Now that a new reality emerges with Joe Biden as president of the United States in 2021, and a good part of the opposition in exile (including one of its main leaders, Leopoldo Lopez, now in Spain), the political actors in Venezuela are working within the reach of their respective possibilities to get the best position in case of a new internationally sponsored negotiation. The opposition is trying to recover some of the political capital and visibility it lost during 2020 because of a lack of results, leadership problems, and excruciating pressure from the Maduro regime. And chavismo needs to find a way of reducing the effect of the international sanctions.
Here’s a brief summary of what each party wants and is working to obtain, in an effort to draw an outlook of what we still have among the smoking ruins of Venezuelan democracy.
One National Assembly to Rule Them All
The Maduro regime is at full throttle for the legislative elections it has organized for December 6th. As it happened with the presidential election of May 2018, the regime didn’t follow the constitutional procedures to call for the election or produce the conditions around them to make them minimally competitive or even legal. In that opportunity, Nicolás Maduro was “reelected” president with 68% of the vote—although only 30% of voters showed up to voting centers. Several opposition parties had been outlawed (only three, Acción Democrática, Un Nuevo Tiempo and Avanzada Progresista, remained legal) and one party (Copei) was “kidnapped” by a new board imposed by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ). Additionally, and as established by the National Electoral Council (CNE) in 2006, the international observer figure was replaced by the “international companion”, who can’t verify all stages of the process as observers do, and must have all public statements regarding the election previously approved by the CNE. This is a practice that the Carter Center described, rejecting an invitation to “accompany” the elections of 2012, as “a mostly symbolic political presence”. Just so you have an idea of the security of the vote in Venezuela today, for those elections in 2018, the electoral authority ignored time-lapses established in the Organic Law of Electoral Processes and the TSJ decided that the use of public resources to promote the vote in exchange for subsidized food was not illegal.
Why repeat the trick? The regime needs to control the National Assembly (AN). It needs to avoid the uncomfortable situation of a National Assembly Speaker claiming he’s the caretaker president, as it’s been happening with Juan Guaidó (with the Constitution on his side) since January 2019. It needs to have one Congress instead of three: a National Assembly controlled by the opposition, a National Constitutional Assembly controlled by the regime but with no international recognition, and a parallel directive of the AN where everyone is sanctioned and powerless. So the way to have a loyal parliament approving reforms to the Hydrocarbon Law, contracts with foreign oil companies, or, less likely, financing with multilateral organizations or allied governments, is to get some CLAP-dependent people to vote in an illegitimate legislative election, made under the regime’s brutally unfair conditions, and with the regime’s chosen “opposition.”
The fake legislative elections will give the regime a better position to sit at a negotiation table in the future: absolute control of political institutions.
Maduro knows that the OAS, the European Union, and the countries that recognized Guaido as caretaker president won’t see these legislative elections, or the National Assembly born from them, as legitimate. But after January 5th, when that AN will be installed with a chavista majority, the regime could have Russia, Iran, Cuba, maybe Bolivia and Mexico, and perhaps China saying that this AN is just fine and they can work with it. There won’t be a sitting AN where Guaidó is the Speaker and therefore the caretaker president. And if there’s any problem to sign new oil contracts to rebuild PDVSA, the regime already has its “Anti-Blockade Law” to fast-track the recruitment of new partners to exploit our natural resources, without giving explanations to anyone.
So, the fake legislative elections will give the regime a better position to sit at a negotiation table in the future: absolute control of political institutions, which chavismo had lost with the opposition victory in the legislative election of 2015.
Three Obvious Questions, and a Not So Obvious Outcome
After some bitter, internal discussions, the main parties of the real opposition decided not to compete in these elections. Only a few politically irrelevant personalities—basically the ones who took part in the May 2018 charade—are going. Instead, the Guaidó team has managed to offer a sort of referendum (with disputable constitutional grounds and very little chances of being successful), that is supposed to happen worldwide online on December 5th, and on some polling stations on December 12th.
Yesterday, the National Assembly deputies approved the final query of the popular consultation in rejection of the upcoming “elections” of December 6th. There are three yes-or-no questions: 1. Do you demand an end to the usurpation of the presidency by Nicolás Maduro and ask for free, fair and verifiable presidential and parliamentary elections?; 2. Do you reject the event on December 6th organized by Nicolás Maduro’s regime and ask the international community to disregard it?; 3. Do you order for the execution of the necessary measures with the international community to activate the cooperation, companionship and assistance that allow the recovery of our democracy, attention to the humanitarian crisis and the protection of the people from crimes against humanity?
As you can see, those questions, which had been revised and rewritten in the struggle for consensus that any decision demands within our fragmented opposition, will get positive answers from everyone who still believes in such opposition, and negative answers from everyone who still supports Maduro. These are not the very specific, actionable questions a normal referendum would pose to citizens. It’s like they’re asking Venezuelans if they like arepas or going to the beach. “Well, man, I obviously love arepas and going to the beach, what kind of question is that?”
And if the consulta popular is declared a success by Guaidó, he will use it as leverage to retain the title of caretaker President, even if he won’t be Speaker of the AN anymore.
None of this will have any legal consequence on the country or any enforceable order on any institution. So, why are they doing this? Why are they trying to get us to poll stations in the middle of a pandemic and, in the case of Venezuela, with no gas to drive there?
This is where the answer gets more elusive. However, we see the following reasons:
If the consulta popular has a decent turnout, the current AN authorities such as Juan Guaidó and the main parties could say they have a mandate from the people to ask the international community for more pressure against the regime. What would be a decent turnout? Anyone but the opposition will report a number, not an impartial institution. They will say a lot of citizens voted Yes, Yes, Yes.
And if the consulta popular is declared a success by Guaidó, he will use it as leverage to retain the title of caretaker President, even if he won’t be Speaker of the AN anymore. On what grounds? On the agreement where Guaidó is recognized as the legitimate president by the foreign sponsors, and using the Transition Framework approved by the AN months ago to create a way of continuing its tenure beyond a shutdown of the parliament (or the need of organizing a “government in exile”).
The third reason: this would make some headlines in the international press and the Venezuelan dossier will have a bit of visibility for a moment in this news-ridden crazy world of ours.
We’ll see what happens. For the moment, polls show some support for the idea of the referendum, mainly for the opportunity it presents to protest against Maduro without being shot in the street.
Meanwhile, in the Real World of the Real People…
With coronavirus roaming and a new boost for hyperinflation, the Maduro regime tries to appease the population with repression, a few promises of handouts, and its ineffective efforts to import fuel. A tiny elite shows off its parties in the restored Humboldt Hotel at the top of the Ávila mountain. NGOs try to do something for the people, abandoned by the opposition parties and harassed by the regime. Most Venezuelans try to make a living, with the remittances from their relatives abroad dramatically cut by the global economic crisis. And some are starting to leave the country again, on foot and paying coyotes, because the border with Colombia is closed.
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