Photo: El Nacional

The Not-So-New Alliance of the Venezuelan Opposition

Once again, the adversaries of chavismo face a crossroads: do they take part in the announced illegal parliamentary elections, a trap, or do they just stay aside and wait for a miracle? But things aren’t exactly as they seem

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: the Venezuelan opposition, faced with unfair electoral conditions, announced they won’t take part in the upcoming elections. In a statement signed by most opposition parties, including the four largest—Acción Democrática (AD), Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT), Primero Justicia (PJ), and Voluntad Popular (VP), known as the G4—the opposition stood united for the first time in months to decry the government’s recent moves to block free and fair elections.

Sure, it reeks of déjà vu, but this time it’s different because they don’t really mean it; or at least, not yet. Contrary to what you might have read elsewhere from political commentators decrying the opposition’s repeated refusal to take part in elections, the short term goal of the opposition is not to refuse elections or negotiations, but to try to negotiate conditions for the election, or at least get it postponed until next year.

The move provides an opportunity to clear two misconceptions. First, that the opposition’s options are either taking part or not in parliamentary elections. And second, that the opposition has given up on taking part in said elections.

The Illusion of Choice

The notion that the opposition could choose whether or not to take part in parliamentary elections—their never-ending debate—presupposes that they’d be able to take part in this year’s election if they wanted to. However, Maduro’s hijacking of AD, PJ, and VP through the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) was a clear sign that a large swath of the opposition won’t be allowed to run, even if they want to. Saying that AD, PJ, and VP chose not to field candidates in the election is like saying Maduro has chosen not to have dinner with Queen Elizabeth II this weekend: it can’t be said that you turned down something you weren’t allowed to do in the first place.

Maduro blocked three parties that had already decided to run candidates in the election: AD, UNT, and Henrique Capriles’ faction in PJ—which conflicts with Julio Borges’ PJ faction—wanted to take part in the election even under unfair conditions. As we’ve been reporting in the Political Risk Report (PRR) these past months, they were preparing their grassroots groups and operations to run in December, with or without Juan Guaidó’s support. They didn’t see any point in giving up their spots in the National Assembly (AN) without a fight and, crucially, saw the election as an opportunity to sideline Guaidó and Leopoldo López, whose strategy they believe has failed. But their plans were scuppered by Maduro, who doesn’t want them to run, or at least not on their own.

The short term goal of the opposition is not to refuse elections or negotiations, but to try to negotiate conditions for the election, or at least get it postponed.

The “run on their own” part is the key to why AD, UNT, and PJ have now said they won’t participate. While the ability to choose their candidates freely has long been denied by the government to opposition parties by barring from public office some politicians such as María Corina Machado or Leopoldo López, at least the remaining candidate list was fully chosen by them. Under the new terms set by Maduro, those that want to run under the AD, PJ and VP banners would be part of a candidate list that includes people directly chosen by the regime: Bernabé Gutierrez in AD, José Brito in PJ, and José Noriega in VP, and their respective Maduro-approved acolytes, and under their conditions.

There are some in the opposition that are arguing for taking part anyway, using the place in the ballot of parties that haven’t been hijacked by the TSJ yet as vehicles for an opposition coalition: UNT, Capriles’s small party (La Fuerza del Cambio), and Henri Falcón’s Avanzada Progresista (AP). Regarding UNT, let’s emphasize “yet”: the TSJ could hijack the party at any point once the opposition decides to run through them. 

Capriles and his party La Fuerza del Cambio—a small party he registered years ago as a “just in case” party—remain a wildcard. He believes the transition to democracy goes through a parliamentary election in 2020, regional elections in 2021, and a recall referendum on Maduro in 2022, and has yet to support or reject the opposition’s stance publicly. La Fuerza del Cambio is not among the signatory parties of the statement. Judging by a recent interview by his PJ colleague Juan Pablo Guanipa, Capriles hasn’t committed to supporting their stance and could still decide to take part in the election. If he does so, he’ll likely team up with Falcón. However, just as with UNT, the final decision to use La Fuerza del Cambio rests not with him, but with Maduro.

Regarding AP, the G4 have every right to be suspicious about them. Falcón and AP have been working with the minority opposition parties that are negotiating with the regime, supported the appointment by the TSJ of the new National Electoral Council (CNE) board bypassing the AN, and have gone on to act as cheerleaders for that board as they issue one new unconstitutional ruling after the other—all to the benefit of the regime—even when the board has yet to provide improved electoral conditions. To make matters worse, AP filed a legal brief in a U.S. court antagonizing the AN-appointed PDVSA board and the caretaker government in the CITGO-Crystallex case. Whatever Falcón’s playing, he’s certainly playing apart from the rest of the opposition.

The misconception of the opposition having a choice also ignores the fact that Maduro won’t allow an election in which the opposition has any chance to win; something that became apparent in the three elections of 2017 and was confirmed in 2018. This is the election that Maduro wants—with his approved candidates, with no chance of the opposition winning, and without any risk of the opposition taking control of the AN for five more years—and he’s not going to let the opposition ruin it for him. He learned his lesson in 2015.

No, the Opposition Hasn’t Ruled Out Negotiations and Elections

The second misconception, one parroted by the same myopic commentators of yore, is that the opposition has given up on taking part in the parliamentary elections. To believe that is to believe that AD, UNT, and Capriles’s allies in PJ have turned their back on the negotiations-elections route they’ve been arguing for years and have fallen in line behind Guaidó and López. Not a chance.

That literal reading of the opposition’s statement ignores the most basic fact about the Venezuelan opposition, something that whoever hasn’t understood yet, maybe they never will: the Venezuelan opposition isn’t a homogeneous block, and even when they show a united front, not everyone is pulling in the same direction.

So when the opposition issues a statement saying they won’t take part in elections, not all of them really mean it; when they say they won’t negotiate with the government, not all of them really mean it; when they say they won’t move from their stance until their conditions are met, not all of them really mean it.

Just as some in the opposition crave a deal, the regime sorely needs sanctions relief.

As we have reported in the PRR, the opposition is building a new organization—a sort of reformed MUD—and this statement and common strategy is just the first step. The new united front is a recognition by opposition parties that they need to stand united in either of the two likely scenarios for the next year and a half: a new, government-controlled National Assembly is elected without the opposition; or there’s a parliamentary election in which they take part after getting improved electoral conditions in negotiations. The AD-UNT duo is hoping for the latter; Guaidó is preparing for the former, as is Maduro.

AD and UNT want the same thing as two months ago: taking part in the parliamentary election. They don’t want the current AN term extended indefinitely, and want to wrestle control of the opposition from Guaidó and López. Since the government seems intent on denying them the chance to take part, they’re attempting to revive the Oslo-Barbados process with Norwegian mediators to negotiate again. They have agreed to team up with Guaidó and VP in the new organization not because they don’t want negotiations; on the contrary, they agreed to join Guaidó and VP because the latter have changed tack and are willing to negotiate again.

Guaidó, as we have reported in the PRR, is laying the ground to have the current parliament term extended beyond January 2021 and continue to hold the post of caretaker president, under the argument that no new parliament has been legitimately elected to replace it. However, he’s open to changing his mind if conditions change. In private he’s said he’s willing to take part in the election if their conditions are met. He’s not optimistic about it, but he recognizes that refusing to even consider it will only serve to splinter the opposition further, so he’s supporting UNT’s Stalin González’s efforts to revive the Oslo-Barbados process. The U.S. is backing Guaidó and is now openly supportive of the negotiations and elections route. If the government refuses to grant improved conditions, then Guaidó can tell AD and UNT that they tried their way and failed, not because of him but because Maduro blocked it.

The notion that the opposition has ruled taking part in the election is linked to another amateur misconception: that the opposition has ruled out negotiations. Sure, they kinda said so in a statement when the Norwegians came to town two weeks ago, but you would have to be incredibly naïve to believe it. That statement is nothing but political posturing designed to avoid being roasted on Twitter by the more radical elements of the opposition. In the past five years, the opposition has sat down to negotiate with the government just days after categorically ruling out negotiations. Multiple times. What’s more, the Norwegians came to Caracas in the middle of a pandemic because the opposition, through Stalin González, asked them to come. So please, take any statement ruling out further negotiations with a truckload of salt. The opposition is already negotiating about restarting negotiations.

Negotiations, Again

The new opposition alliance has then a short term goal, negotiating with the government, and a medium-term goal, either taking part in the election with improved conditions or, if negotiations fail, facing whatever comes once the government elects its new parliament together.

AD and UNT—and Capriles—hope that the government will grant them an opening to find a political, negotiated solution to the crisis. History tells us it won’t. However, some things are different than in previous rounds.

Just as some in the opposition crave a deal, the regime sorely needs sanctions relief. They have become so toxic abroad, even the Russians stopped taking fat commissions to trade Venezuelan oil, with Rosneft dropping them as clients. Their chief oil trader, the guy who replaced Rosneft, is in a cell in Cape Verde. The regime finds itself in its most difficult financial position since the oil strike of 2002-03, only several times worse, and in the middle of a pandemic that’s growing out of control. PDVSA net revenue during the last quarter is likely under 5% what it was a few years ago; simply not enough to keep the state running, much less enrich themselves at the same time. There are also several moving parts that could change the regime’s incentives in the coming months, such as the U.S. presidential election in November and the impact of the pandemic in the country.

Will negotiations work this time? Extremely unlikely, because the regime remains a machine for not negotiating, built over 20 years of purges and defections, where only the most radical, violent and intransigent remain. Most of the opposition craves a workable, mediocre deal with the government, one that saves them from jumping into the void once the AN term expires in January 2021. The regime is unlikely to grant them that lifeline.