LVL, Magdaleno, Seijas Rodríguez: Venezuela After 1S

I wanted to know where we stand following the September 1st protests. So I picked up the phone, called three leading Venezuelan experts and asked them.

Luis Vicente León, director of Datanálisis

  1. You’ve insisted that what’s relevant about the September 1 march is not the amount of people that protested, because discontent was already shown in the polls, but rather that so many people demonstrated their disposition to go out to the streets and participate. Does that bring the opposition closer to its goal?

There’s no doubt that there’s a reactivation in the opposition’s capacity to mobilize the people. The opposition’s achievement was to motivate people to participate. But we need to understand that this all takes time. We still have to see how things are going to evolve in the future. It’s different to achieve success in a one-off event than to be able to keep that population active permanently, turning out for the MUD’s invitations. That’s something that we will see in the next events.

And mira, what happens if in the future people experience repression? How will they react? Will they go home, or will they get even angrier and continue to defend themselves? Those are elements that aren’t clear yet.   

We also need to understand that, in general, what people are calling for is not for an abrupt exit of Maduro ahead of time. Meaning, the answer that people are seeking is the recall referendum that the constitution permits, not a coup, not radicalization to provoke chaos through force. The people are looking for a change in the government, yes, but that doesn’t mean that people are willing to rebel.

  1. Would the fight be more effective if the opposition rebelled, though?

Well, I think there are always three possibilities when a fight becomes political instead of institutional, given that institutions are colonized in our country. Since this is a political conflict, the first scenario is that people do nothing. That has not been the case.

The second scenario, is the one of peaceful protests, of peaceful participation. It’s the one that we’re seeing, and I think it’s the adequate route. Peaceful pressure comes not only through marches, but also in public civil disobedience, for example. It’s the activation of society.

And the last scenario is rebellion. The problem with rebellion is that it’s a big risk, especially for the opposition. Fíjate, radicalization has worked historically in some parts of the world. But here, the government is the actor with the advantage. The government has the weapons, the money, and the institutions. The opposition has the votes, but it doesn’t have the weapons to rebel.

  1. Why did the opposition decide to call for the next event 7 days after September 1?

Because the opposition discovered that it needs to plan ahead. That spontaneous events don’t have that much success. Note that the call to cacerolear on the same day, didn’t work. We are remembering the success of the march but not of the cacerolazo. Some will say that what about the cacerolazo in Margarita? That’s an isolated event that has nothing to do with the MUD’s call.

  1. So what now?

I think the opposition has a golden opportunity to consolidate the majority of the population it already has, and generate hope. What’s more, it has a political conflict to take care of. And in that political conflict it is important that the opposition motivates people to defend their rights. When you can’t trust institutions to safeguard rights, you have to pressure people to fight for their rights.

In my opinion, the permanent and peaceful participation that is happening is exactly what needs to happen. But again, we need to understand that it is a slow process that takes time.

  1. Given that there was no noticeable violent repression on 1S, should violence be expected in the future?

Violence is always a risk, especially with the opposition increasingly becoming an option of power and the chavistas feeling truly threatened.

  1. What happens if the government doesn’t permit the recall referendum in 2016, which some have said is highly probable?

Well, the conflict is indeed very hard, but it will depend on the opposition doing something. And it is doing something. Even if the probability of a recall vote in 2016 is low, you don’t give up a fight because of that. If your kid has cancer and the doctor says there’s 90% chance that he’ll die, you don’t stop fighting for his life. Plus, success is not defined by whether there is or isn’t a recall referendum on 2016. We can’t think of it that way. We can’t say that if it doesn’t happen in 2016, it’s over. If it doesn’t happen in 2016, it will in 17 or in 18. The struggle has to continue.

John Magdaleno, director of Polity political consultants, former pollster with Datanálisis.

  1. You have said that after 1S, the political force of those who demand change became evident, but that now the opposition requires “tuning” to achieve its goal. What do you mean?

I mean that it’s not enough to make visible the magnitude of those who demand change, but that rather, if the opposition hopes to accelerate the recall referendum, it has to provide a detailed account of the initiatives with which it wants to achieve that goal. Social mobilization was started and made visible, but that doesn’t necessarily means the opposition is closer to achieving its goal. The very clear challenge for the opposition now is to maintain their supporters motivated, and to undermine the idea that the recall vote in 2016 is improbable. That’s the big challenge.

  1. Do you think that by announcing the events that the opposition has outlined, it is achieving this “tuning”?

In my opinion, no. The initiatives set out to pressure fundamentally the CNE, but it might not be enough to prompt it to hold a recall referendum this year. Let’s look at the strategy in context. What’s been happening in recent months suggests a progressive development of radical authoritarianism. We should ask ourselves: in the midst of such authoritarianism, can we expect the government to submit itself to an electoral situation where it is known that at least 75% of the population will vote against it? While the demand for change is robust, the public institutions need to see concrete costs in not enacting that change. And I don’t see that in the current context.

  1. So what should the opposition do then?

One could think of various intermediate goals to accelerate change. What it’s doing now could work if the protests are increasingly robust. It could change the balance of pros and cons for institutions of not following through on the demand for change. But there’s the challenge of keeping people motivated. Another accelerator could be prompting rifts within the Chavista coalition. That could precipitate political chaos.

I mean, the current mobilizations taking place do impose costs on the institutions but those costs need to be more evident. In terms of image, they have to be even more evident. But what would be more effective still, would be prompting dissidence within the institutions. What happens if a sector of the PSUV decides to pronounce itself in favor of a recall referendum, for example? I won’t go much further because you know, political consulting is something I do for my  clients, [laughs].

  1. Would you say then, that the opposition shouldn’t have waited seven days after September 1 for the next event?

They did it to be prudent and to dismantle the government’s accusations that the opposition is trying to stage a coup against it. But honestly, I don’t think it was a good idea. I understand it, because they want to organize an important number of people but I think it wasn’t a good choice. The people showed on September 1st so much, so much willingness. They should have taken advantage of that. For example, why did they call on Caracas residents to stop what they’re doing for only 10 minutes [today at noon]? It think that’s absolutely useless.

I’m not saying that the opposition’s plan isn’t contributing to accelerate change. Mobilizations will contribute. But what I’m saying is that I don’t think they are enough to impose enough of cost on the government and the institutions for them to take the deadly risk of enacting a recall vote.

  1. How do you interpret that the TSJ declared null the General Assembly’s decisions?

It is a response to September 1st but we need to understand why the government is doing it. In Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, one of the premises is that for success you should localize battle in a territory where you are more powerful, knowledgeable, and able, than your adversary. After the success of September 1st and of the past December 6, it is not unexpected that the government tries to localize the confrontation in the public institutions it controls. In the institutional battle, the government has high chances of success. And that’s what’s happening, they are trying to re-localize the dispute from the streets to the institutions.

  1. What now then?

The opposition’s challenge is to, number one, get rid of the idea that chavismo continues to represent the poor. Number two, take the initiative to create rifts in the internal cohesion of chavismo. And, number three, continue to mobilize those who want change in a permanent, active way.

Félix Seijas Rodríguez, director of the Delphos Poll

  1. You have underlined the fact that the opposition showed its strength on September 1st , but that now it has to “channel that energy”. How do they do that? What steps should they follow?

Well, the fact that people would back the opposition, we already knew that. The poll numbers showed it. What had been asleep for years was the motivation and the energy people had to actually go onto the streets. With the march, the opposition demonstrates that it’s ready and willing to generate pressure on the streets again, that it regained energy. That’s the big message coming out of September 1st.

Moving forward, every change needs organized social pressure. It has to be mobilized by a political force and structure. The willingness is there. Now the opposition needs to be able to permanently demonstrate that energy.

  1. Why didn’t the government or the military repress with violence? Should violence be expected in future events?

It wasn’t in the government’s interest to be violent because they wanted the event to go on unnoticed. They wanted it to be a march like any other and nothing more. But for that, they needed it to be visually unimportant. Which we now know it wasn’t. That’s why the government threatened violence, they wanted to minimize its visual impact. But actual shows of violence weren’t convenient to them because it would have made the march more visible in front of the international community.

Whether there’ll be violence at future events remains to be seen. When they protest at CNE offices away from Caracas, the military will be much more active. They’ll encircle the surroundings of the offices so that marches are not able to come near them. But I still don’t think they’ll be openly violent unless something happens that goes out from their control.

  1. Why did the opposition decide to call for the next event 7 whole days after September 7?

It seems like the steps that the opposition is taking are quite thought out well in advance. They don’t want people to protest for the sake of it, and get tired without achieving anything. The results of the pressure will not be achieved overnight. The protests in front of the CNE is a more direct event, for example. Pressure will start to be felt all across the territory. The opposition is trying not to waste energy, they are administering it.

  1. So what now?

The opposition will continue trying to administer the energy and the government will continue to try to turn the volume down on it. They will keep trying to undermine its visibility of discontent in front of the international community and they will try to avoid mistakes, like the failed counter-demonstration on the same day of the Toma de Caracas, and Villa Rosa. Maduro will be more discrete. He’ll call for events in closed places rather than in open ones, in places where they can have more control.

  1. And the CNE?

It will continue delaying the recall referendum. If nothing further than what’s planned happens, the date of the 20% will probably end up being in the end of October and the referendum won’t take place this year.

  1. So what should the opposition do then?

Well, when the opposition is sure that the RR won’t happen in 2016, they’ll focus on plans B. They will have to focus on the regional elections. The situation will no doubt become increasingly difficult for the government to manage and the opposition should capitalize that by focusing on elections, which is where they have leverage. They need to progressively gain power spaces, it’s the best strategy, to gain ground as they did on December 6. Now they’re focused on RR16, but if that doesn’t happen, they’ll continue the pressure and gain electoral ground.