What Options Are Left on the Table?

This is an extract of Friday's Political Risk Report. After sweeping away the option of the recall referendum, what will be the "ask" to the Maduro government in the next round of talks? How does this impact chavismo and the opposition?

Last week the regime dealt a swift and decisive blow to a potential recall referendum on Maduro, with the CNE giving barely a few days notice before the signature collection date, and with so few collection centers as to make it technically impossible to collect the required 4.2 million signatures in one day. Maduro & Co. took advantage of the opposition’s indecisiveness on whether to push for the referendum, which we described in last week’s report, and made the decision for them. By killing the referendum the regime isn’t only denying the opposition a chance to unseat Maduro before his term ends—which is not news, as Maduro was never going to allow the referendum to go forward—but, more importantly, taking away a rallying point to mobilize the dispirited opposition base in the short term. And by doing it before the opposition even announced they’d go for it—with Voluntad Popular rumored to have had an announcement prepared for last Sunday—the regime made sure the opposition wouldn’t make much of a fuss about it, since no opposition leader was going to lay a claim to a plan that’s already dead. With the opposition left without many options to raise the stakes in the political conflict, Miraflores can focus on governing (or their version of it) for the next couple of years, and on improving their electoral standing to make the 2024 election close enough to either win it outright or be able to steal it without having to find a way to disappear millions of votes from the opposition’s tally.

Maduro’s move isn’t without consequences, both for the regime and the opposition. Without having the referendum carrot to dangle before the opposition, the regime has less to offer to the opposition in negotiations.

While the opposition has made lots of demands not related to elections in previous talks, electoral issues make the bulk of it: improved electoral conditions, lifting bans on parties and candidates, early elections, and so on. So, now, without elections until 2024, what can the regime offer the opposition in exchange for the one thing they most want from them, namely, sanctions relief? The offer of better electoral conditions is less attractive for the opposition if they can’t enjoy them for almost three years, and they would hesitate to give anything in 2022 if they can’t test whether the government will comply with its end of the bargain until 2024.

Maduro and his negotiators view the elections and sanctions issues as inextricably linked: if there’s no meaningful sanction relief, then the opposition won’t get minimally fair elections. In their view, the opposition was the first to make elections “unfair” by having other countries impose sanctions, making it impossible for chavismo to govern effectively, and much less win elections. Therefore, they’re not actually cheating when they use all the tools at their disposal to “win” elections, but merely leveling the playing field against a foe that’s playing dirty. They’re not willing to grant a fair election in 2024 without sanctions relief, because doing so guarantees they would lose: they have no chance of resurrecting the chavista vote while governing under sanctions.

Even if they don’t get sanction relief from the U.S., the government still wants a better relationship with Europe, and sanctions relief from the EU. In private, Jorge Rodríguez—Maduro’s chief negotiator—has raised the example of Cuba as something they would be happy with: difficult relations with the U.S., and regarded as undemocratic by the EU and most democratic countries, but with somewhat cordial relations, with European companies investing in the country freely. That kind of minimal legitimacy with the EU, with regular business relations, would be okay for Maduro & Co.

Without the urgency of an upcoming election, the short-term focus of talks will likely be around the “re-institutionalization” of the country. First in line would be, according to sources, changes to the structure and composition of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ), with the opposition likely asking for some opposition-leaning justices. However, we don’t expect the government to just hand out justices for free to the opposition, as they’re not in the business of giving something to the opposition they haven’t “earned.”

The changes in the TSJ aren’t only about the opposition. Miraflores is looking for changes to remake the power balance among chavista factions as represented in the roster of justices in the TSJ, which could include reducing the number of justices, with Maduro getting “his people” in most of these spots.

These changes would revert Chávez’s strategy of increasing the number of justices to outvote those he didn’t like, with Maduro opting instead to weed out those that lean towards other chavista factions, such as Diosdado Cabello’s, by cutting the number of justices from 32 to 20.

The opposition might also come to the table with both demands and offers around other issues not related to elections, if interest groups around the opposition succeed in their efforts to expand negotiations beyond electoral issues. According to sources, a group of opposition-linked businesspeople and consultants has been working on a list of proposals to bring to chavismo in Mexico, through the opposition, which they hope would improve the business climate in the country. The issues they would like to raise reflect the now commonly held belief that the opposition has to start thinking in terms of years and not months, with a plan for the “day after.” The proposals, says a source, include a sort of Oil for Food program, with oil revenues used not only to procure food products abroad but also pay for humanitarian programs implemented by multilateral organizations. As we reported in a previous PRR, most of the G4 opposition is open to this proposal, including Juan Guaidó and the caretakership. This group also wants to find a way for U.S. oil companies to continue operating in Venezuela, even if U.S. sanctions aren’t lifted anytime soon, and find ways for Venezuela to pay commercial debt owed to foreign companies.

In the full report, you’ll find more details on what’s going behind the curtains of the Venezuelan political struggle. You can subscribe to the PRR here.