signature collections of 20 percent of registered voters will begin.
If there are no further delays, Venezuelans could make the deadline to hold a recall vote before Jan. 10, 2017. If the vote is held before this date and Maduro loses, special elections will be called to elect a president to fulfill Maduro’s term.
If the vote is held after that date, the sitting Vice President would fulfill his term. The question of which political camp leads Venezuela until 2019 rides on how quickly the recall prerequisites proceed, as well as the determination of the Venezuelan electorate.