Whose side is the Clock on, Anyway?

For better or worse, Maduro put a hard deadline on this deadlock. Who’s the clock ticking for, and who is it ticking against?

Henry Ramos Allup (2nd L), President of the National Assembly, talks with former Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero (2nd R) during their meeting at the National Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela May 19, 2016. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Sometimes, when good things happen, it’s better not to ask too many questions. This weekend, we woke up to news of Leopoldo’s transfer from a military prison into house arrest. Let’s try to move away from conspiracy theories and look at the events in the context of the facts.

LL refused to play ball in all the visits that he got from Jorge Rodríguez and José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero over three and a half long years in prison. There is no evidence of any quid-pro-quo from Leopoldo, VP or anyone within the opposition. All spokespeople for Voluntad Popular have been eager to underscore that point, calling on doubling down on the protest agenda and the call for the plebiscito next Sunday. (Full disclosure, both of us are Voluntad Popular members, though certainly not VP spokesmen.)

In this context, this seems more like a concession the government is making in a negotiation with Rodríguez Zapatero than in a negotiation with the opposition. We’d heard credible reports that Rodríguez Zapatero was threatening to pull out of the mediation effort altogether in recent days, and that would not have been good for the government.

The fact that the government was rushed to concede better conditions to “el Monstruo de Ramo Verde” to prevent Rodríguez Zapatero from bailing on them signals both divisions within chavismo and the dire need for the modicum of credibility that Rodríguez Zapatero provides.

All of that screams weakness.

So is LL’s house arrest a victory for the opposition? Definitely. The news was so surprising that, in the confusion that followed, the opposition fell into a senseless Twitter fight around Lilian’s statements, marring what should have been a big win with a senseless own-goal.

Chavista leaders would end up losing power and without the concessions that could come from negotiating the terms of their surrender.  

In any case, things get trickier from here on out, but the outlook for the opposition is also better than it was a week ago.

Rodríguez Zapatero has long tried to underscore the divisions between the “two oppositions” around the issue of dialogue with the government, working closely with the pro-dialogue wing in the opposition (UNT and AP, lately joined by AD.)

Spokesmen of the “moderate” wing of the opposition have already hailed Leopoldo’s release from Ramo Verde as a victory of JLRZ and Timoteo Zambrano’s “dialogue” efforts. This suggests that Rodríguez Zapatero will try to work with the “moderate” wing of the opposition to goad MUD into sitting down to talk with the government once again. Our fear has always been that such talks will only end up stabilizing the government in power through at least late 2018.

So how should we play this? Right now, the opposition is divided in two camps. There are those who argue that negotiating is the best path forward in a resolution to the conflict, while there are those that argue that, at least for now, we should just meet in the street. The different sides of this debate are dug into their trenches, and often end up mistaking tactical considerations for strategic ones.  

A better way to segment the conversation is around chavismo’s true intentions for the ANC, and the government’s capacity to actually pull it off successfully.

Privately, a good many MUD folk feel the ANC is a bluff that chavismo actually doesn’t want to go through with the ANC, and thought it up as a way of creating a bargaining chip to be used at a moment like this in order to buy more time. The ANC itself seems like a self defeating chip it has deepened the crisis in every possible way, alienating just about everyone in the country. At the very least, even Quico would admit that if the Constituyente is a bluff, it’s a bluff they’re spending considerable resources to make credible: there’s a huge propaganda and organizational push behind it now, and every day that passes raises the cost to Maduro of backtracking.

Letting Maduro finish his term is a small price to pay for avoiding Soviet-style dictatorship until el dosmilsiempre.

The alternative view is that Maduro et al. really are all in: using the crisis to pursue their lifelong dream of establishing Marxism-Leninism in Venezuela. The ANC isn’t about tinkering around the edges, it’s a plan to remake the State along Soviet lines. But Chavismo is a diverse group, and not all groups vouch for these extreme goals, especially within the armed forces. Whether the military would stay united behind Maduro after July 30th is genuinely uncertain.

For the opposition (and plausibly for the country), an immediate transition is better than a conditioned stabilization of Chavismo towards a presidential election in 2018, which itself is better than a successful ANC. But decision-making is suffused in uncertainty, and there’s a real chance of open conflict before it’s all said and done. The probabilities people assign to different scenarios are driven as much by instinct and people’s guesses as to Maduro’s true intentions as they are by real analysis.

Maybe moving consensually towards a 2018 presidential election is a way for all parties to hedge risks in such a volatile environment. But after so much sacrifice, should the opposition concede on stabilizing the situation, dialing down on protests and allowing Maduro to finish his term and have a chance at pulling something similar to the ANC in late 2018?

In the end, it all depends on your assumptions. It’s your assumptions that determine how much the opposition should be willing to compromise…

If you think the ANC is a bluff

The clock is ticking against Chavismo. If they do not recall the ANC, the military will do it for them, as the level of street conflict will be such that they will most likely decide to step in. In that event, chavista leaders would end up losing power and without the concessions that could come from negotiating the terms of their surrender.

If you believe this is the most likely scenario, then the only thing that the opposition should be willing to negotiate are the conditions of transitional justice so as to avoid further conflict and losses. The opposition should be able to extract as much as possible from chavismo. It should settle for nothing short of cancelling the Constituyente, restoring the National Assembly’s constitutional supermajority, renewing the leadership of the judicial, electoral and citizen’s branches of power. The start of a transition process that ends in general elections in the short term should also be within reach.

If you think the ANC has a purpose and high chances of success

This is the trickiest case. In this context, the clock is ticking against the opposition. The release of Lopez would indeed be seen as a signal of weakness, but only on the international front. A successful ANC means that chavismo still has a strong grasp on what is happening internally,  and that the military is firmly behind them. Chavismo might signal flexibility on the Constituyente, but only to try to tamp down on protests in the very short term.

In this scenario, the opposition needs desperately to reach out to dissident chavistas not signed up for a Marxist Leninist Constituyente. If you think the ANC threat is credible, simply making sure it doesn’t convene, and that some kind of democratic election can be secured eventually, is your biggest goal. In that case, letting Maduro finish his term is a small price to pay for avoiding Soviet-style dictatorship until el dosmilsiempre.

The other ticking bomb

The biggest open question in this whole calculus involves the armed forces. What would they do in the event of open conflict around the July 30th election? Do they have the capacity to rein in widespread protests throughout the country? And even if they could, would they? So far, the Army, Navy and Air Force branches of the FANB have remained passive spectators as the crisis unfolds. Whether they decide to intervene at some point, or whether they’re having backroom negotiations with chavismo and/or the opposition remains unknown.

One thing we do know: Maduro’s grotesque willingness to carve up power positions and dish them out to military officials looking for a quick buck does wonders for their willingness to tolerate repression as long as they’re not the ones expected to dole it out.

At what point does that change?

It will partly depend on how they calculate the opposition is likely to treat them if they get into power.

So what’s behind Leopoldo López’s release? A daring concession meant to entice the oppo back to the negotiating table and call off the Constituyente? A small tactical gambit to forestall negative international press? Just a head fake on the road to the dictatorship of the proletariat?

We’ll find out soon enough, but whatever it is, it’s definitely linked to the question:

Who is the clock ticking against?