Photo: Centro de Comunicación Nacional

The End of the Gray Zone

The charade of December 6th, 2020, is no one’s idea of a fair election. It will be remembered for burying the last duly elected institution left in Venezuela, and clarifying our present predicament

What can we rescue from the strange simulacrum of an election that took place in Venezuela yesterday? In a word: clarity. Just clarity. 

For the last 22 years, explaining Venezuela’s politics has been complex. Our system has mixed a creeping authoritarianism with aspects of democratic governance in complicated ways. Political scientists love to tie themselves up in knots putting names to that kind of in-between state: hybrid regimes, competitive authoritarianism, illiberal democracies, etc. Implicit in all the label making is a spectrum view of the space between democracy and dictatorship, a space with infinite shades of gray in between. For a generation now, our political history has been a story of those grays. 

Yesterday, the regime yanked the country out of that spectrum altogether. Holding a legislative election that excluded the main opposition figures, they’ll be left with a rubber-stamp legislature patterned on the Cuban model: one where you can vote for anyone you want, so long as that person doesn’t pose an actual danger to the continuation of dictatorship. 

Yesterday’s election spells the end of Venezuela’s last remaining legitimately democratic institution. The 2016-2021 National Assembly will go down in history for playing a very weak hand quite badly. In five fateful years, under four entirely different speakers, it tried every imaginable avenue to try to slow Venezuela’s descent into dictatorship—from the accommodations of Henry Ramos Allup to the international activism of Julio Borges to the quietude of Omar Barboza to the doomed adventurism of Juan Guaidó. None of it worked. 

Faced with thuggery on the scale that Nicolás Maduro is able to provide, it’s impossible for me to imagine how a different leadership style from the opposition might have brought a different result.

Whether a different approach might have worked is a subject we’ll probably debate for decades. My gut says ‘no’. Faced with thuggery on the scale that Nicolás Maduro is able to provide, it’s impossible for me to imagine how a different leadership style from the opposition might have brought a different result. 

The only truly relevant question, all along, has been a variant on the stark power calculus once attributed to Stalin: “How many armored divisions has the National Assembly?” The answer was ‘zero’ on the day that the Assembly took office in 2016, and it remains zero today. It’s taken far too much bloodshed, far too much heartache, and far too many broken lives for us to grasp that this was the only question worth asking.

Now we know it was.

Clarity.