Lessons from Libya

Negotiations look closer by the minute in Venezuela, and we should all be glad, for Libya tells us what happens when talks fail and chaos reigns.

An oil-rich country with a destroyed economy faces a full-scale crisis after protests against its long-time ruler turn into battles with thousands dead and no end in sight. The complex governability crisis now fills every space of the once charming nation, forcing people to flee their scorched homeland in perplexed horror.

This could be one of the endless scenarios that political junkies around the world predict for Venezuela, but it’s in fact a compressed summary of what just happened in Libya, a country way, way different from ours, but filled with lessons and warnings.

Muammar Gaddafi ruled Libya from 1969 until his death in 2011. In 1977, he transformed the former Libyan Arab Republic into the Libyan Jamahiriya (government of the masses), a socialist “democracy” without political parties in which people “ruled themselves” through local committees similar to Venezuelan comunas.

Officially, his role inside the Libyan State was entirely symbolic, but as the “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution” their version of the Galactic Commander , he guided the government in a confrontational stance against Western powers and several Arab neighbours, isolating the nation from the rest of the world. During his 42-year rule, Libya dramatically increased its oil production, reaching higher development standards than most African countries. They eradicated illiteracy while creating a free health care and education program.

Oil also propelled massive corruption and Gaddafi’s eccentric lifestyle. Human rights violations became pervasive, too. Even though the Jamahiriya’s gender equality was celebrated around the world, political dissent was punished by public execution. Social control was enforced by commune-like organizations, the Revolutionary Committees, with informants in all sectors of Libyan society. Gaddafi had colectivos long before Maduro even grew a mustache.

On October 20th, Muammar Gaddafi was captured and killed. Libya was allegedly free, but problems were only starting.

In many ways, Muammar Gaddafi was a role model for Hugo Chávez, so no wonder he got a replica of Bolivar’s sword. Up to this point, similarities with 21st-century Venezuela are clearly visible…

And then it all changed.

After four decades under absolute power, in January 2011 a small protest denouncing delays of housing units ignited a widespread, social network-based call for freedom in Libya. The National Conference for the Libyan Opposition, a radical cousin of MUD, stepped in and called for a Day of Rage for February 17th. Massive riots took place as public buildings were raided.

Gaddafi’s response was violence unlike anything we’ve experienced in Venezuela.

The government used snipers and anti-aircraft artillery to take down protesters, tagged asterrorists. In Tripoli, Revolutionary Committees patrolled the streets, shooting protesters on sight. According to Human Rights agencies, wounded protesters were denied blood transfusions and access to hospitals, and bodies were taken from morgues so they couldn’t be counted. The International Crime Court estimates that between 500 to 700 protesters were killed in the second half of February 2011. Gaddafi denied these accusations, imposing strict censorship on all media.

The overly violent response prompted defections from high-ranking civilian and military officers who joined the opposition. Libyan ambassadors all over the world resigned their positions and requested asylum. A civil war erupted and an international intervention through NATO took place, with Tripoli falling into rebel hands seven months later. The National Transitional Council (NTC), the political face of the rebels, was recognized as the legitimate Libyan Government by most administrations, including Russia and China, and excluding Venezuela.

On October 20th, Muammar Gaddafi was captured and killed. Libya was allegedly free, but problems were only starting.

The NTC formed a transition government but with oil production halted the economy sank. In August 2012, power was handed over to the recently elected General National Congress (GNC), with the promise of full democracy in 18 months. The GNC then enforced a witch hunt targeting Gaddafi’s people, suppressed long established women’s rights, and finally refused to call the promised elections.

Gaddafi had colectivos long before Maduro even grew a mustache.

It took another military offensive (headed by Khalifa Haftar, a former Gaddafi supporter) for the GNC to hold elections in june 2014. They lost power, which now went to the internationally-backed House of Representatives (HoR). Tensions grew after militias who fought against Gaddafi refused to disarm, hardline islamists took Tripoli and a refounded, more radical GNC, appointed themselves as the new legitimate government of Libya.

In the blink of an eye, two opposite groups claimed to be the legitimate government, while rejecting each other’s existence.

Sound familiar?

Let’s get back to Venezuela. Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court handpicked a new Vice-prosecutor, paving the way for Luisa Ortega’s ousting and the rejection of the candidate approved by the National Assembly. A massive unofficial election took place without the involvement of the CNE, and some activists called to disavow the authority of timed-out Governors. Last Friday, the National Assembly named new Supreme Court magistrates, a decision ignored by the government, which already jailed one this weekend.

The Venezuelan State is splitting in two.

Parallel states are organizations with similar structures and functions to legitimate State institutions, but are not officially recognised. The inability to achieve a negotiated transition in Libya lead to The Second Libyan Civil War, which erupted in 2014, less than three years after the country’s “liberation”. Things over there are now even worse than before. The birth of a parallel state in Venezuela would mean an unavoidable escalation in the conflict, and if the current clique is not willing to negotiate key points (say, calling off the Constituent Assembly, Maduro’s resignation from office and full recognition of the National Assembly), creating one may be the only road available for the Venezuelan opposition, if it wants to remain relevant in the power game.

Negotiated transitions might feel unsatisfactory compared to nebulous ways to end this mess quickly, and Nicolas Maduro’s government, although official, is in desperate need of legitimacy. The problem Chavismo has is that the “fake negotiation” card can only be played once; after the 2016 fiasco, the opposition, both political and “civilian”, was scarred for life. The only acceptable talks now are to discuss the terms of a transition.

You might think both countries are not comparable, and you’re sort of right, but some common key elements are there. We sure feel uncomfortable about the pace and tone of negotiations, but they’re necessary —and Libya is a perfect example of what happens when they fail.