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University students protest against President Nicolas Maduro, in October. AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos

Venezuela on the verge of dictatorship: Can dialogue or demonstrations turn it around?

Some observers are calling the recent events in Venezuela a transition to blatant dictatorship.

Venezuela is in a deep, protracted crisis. The government is acting increasingly authoritarian, and the country is experiencing the worst economic slump of its history. Inflation is at a record high, basic essentials are increasingly scarce and crime rates are rising. President Nicolás Maduro has appointed a growing number of military officers in key government posts, and has kept the country under state of emergency since January 2016.

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro waves to supporters. AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos

Maduro and his supporters, known as “Chavistas” after Venezuela’s late president Hugo Chávez, have deliberately used the Chavista-dominated Supreme Court to block the opposition-controlled National Assembly.

Since June, a coalition called Mesa de Unidad Democrática (MUD) has been pushing for a referendum to recall the unpopular Maduro. The president has never enjoyed Hugo Chavez’s levels of support, and many Venezuelans – even some government partisans – have strong reservations about his leadership, policies and rhetoric.

MUD moved the process forward for a recall referendum by gathering petitioners and collecting the required signatures. However, on Oct. 21, following lower courts’ rulings in states controlled by Chavistas, the country’s electoral authority (CNE) stopped the referendum. The CNE also postponed regional and local elections, and a court prohibited some opposition leaders from leaving the country.

The electoral authority’s decision in October was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Venezuelans organized demonstrations hoping to force the government to change its position. The international community feared a bloodbath and called for a dialogue between the government and MUD, to be mediated by representatives from the Vatican. Eventually, the two sides agreed to hold a first meeting on Oct. 30, with the presence of ex-heads of state and the sponsoring of the Union of South American Nations.

Rosmit Mantilla, an LGBT rights activist, was released from jail as part of Vatican-sponsored negotiations with the government. AP Photo/Fernando Llano

Despite small accomplishments and some signs of good faith on both sides, the negotiation stalled after two meetings. Both parties have accused the other of failing to comply with preliminary agreements.

Constructive dialogue to begin a transition away from authoritarian rule in Venezuela faces significant challenges. The economic situation is getting worse by the day. Without steps toward a meaningful negotiation, there may be mounting unrest and ongoing instability – including the prospect of political violence.

Dialogue or demonstrations?

On one hand, businesses, political elites and the military tied to Chavismo have an interest in resisting regime change. The military in particular has benefited immensely from Maduro’s regime. It has received major economic benefits from their presence in state operations, and has been able to run corruption and drug trafficking schemes. Ruling elites might feel they have more to lose than to gain from a transition to democracy.

On the other hand, inside the opposition party, the more radical members believe the government is using the dialogue to buy time and demobilize the opposition. They would rather push regime change solely through demonstrations, hoping that a rift within the ruling civic-military establishment or rising external pressure will drive change.

In principle, a functional, bona-fide dialogue would probably be the best alternative for Venezuela. If the dialogue works well, it might well lead to a peaceful electoral exit to the crisis. This would provide a way for Maduro and the ruling party to restore their democratic credentials. Chavistas could play an essential role in an eventual transition.

Returning to democracy

Successful dialogue depends on domestic and international factors. For a while, despite public outcry, the international community played a relatively limited role in Venezuela. But this year has witnessed mounting involvement by the Organization of American States and the Union of South American Nations.

Increased attention from the international community could change the military’s incentives and assuage the fears of the opposition. First, international pressure could decrease the military’s economic incentives to remain in power. It could also increase the risk of a forceful turnover, and tame future prosecution for human rights abuses, corruption and drug trafficking. In that scenario, the military might be willing to collaborate with the current negotiations.

Second, a more assertive role from the international community could turn regional organizations and foreign governments into credible guarantors of the agreements, particularly in South America. If the opposition feels that the agreements have a strong backing of the international community, they might be more likely to play along.

Domestic actors also play an important role in Venezuela’s ability to transition to democracy. The opposition needs to walk the fine line between pressure and negotiation. On the one hand, street demonstrations are key to increase the costs to retain power. The government needs to feel threatened enough that they are willing to negotiate, but not so threatened that reverting to authoritarianism becomes their safest bet.

On the other hand, the MUD needs to be able to make some concessions. Even if weak, chances are Chavistas will ask for some degree of impunity and will want to keep some of the economic and political benefits they have accrued. Moderate opposition elites could be willing to entertain agreements for the sake of a peaceful transition, but the MUD’s base and more radical leaders will likely oppose them.

At the moment, the prospects for constructive negotiations are not hopeful. On Dec. 6, the opposition walked out of the scheduled negotiations held by the Vatican. While both parties have made some occasional positive gestures, their relationship remains marred by conflict and disagreement.

With the government blocking the referendum and the dialogue process bearing no fruit, Venezuela is facing a perilous – and unprecedented – path ahead. In the last decade, Venezuela has been a competitive authoritarian regime. It has held elections that could potentially – albeit unlikely – allow for turnover. But in the absence of electoral contests, it will be a full-blown dictatorship.

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