Benigno Alarcón: ‘Relying on Outside Players and Disempowering Society Was a Mistake’

The director of UCAB’s Political Studies Center sees an opposition of questionable credibility, both inside and outside Venezuela

After cheating Death, King Sisyphus was sentenced to push a heavy stone uphill and see it roll downhill every time he was close to the summit for eternity. The Greek myth comes to mind when listening to the analysis made by professor Benigno Alarcón: “Many things that happened have taken us back to square one.”

The opinion polls conducted on November 2019 by the Political Studies Center of the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, led by Alarcón, found hopelessness, demobilization, and a lack of expectations in the population similar to those found in 2018, months before the “Guaidó epic” began. The year 2020 started with the fight for the National Assembly and the international tour that gave oxygen to Juan Guaidó, but as an unexpected, outside player came in (SARS-Cov-2), Maduro’s regime took the opportunity to freeze the population and leave the opposition as a passive spectator with no strategy. “This basically puts the country in the position it was back in November 2018,” Alarcón says. “We haven’t polled this, but we believe that people think there’s nothing left to do. It’s difficult to figure out how the opposition can once again put the government up against the ropes.” And that’s why the regime plans for legislative elections this year. Besides, Guaidó is certain, in the professor’s view, that if he takes to the streets, he’ll be imprisoned. “The government doesn’t buy the threats about what will happen if they touch Guaidó anymore.”

Do you see the election scenario happening, despite the international doubts on any process of this kind organized by Maduro’s regime?

Yes, because as long as the government feels like it has a clear advantage, it’ll organize an election that allows it to win, regardless of the very little scrutiny. It might even invite international observers. The international community isn’t just the one on our side: close to half aren’t democracies, and some of them prefer to mind their own business because they have other interests. Many are seeking to get some kind of oil deal, even though prices are very low at the moment, it’s a good opportunity for future investment. The U.S. says it’ll sanction those doing business with Venezuela, but they can bet on an inoperative investment for a few years until the political problem is solved and those assets become available, approved by a future National Assembly that will be questioned by some but will go unquestioned by others.

What about Guaidó and the National Assembly’s leadership after the whole mercenaries’ chapter? Can we still count on international support?

Doubts will continue, but the damage done both inside and out of Venezuela can’t be ignored. I don’t know how willing they are, but the best thing the opposition can do is damage control; they should have a coherent explanation and avoid further tangling of the issue. It’s also important to understand that the international community doesn’t seem to be giving up on Venezuela, but they don’t feel comfortable with what happened on May 3rd or with the explanations given, and some of those nations will be pushing for things to normalize, including politics.

I think the regime is interested in presenting a picture of normalcy.

Somewhat. They’ll say they went to parliamentary elections and they won, so most governments will say “there’s nothing left to do here, the situation must go back to normal.” They’re not an apathetic community in terms of what happens politically, but they have solid arguments (for normalization), like the futility of sacrificing the people and extending their suffering so that we have elections, for example. 

“This basically puts the country in the position it was back in November 2018,” Alarcón says.

The Necessary Negotiation

You’ve always supported negotiations as a mechanism that leads to a political transition. What are the possibilities of this happening after an episode straight out of Jack Ryan?

We shouldn’t scrap negotiations. That scenario still exists, the hard thing is determining how it can happen. Normally these processes have two kinds of dynamics: a violent one, in which the government is eventually overthrown, or a military intervention, the least common of these transitions; the other way has a component in which negotiations take place in a more or less important way, and it often occurs when the government feels like it can’t stand any longer because the pressure is too high or because of the loss of certain allies.

Do you think that a coup is possible?

No, because the Armed Forces are much smaller and less capable today, they don’t function in a pyramid, and any decision they take has to be coordinated with many other armed players that aren’t as institutional and in several instances respond only to the government. The regime works like a system, not a person, and they have made their balances and counterweights like they do in democracies. It’s been building it for years, mainly with Cuba’s experience.

So the only thing left is to negotiate.

Yes. We have to be willing to negotiate as long as the other party commits to an open negotiation. There have to be clear signs from the other side, but we can never close those doors. Why do some go ahead and close them sometimes? Because they believe that the international community is the one that’s going to solve the problem. You cross your arms and wait for the marines. But when you look outside your window and see that they’re not coming, you have two options: you either do something, or you just keep waiting. Those are solutions that, as a domestic opposition, aren’t in your hands. Not even the local military solution is in your hands because, at the end of the day, you don’t control it. In the meantime, you have to do something, like open the possibilities for a negotiation, propose deals that the government will reject at first but might accept later on. Generate conditions to make negotiations more attractive than to stay in power by force. Most of the time, these cases end up in negotiation.

The truth is that the Maduro regime, sanctions or not, keeps breathing thanks to his international allies and illegal businesses. Does its will to negotiate directly depend on these oxygen valves?

For the most part, yes. If the government feels that its chances of staying afloat decrease, then they’ll be more open to negotiate. If they feel they have nothing to worry about, then the reasons to negotiate disappear. It’s all about relative force: it isn’t about how strong I am, but how strong I am compared to the other. Like in any fight: I may be very strong, but the decision to confront whoever is provoking me depends on how strong or how weak I perceive my opponent to be.

In this scenario, we have an opposition that doesn’t seem to be a threat to the school bully.

I think the opposition went and told the school bullies that they were going to bring their big brother to defend them, but then the big brother didn’t show up to fight because he was a grown-up and everyone would be on top of him. So he just goes to show his face at school and say that if anyone messes with his little brother, he’ll step in. But he has never crossed the gate. So the bullies stick their tongues out to the big brother, challenge him to come in, and when he leaves, the beatdown for the little brother is even worse. It was a mistake to rely so much on foreign countries, when we know the power society has in these processes as an invariable feature in transitions. 

We’ll continue in a frozen state that favors the government, unless it loses control of society and it’s forced to increase repression.

‘Power to the people’

Alarcón dissects several cases. The Berlin Wall was part of a geopolitical conflict, but “it fell the day the Germans knocked it down. It wasn’t the marines, and the government didn’t bring a bulldozer, either. There was a time when people felt that no one was going to intervene, so they tore it down. When you don’t empower people, you take the risk of being left alone, because people won’t stand by you anymore and that affects your strength.”

From the Chilean case he points out that, among other factors, the key was to convince people that if they were to take seriously the challenge of the referendum in 1989, they could remove Pinochet from power. And they did. “But you see the case in Cuba that has gone through an embargo, all the pressure in the world, the USSR fell, they were practically orphaned, they had no money, they went through a terrible humanitarian crisis, but people felt that they had no chance to change the situation. They even thought that those wanting to do something were naïve. In Cuba, people were completely demobilized, and little did the international pressure or hunger matter. Each person fought for their own survival; some managed to adapt and others left the country.”

How can the opposition fix things right now?

The first thing would be to be up-front and take responsibility. To speak with the truth if they want people to believe them. With all these rumors going back and forth, you can’t risk saying something that isn’t true because truth will always come out. The second thing is to try to rebuild the alliance as much as you can, paying attention to things like what the framework would be to function, discuss, consult, and make decisions, how other bodies besides political parties can participate and how to get the citizens involved. No internal political force can push forward a change on its own. The third thing to consider is to rebuild trust among the international community, from a humble place, acknowledging mistakes and with the intention of doing things in a different way. Otherwise, chances are that the majority of the international community will opt for a “let’s save the Venezuelans from starvation, and let the politicians save themselves because I’m not getting involved in that.” Some governments are comparing the Venezuelan case with that of the independence of East Timor in Indonesia, where the UN had to help rebuild institutions that were capable of organizing elections before they left the territory.

How do you envision the political state of the country for the year’s end?

I don’t see a real possibility of transition in what’s left of the year. The opposition has the obligation to fight for its own survival rather than being on the offensive. The international pressure for a political change will probably cool down at mid-year, mostly because the main player (Trump’s administration) will be focused on its own elections between July and August. Other countries will be more concerned with the humanitarian issue, where they’re likely to have a bigger impact. We’ll continue in a frozen state that favors the government, unless it loses control of society and it’s forced to increase repression, which could lead the military to make the decision of disrupting the status quo by force, and they would be responsible for keeping order until an agreement is reached. But if that doesn’t happen, we will continue where we are, with some social conflicts peaking and the pandemic worsening. I’m certain that the government’s intent is using this tragedy for its own benefit. The military board in Burma came out stronger after the 2004 tsunami, for example.

Ramsés Ulises Siverio

Journalist, professor and editor based in Guayana. Finalist of the Gabriel García Márquez Award of the FNPI (2016), together with the Correo del Caroní team, for the coverage of the "Masacre de Tumeremo" case.