Maduro Enjoys the Luxury of Reusing a Trap

In this extremely convoluted week in Venezuelan politics, we share part of the analysis of our political risk team, and our view on where things may be going

In a November 2019 Political Risk Report, we shared our view for 2020: “The most likely scenario is a rerun of 2018 in 2020, with the government holding a flawed election in which only the most moderate parts of the opposition will take part.” Later, in January 2020, we reported that Henrique Capriles “was planning to raise his profile in 2020 and take a critical stance against Guaidó within the opposition,” and that, with his well-known pro-elections stance at the time, he had begun “raising the question of what the opposition should do about the upcoming parliamentary elections.” A month later, we reported that one option under consideration by Juan Guaidó’s team if the “government holds a parliamentary election without guarantees is extending the term of the current AN beyond 2020, keeping the current roster of lawmakers.” These views and reports have been playing out in the last months, and this week it all came to a head.

In 2020, like in 2018, the government wants to lure a small, moderate faction of the opposition into taking part in an election entirely on their terms, while discouraging the more popular—and radical, in the government’s view—factions from taking part by refusing to offer minimally fair electoral conditions, and outright block others from running by barring inconvenient candidates and parties from the ballot. The strategy worked to perfection in 2018—even if it ended putting the government in dire straits in 2019—and it appears to be working even better in 2020.

Back in 2018, Henri Falcón agreed to take part after the government committed in writing to fairer electoral conditions, to refrain from using public resources in the election and from proletizing in polling centers, and to allow international observers. By the time the election was done with, the government had broken all of its commitments. Last week the government told the European Union and the United Nations Secretary General that it had agreed  to the same package with members of the opposition: electoral conditions, no advantageous use of public resources, no “PSUV red spots” in polling centers and international observers.

These views and reports have been playing out in the last months, and this week it all came to a head.

This time around, with Falcón on board again, they’ve offered the same package to Henrique Capriles, the two-time presidential candidate of the opposition who publicly broke ranks with the G4 and the caretaker government led by Juan Guaidó this week. Capriles had taken a back seat in the opposition in the past two years, as he doesn’t agree with the path charted by Guaidó and Leopoldo López—the latter, once his ally, then his friendly rival, and now his adversary. This week he announced that he would be taking part in the election, breaking with most of the G4 parties: Acción Democrática, Un Nuevo Tiempo, Voluntad Popular, and his own party, Primero Justicia, where he still holds influence within the national leadership structure and has many followers among the grassroots.

Capriles is expected to support candidates that will run under the banner of La Fuerza del Cambio party, which he controls and, unlike most of the opposition parties, wasn’t taken over by allies of the regime with help from the Supreme Tribunal of Justice. As part of the deal, the government pardoned and released around 50 political prisoners, and pardoned just over 50 politicians, activists and opposition supporters with pending legal cases, while Foreign Minister Jorge Arreza wrote a letter to the EU Foreing Minister and the UN Secretary General requesting they send electoral observers for the December election. The letter also includes a list of improved electoral conditions. The government’s concessions to Capriles and the release of political prisoners were mostly aimed at currying favor with the EU. Josep Borrell, the former Spanish Foreign Minister and current European Union Minister for Foreign Affairs, was heavily involved in brokering the agreement.

For the government, the strategy is paying off handsomely. The opposition is in disarray, with recriminations flying in all directions. Capriles’s move significantly reduces the leverage the G4 and Guaidó had in negotiating better electoral conditions and delaying the elections—AD and UNT’s preferred option. The government, with one of the opposition leaders with the highest profile at home and abroad taking part in the election, no longer needs the rest of the G4. Stalin González, who had been negotiating with the government with Guaidó’s blessing, quit his party, UNT, and is joining Capriles. The G4 and Guaidó now have little to offer to the government in a negotiation to get better electoral conditions. The one thing the government would want from the G4 is something they are not at liberty to grant by themselves: sanctions relief, which depends on the Trump administration. What’s more, the government urgently needs a parliament with a modicum of legitimacy abroad.

Capriles’s plan, as we have reported in the past months, is to begin a process of return to electoral politics with the December parliamentary election, and continuing with local and regional elections in 2021, towards a new attempt at a recall referendum on Maduro in 2022 (in 2016 Capriles led an attempt to activate the recall referendum, which was ultimately blocked by government-controlled courts). He believes that the opposition’s strength lies in having the support of a majority of voters, and their best path to a transition is to “recover the vote” from the regime, which has all but blocked the opposition from flexing its electoral muscle since the latter’s landslide victory in the 2015 parliamentary elections. As we have said before, Maduro learned his lesson in 2015 and will stop at nothing to block an electoral victory for the opposition.

His transparent unwillingness to sit the election out, however unfair the conditions, are a green light for the regime to ignore any agreement. They already got what they wanted.

We expect numerous regional leaders and grassroots activists from G4 parties to join Capriles and González. While the G4 can offer posts in the caretaker government and even salaries to current lawmakers, it will struggle to retain the loyalty of the middle ranks, for whom their political prospects in the G4 will look bleak. Capriles and González can offer the opportunity to at least try to regain a large number of local and regional government posts in the 2021 regional elections; posts that most of the G4 surrendered in 2017. These local and regional posts are the bread and butter of politicians outside of Caracas, for whom national politics is a secondary concern.

In 2018, Falcón’s eagerness to have a crack at the presidency proved to be his weakness: the regime knew that for all of his bluster about electoral conditions, Falcón would run in the election under any circumstances, and therefore broke every part of the agreement. We expect Capriles and his followers to be exposed to the same weakness: his transparent unwillingness to sit the election out, however unfair the conditions, are a green light for the regime to ignore any agreement. They already got what they wanted, and Capriles won’t take it away from them even if they break every letter of their pact. The same applies to the regional candidates.

One of the issues in which the government appears to be ready to go against the wishes of Capriles and his allies is the timing of the election. According to press reports, they’re in talks with the government about delaying the election to provide enough time to the EU and UN to prepare an election observation mission, with Maduro refusing to yield. As we have reported recently, a delay in the election was also one of the conditions demanded by Guaidó and the G4. We believe Maduro has no incentive to delay the election, precisely because he doesn’t want international observers, nor to give time to the opposition to sort out their differences before the election. A delay could also prove internally problematic at PSUV, as several influential ministers resigned their posts to run for parliament this week, and have already been replaced by Maduro. A delay would be quite unwelcome among them, as it would mean they left their cushy cabinet posts for an election that might not happen for ten months or more. However, the coronavirus pandemic could take that decision out of his hands. As we report in a different section of the PRR, the government’s own projections for the number of COVID-19 cases in the next months put in doubt whether they’ll be able to carry out an election in December.

A delay in the election could prove a game-changer. Both sides of the dispute within the opposition, Capriles and Guaidó’s, are now under intense pressure from abroad—from the EU, Latin American countries and the U.S.—and at home—from G4 parties and civic organizations—to come together under one banner and agree to a common strategy. This hypothetical strategy would have to undoubtedly include taking part in the parliamentary election, as Capriles has already ruled out sitting it out, and it also remains the preferred option of most of Guaidó’s G4 allies. A delay, and the return of a few party symbols to their rightful holders, could be all that’s needed to bridge the gap between the two sides, even if just for a few months. We expect the EU to push the government as well to concede a delay to the opposition. In our full report, you can read what our sources from both sides have to say about such scenarios, and what’s happening inside each camp.